May 27 2014 2:00pm

Breaking into the Underworld: Skin Game by Jim Butcher

Jim Butcher Skin Game Dresden Files

Harry Dresden, wizard and sometime champion, is back with a brand new adventure in Jim Butcher’s Skin Game. This one teams him up with one of his oldest and deadliest enemies as well as dragging a few old friends into the mix. The mission? A heist unlike any other.

In last year’s Cold Days, Harry settled in as the Winter Knight, working for Mab, the Queen of Air and Darkness. Harry wasn’t too happy about this, but he accepted his role as best he could, trying to walk the fine line between his duty to Mab and remaining one of the good guys.

In Skin Game, on Mab’s orders, Harry is assigned to help none other than Nicodemus Archleone, the head of the Knights of the Blackened Denarius, who we met in Death Masks and who later appeared in Small Favor. Harry, understandably, isn’t thrilled about working with him (Nicodemus killed Shiro, after all) but agrees to go along with it. Mab’s command allows for some wiggle room and Harry hopes to have a chance to take Nicodemus out after the job is completed.

That job, by the way, is to break into one of Hades’s vaults in the Underworld. Yes, that Hades. To that end Nicodemus has assembled a crew including his psychotic daughter, Deirdre, Binder the summoner (last seen in Turn Coat), a warlock named Hannah Ascher, and a strange shapeshifter named Goodman Grey. Harry brings in Murphy for support.

Meanwhile, through all of this, the parasite mentioned in previous books is putting Harry in increasing, excruciating pain. Mab gives him an earring that helps, but it’s clearly something that has to be dealt with, and Mab will only let that happen when Harry finishes the job.

As you can guess, Harry working alongside Nicodemus doesn’t go well, and things quickly become dangerous. I won’t spoil any of the twists and turns except to say that, as you might expect, the job is anything but straightforward.

Still, after the wonderful Cold Days, Skin Game feels like an uneven book. Part of that comes from what I felt was a lackluster heist. All of the usual brush strokes are there, but it wasn’t exciting enough. Skin Game also seems far more straightforward than a typical Dresden novel, without all of the interweaving storylines we’ve come to expect.

There’s also the fact that many of the huge reveals of the last book (the Outsiders, the prison on Demonreach, and so on) aren’t followed up here, leaving the story feeling somehow light. We know there are these huge threats building, but their complete absence makes them feel less dangerous. There are a few references, mostly toward the end, but generally Skin Game ends up feeling like a side adventure.

As usual, what I most enjoyed were the character moments. After being isolated for most of the last couple books, Harry is given a chance to interact with people here that we haven’t seen in a while and finally starts addressing some of the fallout of Changes and his assumption of the Winter Knight mantle. In fact, some of his interactions had me practically in tears. Bob is woefully underused here, but I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that we get some time with Michael Carpenter, and that helps to alleviate things a bit.

Ultimately the biggest disappointment for me revolves around the parasite that’s living in Harry’s head. It’s been mentioned a few times in the last couple of books and Skin Game reveals the nature of this parasite. The answer to the mystery is interesting, but also seems a bit forced. The whole explanation felt a bit handwavy and didn’t quite fit for me as much as I wanted to. I’m interested to hear how other people take it.

But that’s the danger of a series like this. We’re 15 books in, and things keep building. Plot points hinted at a few books back are coming to the fore and not all of them are going to please everyone.

If anything, Skin Game suffers from the quality of the books that preceded it. It’s a solid book, but doesn’t match the scope and scale of those novels. Still, it advances key elements in Harry Dresden’s life and is, of course, a must-read for long time Dresden Files fans. And, as mentioned, it just might make you cry.


Skin Game is available now from Roc in the U.S. and Orbit in the U.K.

Rajan Khanna is a writer, narrator, and blogger who has blogged about Harry Dresden before. His stories have appeared in Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and several anthologies. His first novel, Falling Sky, will be released on October 7, 2014.

1. pCiaran
Finished Skin Game on lunch this afternoon having bought it this morning on my phone. I enjoyed it but also felt it was one of the light ones. Two disappointments for me were the lack of wise cracking up until towards the end of the book and more importantly the "here's what we didn't tell you earlier" scene. I think it robbed the finale of its grippingness to suddenly get a "here's what I've known all along but am only know choosing to tell you."

That said I will still need to read the next one as soon as it is physically possible for me to do so so the series must be doing something right.
Matt Stoumbaugh
2. LazerWulf
I enjoyed this book. After re-reading Cold Days yesterday, and finishing up this a few hours ago (yay e-books!), I'm kinda glad it wasn't as heavy a read. Cold Days, IIRC, was the first book where the entire story took place over a single day (not counting the 11-weeks of Mab-style PT), rather than the three or four that we usually get. Skin Game goes back to that 3-day formula, and it's kinda nice. Cold Days was a non-stop rollercoaster with things happening one right after the other. Which was cool, but it didn't leave much time for character introspection. In Skin Game, fewer things happen over a longer period of time, so there is time for that introspection, which we can clearly see has been eating at Harry ever since the issues he introspects over were brought up in Cold Days. (That first scene with Michael, BTW, had me in tears.) It's all about the pacing. Rereading this book in sequence with the rest of the series, I think I'll be glad to have a lighter book to read right after the heaviness of Cold Days. To say this book suffers from the quality of its predecessors is to give it a huge disservice. It is every bit as good, and is the right type of book at the right point in the series to be what it is. While it does not deliver on some of the plot points of the last book, it does resolve the character points of that book (most of them, anyway), and even resolves a few issues left over from books prior to Cold Days.

Now to a few of the specifics. I found the heist itself to be interesting, conceptually, and executed rather well. The Wayback Machine chapter was a nice breather before $#!+ Gets Real (again, pacing), and reveals elements to the twist that will be fun to look for on subsequent rereads. (Always a good indicater of a good twist story, which, BTW, I think is why Ocean's Twelve isn't as good on rewatches. It throws the twist at you without seeding it at all. But I digress.)

Speaking of twists, the "parasite", I think was not "handwavy" at all. While its exact nature was an interesting surprise, I had suspected its origins correctly, mostly due to the fact that Harry said his headaches had been going on for "years" in Cold Days, far longer than he had the mantle of Winter Knight, and, thus, could not have been planted in him during his coma.

Also, Butters is awesome, and Polka Will Never Die!
Michael M Jones
3. MichaelMJones
The strength of this book, I'd say, rests in the character development experienced by Harry and those he impacts. Sure, we don't get a lot of huge world-changing revelations or meta-arc advancement, but we get some of the character bits and growth that's been desperately needed as a result of the past few books.

How he deals with Michael Carpenter, for instance. How he interacts with Butters. How he works with Murphy. And so on. It's the little stuff that brings this installment to life. Sure, in a different series with less installments, we might begrudge a book that's "lighter" or has less overall impact, or which focuses on catching up with suppoting cast, but in a series fifteen books strong and still going, we need this sort of breather. Some of what happens is almost crucially important to te continuing development of Harry Dresden as a character.

And of course we'll probably find out later that some of what came to pass here is indeed vitally important.

I used to describe this series as hard-boiled detective fiction meets urban fantasy, but I think we can safely say that Butcher left that sub-genre behind a long time ago. :)
Daniel Goss
4. Beren
Polka will never die. Especially now that it carries a lightsaber. I don't know that I'd call this one a lighter book, because some of the character moments hit like an anvil falling from the sky. Harry and Maggie. Michael. I know I felt crushed under the weight of some of his words. For Michael to calmly call Harry out for arrogance, and for Harry to listen, is in my top five scenes so far in the series. And Butters. Taking a level in Badass is one thing, but to go from vanilla mortal "I'm not a real doctor" to supernatural Batman on an enchanted skateboard . . .

I don't know that I'd call this one my favorite in the series, because Cold Days still has a very firm grip on that one, but it's right there with Changes on the "books I'll re-read just for the joy of it" shelf.
Matt Stoumbaugh
5. LazerWulf
@4: As far as the character moments go, yeah, it's still pretty heavy, but I think what we mean by "lighter" is plot-wise. I tend to judge the heaviness of the book on the level of the stakes. The stakes in Skin Game are more on a personal level than a global catastrophe level. (Although, I suppose that remains to be seen, considering that Nicky got away.)

Cold Days was good, and it had a lot of awesome WTF moments, but CD and Changes are probably the two hardest for me to reread, because of the heaviness. (Followed closely by Grave Peril...) I don't think I'll be able to rate this one until I reread it again, but Summer Knight is probably my favorite, in general, and to read for-the-joy-of-it, followed closely by White Night.
Cory S.
6. Hungry_For_Hands
This book was most certainly lighter than the last one and that is ok. Not every book can be filled with earth shattering revelations. Sometimes I just want to sit back and enjoy a classic Dresden adventure, which this book provided. The last I heard, the series was planned for 20 novels with a final epic trilogy to finish it off (books 21-23). With that in mind, having a lighter book for #15 doesn't seem bad. As a few have mentioned above, what this lacked in meta plot advancement, it made up for in personal character development.

@4 - At first I had the same thought as you with Butters. But when you stop to think of it, Harry has been missing from Chicago for what, 2-3 years now? All of that time Butters has been in possession of Bob and forced to watch the city slowly crumble. It does not seem out of the realm of possibility that Butters would start trying to help. And after all that time having him be somewhat proficient in his (i.e. Bob's) abilities, seems plausible.
George Brell
7. gbrell
Enjoyed it less than Cold Days, more than Ghost Story, which puts it somewhere in the middle of the series list. It's plot prevented it from being as good as Small Favor, Turn Coat, Changes - which I view as the best of the series.

The heist, as noted, wasn't as elaborate or interesting as I would have liked, but I thought that the strength of the novel was in the character moments. In particular, I think that the Harry-Maggie chapter was one of the strongest "moments" in the series - and it absolutely eviscerates his rationale for avoiding her.

I also think the "Spot" joke was one of the funniest bits Butcher has ever written.

Next book is supposedly titled Peace Talks. Found this theory on reddit which I found intriguing: "The various nations of the Unseelie Accords are gathering in Chicago for diplomatic talks to address the incursion of the Fomor. Harry, Molly, and Mab are attending on behalf of Winter. Lara and Thomas on behalf of the White Court. The Merlin, Ebenezer, and other members of the senior council on behalf of the White Council. Marcone and Gard are there along with Murphy, who's been strong-armed somehow into helping. Ivy and Kincaid are there... you get the picture. It's kind of a Who's Who of the Dresdenverse. Someone is threatening the talks, and since the Unseelie Accords are Mab's work, it falls to Harry to keep the peace at the conference."
8. TomT
One thing about the rewind scene where we go back to the beginning and see what Harry was pulling. That is a trope of the heist movies. Quite a number of them do the same thing at the climactic point where they wind things back and suddenly show you a different angle on everything that is going on to that point. It is basically a double twist where the audience and some portion of the heist crew doesn't know what is actually going on. So that bit was Butcher using the heist genre's movie tropes in the book.

And I loved spot hmm, I have an interesting thought... Given that there appears to be a Hekate - Fairy Queen link does anyone else get a Uriel/Hades vibe? We know that a number of the powers actually have multiple names and multiple mantles that they have and appear under. It would explain a couple of interesting things. First Uriel's working so closely with Mab which he has done more than once and second Uriel's interest in Harry.
Matt Stoumbaugh
9. LazerWulf
@8: The only problem I have with your Uriel/Hades theory is that when Harry meets Hades, Uriel is, at the time, completely mortal.
Chuk Goodin
10. Chuk
I liked it and loved several of the moments of awesome, but I do agree that it was a bit lighter as far as plot goes and the character moments were the best parts. I didn't like the flashback/reveal when reading it but yes, it is kind of a feature of the caper story, which bumps it up a bit in my eyes. I hope the next one picks up more on some of the loose ends that didn't really progress in this story.
Rajan Khanna
11. rajanyk
@7 - I love the sound of that setup. If it's something close to that it should be great.
Shelly wb
12. shellywb
This really was an uneven one. All that buildup about the parasite (who of course turns out to be a female, his daughter), and we get nothing really after that.

And then there's Murphy. Did anyone else get furious about her? Here's this strong, well-rounded woman who many fans expected to become the next Knight of the Cross and not only does she destroy the blade representing Faith (Freudian slip there?) but then has to be replaced by a more "capable" retired man, and is relegated to girlfriend status. My teeth were gnashing.
Daniel Goss
13. Beren
I'm not sure if I was furious about her, so much as furious at her. She has said many times that she was not Knight material, but she took up the sword anyway and then immediately showed exactly why she was not suited for the job -- actions which are entirely consistent with her character, which she knew, which was why she hadn't taken up the sword before.
I don't see her as relegated to girlfriend status, either. She'll be back (she'd better be) kicking ass and taking names soon.
14. Liam A
- First, Mab is scary beyond reason. I can't agree with Harry when he keeps calling her and the Unseelie, "evil", Mab is not evil, but she is very, very *scary*. Do NOT cross her and motivate her to "balance the scales". Just don't.
- Scenes with Maggie... tears. Amazing and so spot on.
- Scenes with Micheal... awesome in every way. Michael saves Harry's soul.
- Go Butters. Whole new aspect of badass in Chicago. Curious to see how Butter's will begin to transform into his potential over the next several books. He's joined Toot and Grasshopper my radar now.
- Poor Murphy, Micheal really enviserated her good intentions from Cold Days, "Appointed herself Keeper...".
- That last scene with Molly, Marcone, and Mab... I can't help but think that the interchange of Harry as the strong man "Knight" and Molly as the diplomatic and direct "Lady" gives keen insight into an aspect of how the Knight and Lady function within Winter. I enjoyed that scene.
- Harry and his "parasite". How will "she" and Bob get along. Are we retiring Bob to Butter's and replacing her? Bob is valued because of how much information he has absorbed, he is a floating Arcane Library. Little One can't replace Bob on that count. There is a dynamic here and I'm wondering strongly where Jim is going with this, and what purpose the former "parasite" will fill in Harry's life. Also, Harry needs to make Bob another Skull, the "new" one was repurposed. lol

- My biggest nagging question though... God, Angels, Faeries. Uriel is powerful on a scale that Mother Winter barely registers on. However, Winter is the front line in the seige of our world from "Outsiders". Winter's power comes from it's place as that defender. Summer's Power comes from it's place as a buffer between Winter's brutality and "us". Why are not the Angel's and the Almighty involved defending creation from forces that seek to unmake it? What is the interaction between Faerie and God, both prominantely play roles in Skin Games, but never really interact.

- Finally: Mab is SCARY.
George Jong
15. IndependentGeorge
Another question:

Does Harry still owe Mab one last favor dating back to their deal in Summer Knight? He's her vassal now, and obligated to follow her command. What does that do to his debt?

Obligations among the fae are intrinsic to their existance - thus Lea heped Harry on account of his mother, and then Molly on account of Harry. They're bound by obligation the way we're bound by physics, rather than law. So what happens to that last favor?
16. Xena Catolica
Finished it last night--loved it. *squeee*

@14 , I think a better way to phrase the question about Bob is this-- How much can he change, since he supposedly doesn't have free will? I hope we get a look at how Bob interacts with Butters before jumping into how he deals with the newbie. An intellectus doesn't need the kind of apprenticeship a young wizard does, so there's a lot of interesting possibilities there--it doesn't have to be anything like the other mentoring relationships we've seen so far. I think Butcher's very smart to set up a chance to do something quite different with one of the recurring themes.
17. Courier6
@14 The Parasite knows everything that Dresden does, according to Mab.....can we assume it also has all of Laschiels knowledge as well...move over Bob,,,the new kid definitely outguns his knowledge if this is true! i loved this book....it wasn't as diverse as some other offerings, but it has a great feeling to it, and I laughed out loud as well as cried many times with this book, Jim B rocks.
Matt Stoumbaugh
18. LazerWulf
@15: Mab has stated, in both Summer Knight and Small Favor, that Harry would be free of his obligation should he take up the mantle of Winter Knight. Of course, technically, now that he's the WK, he owes Mab UNLIMITED favors, and this makes Skin Game the FOURTH favor Harry has done for Mab, so maybe he should have held out. (Of course, he'd still be out with a broken back, either that or dead...)
19. GaiusOctavian
Personally i think this book is being a bit harshly judged, it's the start of a new block of books and these blocks have always had the starting book as a builder to greater things. For example in Turn Coat very little happened except Morgan's Death and the idea that the White Council had been corrupted. (along with a few introductions and demonstrations of power). Yet that block built into the most interesting scenarios.
Maybe there where some serious plot points being built and we are just thinking that it was rather less significant than cold days
20. EBC
Does anyone else think that Harry met the original Merlin in the first chapter? It is a "Crystal Cave".
21. chora

Well, I totally thing it NOW. That would be interesting.
Tricia Irish
22. Tektonica
I'm so glad to have found this reread....I just wish I'd found it two years ago when it was active! Of course, I hadn't read Butcher then. I discovered these books this past summer and have read through them twice now, as well as the entirety of this reread and comments. I'm finding it very hard to leave this world, while waiting for the next book.

Some thoughts:
-I wish Harry would get off the Mab is Evil thing, and his fear of the Mantle. Sure he needs to be vigilant about not letting IT start making his choices, but I think Mab has perhaps the most important job....defending the Gate, and she's assembling a powerful team to help her. She is scary and mono-maniacal in her duty, but not Evil. I put her on the Good Guy team. But all the Faeries motivations and "deals" must be examined carefully. They are often many-sided.
-I love how Butters! has made intellectual use of Bob, and created an almost "mechanical" magic system for himself. And he's found his Heroism. He's smart, resourceful, and morally sound. I predict he'll make an excellent knight. Polka will never die!
-Murphy has had quiet the character arc. I don't see her relegated to "girlfriend" status. She is Harry's best friend and most trusted defender...and I hope, lover. God knows they both need that! I think she used her "cop identity" as a shield for her own emotional pain and isolation, and Harry, by slowing opening up to her about his world, and his own doubts and fears, has helped her come to grips with her deeper self. She may never get that fantasy family she thought she wanted, but she could get something else, something she hadn't imagined before. She owns her choices and failures too, which I find very strong and admirable.
-Mab was mad at Harry at the end of Skin Games....after he threatened Marcone in the meeting, and could've really embarrassed Mab. I do worry about consequences there.
-I think it's very exciting to have Molly working with Harry in Winter. They could be a very formidable team. I just hope that Mab really respects Harry and that relationship works. If he loses or gives up the Mantle at some point, he won't be nearly as powerful (unless something else is revealed), and his back would be broken again, wouldn't it? Not good.
-I worry about Nic....he's now quite incapacitated after his beat down in SG, but he'll be back with a vegence. Do you think he's driving the Black Council?
-I hope we get more nitty gritty about the Council too. Christos doesn't seem like a Good Guy. The Council is fracturing, with the Gray's working independently. Hard to tell who there is good and who's bad...Ancient Mai? Very questionable. The Merlin, ditto.
-I want more on the Gatekeeper! He's only got one eye....like Vadderung...is that another one of Vadderung's names? I like Rashid, but he's very enigmatic.
-I'm glad Thomas is back in Harry's team too. I was afraid after the Naagloshi got to him, that he and Harry would never work it out.
-And I love the pop culture references, the snark, the historical references that have sent me running to Wikipedia.
-I love the way religion and/vs spirituality is discussed. It's very fair and open, and thought provoking.
-What does "Starborn" mean? Who's really Harry's father? More about Margaret leFay, please! So many questions!

These books really offer a lot. If anyone wants an ongoing discussion here, I'd certainly love to talk to someone about these books!
Matt Stoumbaugh
23. LazerWulf
@22: Nice insights you have there. "Starborn" refers to the circumstances around Harry's birth, probably the alignment of the stars, that gives him his power over outsiders, as revealed in White Knight, and further explored in Ghost Story and Cold Days.

I don't think The Gatekeeper is Odin. Santa is Odin, and he has both of his eyes, so I don't think that is any indication. (Also, IRL, Modern Day Santa is partly based off the Odin/Yule myth. Look it up.)

I don't think Nic is Black Council. His agenda and the BC agenda don't really seem to line up. Cowl (From Dead Beat, and a small appearance in White Knight) is most likely the BC leader. That said, he might join up with them in the future.

Yes, Butters is awesome. Except that I can't help but picture him as a cross between Butters from South Park, and Professor Frink from The Simpsons. Odd.

I don't think Harry actually thinks Mab is evil. It's just that most of the mean and nasty stuff in Faerie comes from the Unseelie side, and the Unseelie-Queen-That-Is is the embodiment of all those traits. But he knows that Mab is a Force of Nature, and just as unstoppable.
Tricia Irish
24. Tektonica
Thanks for the response LazerWulf!

I know Starborn has to do with the circumstances of Harry's birth, but they are still pretty murky, if you ask me. I'm pretty sure it's what gives him power over Outsiders, but how did happen? Pre-arranged by Mab with Margaret? All the Immortals that are on Earth on Halloween are vulnerable and mortal. Harry's birthday is Halloween....and what does that mean? I find it hard to accept Malcolm as Harry's real father...although Malcolm himself might have thought so. Maeve remarks just before she's killed that it was going to be a great night because she gets to kill "one of the Starborn". Are there more? Who? So that's what I meant by asking about "Starborn".

I don't really think the Gatekeeper is Odin either. Vadderung is really cool....an Immortal still involved with Mortals. Santa. LOL. Of course, that is where our Santa tradition came from!

Nic....I'm guessing he's in cahoots with the Black Council, although he may think his agenda far supercedes theirs....since arrogance is his middle name. Yeah, Cowl....BC for sure. Do you think he's still on the WC incognito? How do you feel about Ancient Mai and The Merlin? They have painted with a dubious brush, but is that a red herring?

Harry seems pretty insightful about Mab and how the Faeries work in general. I also think he Needs the power of the Mantle to do battle in the Endgame. He needs to fight the aggression that the Mantle gives him, but I also hope that he and Mab can reach some sort of good working trust and communication. I think Harry could be a lot more effective if he didn't have to sort through all the Faerie obfuscation in order to figure out what to do. LOL. But of course, that's part of the story.

I'm in the process of reading all the short stories now and am really Jonesing for the next book! Anything else I should check out?
Matt Stoumbaugh
25. LazerWulf
The exact circumstances of Harry's birth are unknown, though I think it is more likely that it was Lea who conspired with Margaret to make a Starborn, not Mab. And I do think that Malcom is indeed Harry's father, mostly because there hasn't been any indication otherwise, but partly because I believe that Malcom couldn't have appeared to Harry in Dead Beat (I think it was?) if they weren't related.

Cowl is possibly White Council, though I don't think he's part of the Senior Council, unless he's actually Cristos, which is a possibility, albiet a small one. Ancient Mai and The Merlin, I think, are on the level, if a bit too stuck in old-fashioned ways (hense the need for a Gray Council to go behind their backs).

Harry got a first-class education on the ways of Faerie from his dealings with Leanansidhe, and what he didn't learn from her, he's learned from Bob.
Tricia Irish
26. Tektonica
I figure it was either the timing of Harry's birth or his father that gave Harry the Starborn status. And you're right...probably Lea in cahoots with Margaret that lined up the big mojo for Harry's birth, with Lea pledged to be his Godmother should something happen to Margaret. I do wonder what Maggie had going with the Sidhe.
Matt Stoumbaugh
27. LazerWulf
Well, you know, it could have something to with something about Malcolm, because it seems pretty odd for a mage like Margaret to get together with a muggle like Malcolm, though I do believe she did love him, and the reason they got together could be nothing more than that.

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