Review: Skin Game

Those of you familiar with Harry Dresden already know what to expect going into the latest novel in Jim Butcher’s urban fantasy epic. The world is full of supernatural beings: vampires, faeries, angels, demons, and ancient gods. Some are good, some are bad. And when the bad ones set foot, hoof or tentacle in the city of Chicago, they have to answer to modern-day wizard Harry Dresden, the coolest wizard in the fantasy genre.

When we last saw Harry, he wasn’t doing too well. He just lost the coolest apprentice in the world to the machinations of the faerie queen Mab and he’s still stuck in the thrall of Winter. For the past year he’s been trying to learn more about the mystical island of which he has become Warden (replacing Hurley…) and learning the magical art of Parkour.

But the Faerie Queen has a new assignment for him, one that will force him to join forces with one of his most wicked adversaries: the demonic knight Nicodemus. Together they have to assemble a team to venture into the underworld and steal something from the treasury of the ancient Greek god Hades.

Everything you could want from a Dresden Files case is here: magical mayhem, thrilling action, tons of fun and humor (Parkour!), and appearances by many of your favorite characters. In fact, it’s such a typical Dresden Files book that it doesn’t really stand out as a particularly special episode in the series. By the end of the book, little has changed for most of the characters. Oh, there are a few upsets, don’t get me wrong, but if you look at the chessboard of supernatural powers Jim Butcher has been carefully crafting over more than a dozen novels, few of the pieces have moved. A few things change, though, and Jim Butcher does have a few fun surprises in store for his readers.

I was happy to see Michael Carpenter get in on the action once again. When we last saw him he was retired from serving the Lord as a modern-day knight after being crippled. I won’t spoil the circumstances that bring him back into the fight (which may vie for Best Moment in the book) but his presence in the story deserves to be talked about in a Christian review. Really great Christian characters are rare in secular fiction, especially fantasy, but Michael stands out. His relationship with Harry is always fun to watch since Michael is clearly concerned for his soul, but Harry has no interest in becoming a Christian himself (despite being aided by an actual archangel in an earlier novel). Even though Harry is not a Christian, his friendship with Michael is always sincere. He’s kind of Wolfwood to Harry’s Vash and I’ve missed him since he retired.

This is what makes Michael awesome. There’s a great scene when Dresden and company have managed to find their way into the Underworld and he faces off against the dark knight Nicodemus, who challenges his faith by pointing out that they are standing in a pagan Underworld:

    “Think where you are, sir Knight,” Nicodemus said, his mouth quirking up into a mocking smile. “The Underworld is a prison for souls. Do you think yours is so great as to escape it?”
      “I am not great,” Michael said quietly. “But God is.”
      Nicodemus’s smile was like something you’d see on a shark. “One of the great disappointments in killing a Knight is knowing that he or she does not suffer as a result. But you are in the Underworld, Christian. Here, I think, your eternity will be something entirely different than you have been promised.”
      “On the one hand, I have your word,” Michael said. “On the other, I have my Father’s. I think I know to which voice I should listen.”

And that isn’t even his finest moment in the book. Not even close. How do you challenge a man whose ally is God? Jim Butcher has put Michael through the wringer in the past, but setting him in a situation where his assurance of a Christian afterlife is threatened lets the audience see what Michael’s faith is truly made of, and it is awesome. Michael Carpenter stands out as a man of faith and mercy. How many great Christian characters show up in books that top the New York Times bestseller list? Whose faith is seen as something courageous and inspiring, rather than a deficit?

And while I’m talking about Nicodemus I should mention that he gets more character development this time around. In the past, he’s been one of the most one-dimensional of Harry’s foes, just purely evil for the sake of being evil. This time around we get a lot more insight into his twisted mentality and his war against God. Real villains rarely think of themselves as villains. They are the heroes of their own story and poor, black-hearted Nicodemus is no exception.

I do have a few gripes with the story and content warnings for Christians that plan on adventuring into its pages. First, the climax of the story relies on the author holding back a piece of information from the audience. It’s shoddy storytelling that only gets a pass because it’s drowned out in all the fun and craziness of Butcher’s over-the-top characters. Second, there is a deplorable lack of Molly this time around. She’s been getting a lot more character development over the last few novels, even eclipsing Michael as my favorite character, and she’s missed this time around. (Which makes sense considering where we left her in Cold Days, but still…)

There is a rather racy sex scene that begins on page 100. Chaste readers, I warn you, it ventures firmly into HBO territory. You may want to skip two pages or so, if you’re the kind of person that fast forwards the sex scenes in movies.

The scene where Dresden has a talk with his daughter has been a long time coming, and it is sweet, but it’s also eye-rollingly cheesy and doesn’t have nearly the emotional impact of Harry’s encounter with Michael.

Fans of the series will find a lot to like in this episode of the story, which delivers every bit of magical action and mystery that the Dresden Files are known for. Even though there isn’t as much progression with certain characters as I hoped, this still isn’t one to be missed. Christian readers who venture beyond the sex and violence will be treated to the return of one of the best Christian characters in secular fantasy, one whose faith is treated as something noble and heroic. And the actual message of the novel, what it has to say about faith, is pretty amazing too.

Positives

+ Great larger-than-life characters doing cool things + Fun fantasy storytelling+ + Humor + Great Christian character + Faith-inspiring message + Parkour!

Negatives

- Lackluster plot twist - Racy sex scene - Not enough of a certain ex-wizard's apprentice

The Bottom Line

Fans of the series will find a lot to like in this episode of the story, which delivers every bit of magical action and mystery that the Dresden Files are known for.

 

Story/Plot 8

Writing 8

8

silasgreen

A lover of Jesus and of fantastical fiction, Silas Green talks books and Christian living on Geeks Under Grace. He spends the rest of his free time trying to write stories and exploring the paradise island in the Pacific on which he is stranded.

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