Jim Butcher's latest entry in the Dresden Files series, Ghost Story, feels like the gutsiest of his popular paranormal detective novels so far. Like its immediate predecessor, Changes, Ghost Story showcases Butcher's willingness to enact huge, sweeping changes to the status quo that he's established.
At the end of Changes, Harry Dresden was murdered by an unknown assassin. Ghost Story has him back from the dead, but only kind of.
As a ghost (or possibly more, or possibly less) Harry has to solve his own murder or risk losing more of his friends to an unnamed but probably horribly unimaginable fate. Trapped by his very limited ability to affect the material world, Harry is back on Earth six months after his death, and things have gone to Hell in a handbasket. His friends are losing their grip, consumed by grief and paranoia, and a new enemy – the Fomor – has reared its ugly head and has been causing havoc across the world in the absence of the Red Court of vampires.
At long last, the over-arching plot super-structure – only intimated before – is finally looking like it's taking a real kind of shape with the advent of the Fomor. Of course, there was no real reason to doubt that all the little bits and pieces, all the loose ends of the previous novels weren't going to add up to something, but eleven years is a long time to take that notion on faith, and it's nice to finally start to see it.
The narrative is not particularly innovative, and that's a bit of a shame. The mechanics of being a ghost in Harry Dresden's world are based entirely on the strength of one's memories, and how interesting would a first person narrative be if the narrator's perceptions, if the shape of his world, were literally defined by the intensity of his memories of it? Maybe some other time; Ghost Story is essentially Harry Dresden with a different set of powers. He's got new limits, new problems, a new mystery, but the potential of the change in form goes largely unexplored.
Likewise, there doesn't feel like a lot of depth to Butcher's approach to either ghostliness or the main thrust of the book which – as is always the case in the Harry Dresden novels – is free will: and the argument, as is always the case, is: "humans have it, and it matters." The nuances of this idea, explored fairly interestingly through Harry's relationship with the demon Lasciel in previous novels, here are just sort of taken as read. The novel takes a similarly straightforward approach to what it means to be dead, using it – instead of as a tool to explore the complexities of a human soul's relationship with the material world, and how memory and growth change that soul – primarily as a method of underlining Harry Dresden's defining character trait: he's a guy who just won't give up.
Small disappointments aside, there's nothing wrong with a little straightforwardness, and where the book shines is in delivering the Jim Butcher Promise. The Jim Butcher Promise is this: bad guys will be smug, and good guys will be tough. Some slimy jerk is going to get wrecked; and someone else, when faced with insurmountable odds, is going to grit his teeth and do the right thing. Butcher's storytelling is satisfying on a level that's bone deep; from his knack for crafting suspense, to the multiple reversals of the final confrontation, to the surprisingly heart-rending dénouement, it's all writing that just makes you feel good.
It's a worthy skill, actually, for a novelist to be able to write a book in which the world is collapsing against an onslaught of terrible monsters, and the only one who can stop it is already dead, and still somehow leave you feeling optimistic that, in the fight between Good and Evil, humanity is still going to come out ahead.
You can pick up a copy of Ghost Story on Amazon, or at your favorite local bookstore.