After what seemed like an interminable lull, Jim Butcher uses his new novel, Changes, to blow the lid off of Harry Dresden's hard-won but stable world.
The Dresden Files are Jim Butcher's long-running series about Harry Dresden, a wizard private detective in Chicago. It's an engaging, modern-noir fantasy series that follows Harry as he deals with all manner of supernatural threats: faerie courts, vampire courts, renegade wizards, werewolves. Generally the sort of thing you'd imagine a modern-day wizard dealing with, and if the concept seems a little on the basic side, Butcher has always made up for it with clever sarcasm, carefully-crafted suspense, and some innovative twists on old subjects.
Open-ended serial novels, though, generally suffer from two problems: the first is "Creeping Power Syndrome"-a tendency to saddle the main character with more special powers, or super-powered buddies, or magic weapons, or what have you (the Anita Blake series suffered from this something fierce). The other problem is an unshakable status quo: no matter what happens in the book, somehow the main character needs to end up roughly where he started at the beginning: same relationships, same social and economic status, same house. Robert B. Parker's Spenser series-to which The Dresden Files are often rightly compared-is a good example of this; largely, whatever mess Spenser got himself involved in, he managed to find some clever way out.
Based on the last two Dresden books, it was looking like Butcher had fallen a little bit into both of these traps, but especially the later: up through Turn Coat, it looked an awful lot like Harry Dresden was just going to tread water while Butcher doled out little bits of plot development here and there, giving us the sense that something was happening without ever really changing anything.
Changes, true to its name, puts an end to that thinking. The premise, admittedly, seems like it comes out of nowhere: Harry's ex-girlfriend Susan informs him that he's got a daughter, who's just been kidnapped by the Red Court of the vampires, as part of their interminably long war against the wizards of the White Council. Curveball or not, Butcher takes this premise and barrels through Harry's recent history, demolishing everything in sight. Old allies are lost, old enemies finally dispatched, and nearly every hovering, delicately-balanced element of Butcher's established status quo is thrown into disarray.
It's actually a quite remarkable effect. Again, despite the arbitrariness of the premise, Butcher uses it to fantastic effect. Of course it's a kind of generic, mechanical effect: it's impossible to have read ten volumes of Harry Dresden without developing some affection for him. So, sure, we never knew he had a kid before, but he does now, and she's in danger, and it doesn't take that much of a leap to get into the story. For all its artlessness, it's effective, and really ancillary to the real point: forcing the changes in Harry Dresden's life that have been promised for years.
It's really worth dwelling on this point: in eleven books, Harry has enjoyed a kind of invincible morality. He's come up against ethical challenges in which he's been tempted to do the wrong thing, but inevitably he manages to find a way out that enables him to both save the day and leave his moral code intact. It's permitted him to sometimes become a little insufferable, and his periodic moral lecturing have gradually become a low point of the most recent novels. In Changes, Butcher doesn't give Harry a way out, leading to a necessary compromise and an actually heart-wrenching conclusion to a long-running secondary plot line.
Fans of the series will be pleased to know that Butcher maintains his highly accessible tone, and continues to be a deft hand at creating narrative suspense. Harry Dresden remains a wise-ass, and, like a certain other wizard named Harry, still leans pretty heavily on the same four or five spells. Changes, like its predecessors, is a colorful, boisterous, exciting adventure. Really, the only thing dissatisfying about it is Butcher's continually more abundant and more narrowly-focused pop culture references: it's a problem, to be sure, as an author doesn't like to date himself in books that he intends to sell indefinitely, but surely that problem isn't solved by only making Lord of the Rings and Star Wars references.
Changes is a welcome-shaking up for fans of Jim Butcher's world, and should serve as proof that the series—far from being an endless cycle of scrapes and successes that never really lead anywhere—is genuinely worth getting into.