Jul 28 2011 6:02pm

Things to Do in Chicago When You’re Dead. Ghost Story by Jim Butcher

If power corrupts, what happens when you become powerless? This week, fans of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files were treated to the release of the 13th book in the series, the eagerly awaited and aptly named Ghost Story. Suddenly we’re dealing with a Harry that we’ve never seen before, who has to come up with whole new strategies to handle the kind of Dresden adventure that longtime fans crave.

Warning: This post contains minor spoilers for Ghost Story and major spoilers for all the books prior.

When we last saw Harry Dresden, he had just been shot. Ghost Story opens with Harry in some kind of spiritual waystation just shy of the Afterlife. Here he meets similarly deceased Cpt. Collin Murphy, the father of his old friend Karrin Murphy, in a strange post-mortem cop shop. Captain Murphy asks Harry to go back to Chicago to investigate his own murder, though at great potential, personal risk. Harry hesitates until Murphy says that three of the people closest to him would be in danger if he didn’t. Harry being Harry, that decides him.

Harry returns to Chicago as a ghost, in spirit form only, unable to affect the physical world, unable to even use his magic. Driven by the need to protect his loved ones, Harry seeks out Mortimer Lindquist, the ectomancer, previously seen in Dead Beat. When he arrives, however, Lindquist’s house is under attack by other dead spirits, mindless wraiths, led by more intelligent spirits called Lemurs. Harry joins in to help repel them and meets Lindquist’s ghostly defender, Sir Stuart, who begins to teach Harry about being a ghost.

Butcher’s worldbuilding has always been one of my favorite things about the series and here he adds to the world by defining the world of ghosts. In their world, it’s memories that are power. Strictly speaking, ghosts are memories, and memories can lend them strength or do them harm.

Lindquist eventually leads Harry to his friends and here Harry discovers that he’s appeared six months after he died. The world is now a very different, and much darker place. The destruction of the Red Court of Vampires has created a power vacuum and various entities, most notably the creatures known as the Fomor, have risen to try to fill it. And with Harry gone, his friends have been forced to make uneasy alliances, take drastic actions, and, in the case of Molly Carpenter, leap headfirst into dangerous behavior and possible insanity.

As usual, Butcher frustrates Harry’s path, complicating his search for his killer. There is plenty of action here, culminating, as usual, in an intense climax. But we do find out who killed Harry and why. Along for the ride are some old friends (such as Murphy, Will, and Butters), some new friends, and some, like Molly, who have changed dramatically. There are also enemies, old and new, and some, like the Leanansidhe, Harry’s faerie godmother, who best fall into the category of frenemy.

Out of all the changes ricocheting out from, well, Changes, the biggest difference is Harry himself. In part that’s because he’s literally a spirit, no longer a being of flesh and blood. But that physicality, or lack of one, influences his mental state. Without a body, Harry is unable to interact with the world directly, unable to use his magic the way he used to. He can’t just leap into the fray shouting “Fuego” and make things go boom. He can’t fix things with power and violence. This Harry sometimes has to watch. He has to think. This far more thoughtful and reflective Harry was one of the most interesting aspects to the book. Over the course of Ghost Story Harry finds out how to be a better ghost, but he also finds out how to be a better human.

What Butcher accomplishes here is something that works on multiple levels. On the one hand it’s the kind of Harry Dresden adventure story that we expect. But on the other it’s a very personal story for Harry. It’s Harry going into dark places, often alone, cut off from his support structure and thinking very hard about his life and his actions. We also see moments from his past that have been referred to but never depicted and for a fan like me, those were some of my favorite moments in the whole book. This is Harry not only looking at the future that awaits him after Death, but looking back on the person he was and the choices he made while he was alive. This is Harry evaluating himself and, in many cases, finding himself wanting.

Don’t get me wrong — this is a different Harry than we’ve seen before, but it’s still Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden. He still cracks wise with the best of them. He still has a problem with authority. He still drops references to the X-Men, Star Wars and Star Trek, among others. And, once he gets the hang of it, he still kicks ass. I mean it’s not like ghosts can chew bubblegum.

Ghost Story has its share of introspection, sure, but there’s also magic and mental battles, scenes taken straight from war movies, and scenes on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise (or something very like it). There are knife fights, ghost fights, and even skull on skull action (but probably not in the way you’re thinking).

While I won’t spoil it, there’s a spiritual explanation for most of what happens in this book, delivered almost deus ex machina toward the end, and it was not only problematic but almost negated some of the power of the choices made in the book. Free will, man, turns out it’s extra important even when you’re nothing but will. Still, it didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the book overall. And the ending... I’ll just say that the ending gave me exactly what I had been hoping for for several books now.

All in all, I don’t think Ghost Story surpasses my favorite book in the series to date, Turncoat, but it comes closer than any other. It’s a different kind of Dresden story, to be sure, with a level of maturity in both the character and the writing that helps elevate it above the earlier books. If you’re a Dresden fan, you should definitely check it out. And then, like me, wait eagerly for the next one.

Rajan Khanna is a writer, blogger, and narrator who lives in New York. He is a member of the Altered Fluid writing group and a graduate of the 2008 Clarion West Writers Workshop. His website can be found at

Jordan W.
1. Jordan W.
I loved this book, a lot, but am left with almost more questions then when I started the novel. In that way, it felt almost like the first half of a really long book- it didn't resolve a fair number of situations it started, and now I am eagerly waiting another year to find out what happens to some of my favorite characters. Is this going to be the new style of Dresden novels?
Tomas Gerst
2. IamnotSpam
Picked it up immediately and finished it late in the morning. As usual I cant put a Dresdend story down until its done and then I go into severe withdrawl. Agree with everything you said but tell me if you almost didn't wipe your eyes when D finally met back up with Mouse, dogs get me everytime. Very inteligent, big as a pony and tough as a tank dogs with hearts of gold do me in even faster. Wasn't there a contest back aways about which character had the best pet or companion. Don't remember who won but Mouse should have been a contenter. Cant wait to see whats in store in the next book.
Nathan Rice
3. quazar87
Dead Beat may always be my favorite book, but Ghost Story was great. In terms of the metaplot, it's a recovery from the insanity of Changes. But, unlike ADwD for example, it actually works as its own book. It has conflicts, and these conflicts are resolved.
Jason Pitzl-Waters
4. jasonpitzl
While I generally enjoy the Dresden books, and this one was no different in that respect, I found myself less invested in Harry and more invested in his supporting cast this time around. They seemed more alive (ha-ha). I think it would really upend the modern Urban Fantasy template that Butcher has helped build if the main (fated for great things) character took a dirt nap for 3-4 books and just let the rest of the cast breathe and evolve.
Jordan W.
5. Squicked
Read it, disliked it (and earlier Butcher's). The morality here is fraudulent, maudlin, inconsistent. And just immoral. It seriously squicks me out... even more so as it seems to be a major component of plot, and character development/justification.

I would seriously appreciate a post (by Jo??) on one of these novels, sensitively examining it and its strange 'ethics'
6. amphibian
If you're going to be calling Butcher's writing "fraudulent, maudling, inconsistent and immoral", at least explain in some way the rationale behind such harsh labels. I'm not auto-defending him, but it's not a good thing for people to call something terrible or offensive without explaining why they had that reaction.

The Pink Floyd reference had me laughing, and the rear naked choke on Boz was a great nod to actual physical combat.
Jordan W.
7. Mouette
@5 If you dislike the other books, why did you read this one? If you don't like them, go read something else. I consider myself a moral and ethical person and I love Harry to death (ba-da-bing). As @6 said - don't make those kind of statements without backing them up. It's childish, trollish behavior.

As for me, loved this one. Absolute favorite Dresden book so far, and that's saying quite a bit. Butcher's writing has gotten better, clearer, more hauntingly evocative - a good thing, as this book required every bit of clarity he could give us. I loved every moment. Loved Molly, as I have ever since her appearance. I'd wish for more Mouse, but he is where he's needed most (d'awwwwwwww scene).

@2 absolutely agree with you about awesome dogs. Same with the Stark direwolves in ASOIAF - I love them, adore them, would rather read Stark/direwolf interaction than almost anything else.
Jordan W.
8. dogsrule
I was listening to the audiobook in the car during the Mouse scene. The tears almost caused a traffic accident. (And I digress, but they should have waited until James Marsters had no scheduling conflicts. The reader they got for this book was competent, but it's like having someone else read for Vader in the Original Trilogy. Sorry, but James Earl Jones IS Vader, and Marsters IS the voice of Harry Dresden.)
Emmet O'Brien
9. EmmetAOBrien
Mouette@7: For what it's worth, I think Harry's morality is maudlin, inconsistent and immoral - though I do not think he is self-aware enough for it to be fraudulent - and I think Butcher is doing this quite deliberately, to play with and point up the problematic features of the morality of the kind of noir detective hero Harry wants to be.

Harry Dresden is not a reliable narrator at some levels. He's a highly traumatised individual clinging pathologically to a simplistic set of principles regardless of what harm they cause. I do not think there's an argument to be made for the narrative actually endorsing the reeking sexism he espouses as "chivalry" considering the extent to which it is depicted as biting him in the backside repeatedly, and it seems self-evident that it's also intended to rub our faces in Harry's persistent failure to scale morality, his insistence that fixing a small wrong right in front of him is the right thing to do even if it directly causes a greater wrong to more people further away, and the blind selfishness of his willingness to cause terrible consequences to any number of people to protect specific individuals who matter to him.

I don't think this makes the books morally obnoxious; to me it makes them fascinating. It makes the protagonist morally obnoxious, but I see no reason why that should make me any less interested in reading about him.
Jordan W.
10. Scotoma
This isn't immoral, it's called having principles and a backbone. What's immoral is doing nothing about the small and big evils in front of you because you fear to upset the status quo, which is already repugnant to the bone.
Emmet O'Brien
11. EmmetAOBrien
Scotoma@10: I suspect that what we are going to see in the second half or so of the series - Butcher has talked about it as 20 or so casebooks plus a culminating trilogy - is a clear demonstration that the status quo pre-Changes, imperfect though it was, is a great deal better in many ways than how the world becomes after that status quo is disrupted.

I don't, myself, find it repugnant, in an imperfect world where you have imperfect knowledge and limited resources, to focus on dealing with the threats you are best suited to handle (in the White Council's case, warlocks; we have in Kemmler the failure mode of letting a warlock go unstopped, which is cited in the text of Dead Beat as being the Great War) rather than to take a stand on principle on a comparatively minor issue that leads to a non-trivial risk of your complete annihiliation and subsequent vampire world domination (along the lines Harry elucidates in White Night as the consequences of the success of the villains' plan there). I don't think the status quo in the Dresden Files universe pre-Changes is particularly repugnant, either, as the text demonstrates that legal structures of the supernatural world are efficiently maintained and enforced and I have difficulty seeing any plausible consequence of all-out war as better than that status quo.

I'm not interested in derailing this thread into an argument about moral principles in general, but I think that while Harry shares your view on things the narrative as a whole very much does not; I really admire the way Butcher gets things in around the prejudices and unreliabilities of his first-person narrator. (I don't believe Harry intentionally lies to us but he is remarkably good at lying to himself.)
Jordan W.
12. Scotoma
The only thing that I see the narrative as whole is arguing, is that the White Council is particularly to blame for letting this situation going as far as it has. If they had opened up to the world and let go of the secrecy, the vampires would have be eradicated a long time ago.
13. herewiss13
There was a definite "Age of Apocalypse" vibe going on in this book, but it was good to have Harry forced to take a good hard look at everything his righteous anger had wrought. Especially since it _did_ seem so straight-forward gung-ho in "Changes". The Molly/World equivalency was really the balance point of the novel for me.

I'm very interested to see where Butcher takes it from here. Sounds like we get a couple of books of very heavy Fae politics and then...who knows?
Rajan Khanna
14. rajanyk
I agree that the Mouse scene was touching, but what hit me harder emotionally was when Mister came out and rubbed against his leg. But then, I'm more of a cat person, I guess.

@8 - I didn't listen to the audiobook, though I have listened to every one to date. When I realized that it wasn't going to be Marsters I knew I wouldn't be interested. I figure they wanted something ready at the time of release but I think they should have waited because I think a lot of fans see (or hear) his interpretation as the definitive Harry. I know I was hearing his voice when I read Ghost Story.
Rajan Khanna
15. rajanyk
I also wanted to mention that I was discussing the ending the other day, the very ending that is, and while it wasn't surprising, it does tend to undermine all of Harry's efforts to prevent it happening. And it seems that a lot of horrible and hurtful things happened for no real reason at all. That's balanced for me by the things Harry learns and the ways he (hopefully) grows.

On the other hand, I'm eagerly excited for more fae stuff.
Jordan W.
16. jsmom2
@rajanyk - isn't that life sometimes? horrible and hurtful things that happen for no identifiable reason and our responses to them? maybe for Harry, like for us, the things he learns and the way he grows are exactly the reasons for - and the result of - the happenings of horrible and hurtful things

part of Harry's attraction for me has always been that he's flawed and very, very human
Chuk Goodin
17. Chuk
@7; I also think this is the best one yet and that the books have just been getting better. Loved seeing Harry have to go at things a different way and thought the reasons for the expositional flashbacks worked in the story, plus the content of the flashbacks was good stuff, too. (And finding out who killed him was great, too.)

Of course, it was over too fast and now I can't wait for the next one again. I have to start reading these more slowly...
18. amphibian
@13, herewiss13,

We have the Winter Court, the Summer Court, the Erlking, the Eebs, the Fallen, the Archangels, Demonreach, the White/Grey/Black Councils and He Who Walks Behind as potential plot drivers.

@11, EmmetOBrian,

It may be something Butcher has developed over the series, but I consider the Dresden Files to be the books Harry wrote in his downtime long after the events occurred - much like the books that the original Merlin wrote and Ebenezar has. The books have too much honesty and tiny pieces of significant information that pop up later to be something as simple as Harry simply being completely open in the present about what's going on.
Emmet O'Brien
19. EmmetAOBrien
Scotoma@12: I read the events of Changes as demonstrating that when the Council actively decide to wipe out the vampires, they do so in pretty short order - to think otherwise requires taking a whole lot of stuff at face value that seems to me all about playing Harry into the right place at the right time, there are very few chapters in that entire book where some power or an agent of some power that participates in the obliteration of the vampires is not right there steering Harry along. Which in turn leads me to think that them not wiping out the vampires before then is an active choice, and I can't really get with an argument that being reluctant to engage in genocide is a bad thing.

amphibian@18: If that's the case, Harry has to be being really careful about what he gives away when, as there are a number of places (eg, consistently referring to He Who Walks Behind as a demon prior to the revelation about its nature in White Night) that he is very well simulating not knowing more than he does at the time about important stuff. Not that that's impossible, but I am not seeing Harry as having a Vlad Taltos-like glee in tricksy narration.
Jordan W.
20. Scotoma
I think you're reading something into the series that isn't supported by the books themselves. And yes, I do take the series more or less at face value and don't see Harry as an unreliable narrator. That doesn't make your reading of the series and Harry's position as narrator wrong, but it's less built on the text at hand than on certain assumptions on your part.
Jordan W.
21. Scotoma
As for the question of genocide, that is at best a problematic argument, as there is nothing like the red court vampires in the real world. How Butcher set them up, thought, makes it clear that there is no possibility of saving them once they are turned. They were an epidemic and had to be dealt with accordingly. It's like asking, would have you problems with wiping out AIDS or cholera, if the individual viruses or bacteria had cognition.
Jordan W.
22. Andy L007
@15 I think that in part this book is about not being able to escape the consequences of your actions, which is why in the end, Harry is back in the deal he made, albeit with those essential 7 words.

On another note, I wonder if all popular authors attract the trolls that I've seen attack Butcher recently.
Emmet O'Brien
23. EmmetAOBrien
(Tried to post this over the weekend and it vanished; if it shows up twice, my apologies.)

Scotoma@20: Every mention of or allusion to Elaine before she appears in Summer Knight is Harry being very sure he knows something that turns out to be wrong. Pretty much all the books feature Harry coming up with wrong explanations for the current mystery before he figures out the right one. Harry realises and admits himself in Dead Beat that he has been wrong about Morgan's motives for the previous six books, however vehement he may have been about them earlier. Harry being an unreliable narrator is not assumption, it's text. The unwarranted assumption here seems to me to be that we can take what Harry's sure of now as necessarily reliable.

And @21: we see in Death Masks evidence that vampires have internal factions and political disagreements, so they are capable of approaching the same situation in different ways. We see through the series what appears to be evidence that they have a human-type spectrum of emotional reactions; some of which could be acting for Harry's benefit, granted, but positing that requires reading the text more selectively than taking everything at face value. And unless Eb is wrong or lying about the Council not having engaged in a war like this for a thousand years, it would appear to have been perfectly possible to co-exist peacefully with the Red Court as a law-abiding supernatural nation on a scale of centuries. So I do not believe Butcher does present them as an unredeemable epidemic; I think he presents Harry as believing they are an unredeemable epidemic, and being very human (if more than a little irritating) about cherrypicking the evidence that supports that position and not paying attention to the evidence against.
Jordan W.
24. SRJohnson
EmmetAOBrian@23: Even if the RC lives peacefully with some humans, they must kill and enslave others to live. Their biology makes them unreedemable, so that means Butcher as their creator does too. I can see no way to rationalize allowing them to continue to exist if to do so they must harm others. How is it right to stand by and allow that?
Emmet O'Brien
25. EmmetAOBrien
SRJohnson@24: There is a difference between needing to drink blood to live and needing to kill/enslave humans to live. Quite a large difference. The blood bank option has been explored in other vampire fiction and I see no reason it's impossible in this setting.

Also, and this is by way of a more general grumble, why do so many people type my surname as "OBrian" when it's up there in the username as "OBrien" ?
Anthony Pero
26. anthonypero
Came to Butcher late. Love the books. Read them all this year. Harry is an unreliable narrator in one particular way. Not as in, intentionally hiding things from us readers, but as in he doesn't always deal with himself honestly. I think he reliably gives us what he thinks... but he's frequently wrong. Hence, unreliable.

However, the literary definition of an unreliable narrator is an intentional obfuscation of the facts. Think Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects, or Soltan Gris in L Ron Hubbard's Mission Earth series. This, Harry is most definitely not. Now, I will say there are times when Harry specifically doesn't tell us his plan, so that there can be some sort of surprise when he pulls something out of his hat at the end of the story. (See what I did there? Yeah, I didn't think it was funny either ;) That is as close as Harry comes to intentionally deceiving the audience. It's actually annoying when it happens. It feels more like Butcher just couldn't come up with a better way to do it.
Jordan W.
27. Umbardacil
I just finished Ghost Story and thought it was great. It was a little slow at times, I thought and I never liked the Archangels angle of things, but Ghost!Harry was great and the ending was intriguing, to say the least.

I'm not certain I understand the debate over Harry's morality. I don't think I've ever heard him called 'morally obnoxious' before. What does that even mean? Harry's not a moral philosopher, who sits in a couch somewhere and solves morality problems by looking at things completely dispassionately, weighing pros and cons by some abstract measure of value. His morality comes from the heart and the guts. It's about empathy and compassion. Is it inconsistent at times? Hell yes! Does it bend over itself and bite him in the ass? Yes! But that's the point! There are consequences to his actions that Harry cannot foresee and more importantly, would not do differently even if he could. It's easy to say that if correcting the small evil before you results in a greater evil later, you should refrain yourself from your altruistic impulses, but it's a hell of a lot harder to pull off for real.
People are not machines. Suffering is real. Morality is never cut and dried. Even if you do the right thing, as you see it, things can become worse. Which, I think, is the whole point of Ghost Story.

As for the whole Red Court business, I think it's ridiculous to say that taking them out was in any way immoral. They were monsters, pure and simple. They subsisted on human misery. Their saliva was highly addictive and virtually bound the person they were feeding on to the vampire in question. When a person became a Red Court Vamp, they basically died and a demon took their place and their face.

That is not to say that taking out the Red Court was not impractical in some ways. There were, as seen, massive repercussions. The world is, paradoxically, a darker place. Why? Because a major faction ceased to exist. They ceased to exert control. That does not mean that the control that had existed had somehow been benevolent or even neutral. The Red Court was a malevolent force. It had no compassion or understanding of humanity. To call the eradication of the Red Court genocide is undermining that term. They were the oppressors, not the oppressed.

Also, was no one else even a little icked out by the whole deal between Thomas and Justine? I understand the necessity of the thing, but the way she went ahead with it seemed so...callous somehow. I didn't understand the mechanics of what she was doing either.
Emmet O'Brien
28. EmmetAOBrien
Umbardacil@27: His morality comes from the heart and the guts. It's about empathy and
compassion. Is it inconsistent at times? Hell yes! Does it bend over
itself and bite him in the ass? Yes! But that's the point!

I think the point the series is making is that that's precisely what's wrong with it; Ghost Story in particular seems to be pointing him at how much by way of consequences he has missed by reacting form the gut, and towards thinking things through being a better way.

Even if you do the right thing, as you see it, things can become
worse. Which, I think, is the whole point of Ghost Story.

Oh, agreed.

I've already made clear, I think, why i disagree with your points on the red Court, save that I would add:

To call the eradication of the Red Court genocide is
undermining that term. They were the oppressors, not the oppressed.

To add any qualifications at all to whether genocide is better or worse depending on who gets genocided is a deeply dubious position, to my mind.

Also, was no one else even a little icked out by the whole deal between
Thomas and Justine? I understand the necessity of the thing, but the way
she went ahead with it seemed so...callous somehow.

Not remotely, and I can't say that I understand a perspective that has no problem with mass murder but balks at being businesslike about a little consensual sex that's carried out with the aim of helping someone you love.

I didn't understand
the mechanics of what she was doing either.

My read, based on what Thomas said about it in Blood Rites, is that if the last person you had sex with was someone with whom you had mutual altruistic love, you could not be fed upon, and that lasted until the next time you had sex with someone with whom the love did not apply; therefore she is planning to break her protection by having sex with someone else so that Thomas can then feed on her. Whether this will actually work, who knows.
Debbie Solomon
29. dsolo
One of the most interesting things about the Dresden books is that the good guys don't always win, and sometimes, the bad guys are the good guys and vice versa. I actually love how Butcher throws in so many differerent fantasy and religious angles. Harry knows he's powerful, and he knows he's flawed. His default mode is to sacrifice himself to protect those he cares about. Obviously, this doesn't work out so well for him as he discovers in Ghost Story. Not only is Harry carrying a lot of emotional baggage, so are all his friends and allies. I'm loving Molly more with every book, but she's breaking my heart.

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