Book Review: Ghost Story by Jim Butcher

Allow me to sum up my feelings to the ending of Changes, the book previous to Ghost Story, in the Harry Dresden series.

*ahem*

“F*** YOU, JIM BUTCHER! F*** YOU!”

I don’t think it can be argued that the ending of the book made a certain impact on me.

Ghost Story…considerably less so.

Ghost Story picks up where the last story left off, with (and I don’t want to hear complaints about spoilers about a book that’s been out for over year) Harry Dresden getting shot and dying. But, since we got another Harry Dresden book, we know that’s obviously not the end of the story. Well, I knew it wasn’t the end of the story because I read that Jim Butcher got a seven figure advance for four or five more in the Dresden series but regardless, Harry might be dead but the story isn’t over.

On it’s own I don’t think that Ghost Story is his best work and, honestly, its because of the approach that he takes with telling this story. As it says on the jacket, Harry’s dead and stuck between our world and whatever comes after, stuck in that place populated by ghosts and other unquiet dead. As such, he can’t interact with our world (much).

The problems this caused for me are two-fold. First, Harry is a very action driven character and, well, he can’t do a lot. For much of the book Harry is pretty passive due to his current state of affairs. This basically left me with what felt like a lot of Harry’s exposition and watching a lot of other people do stuff. I might like some of the characters, really like some of them, but I read the book for Harry Dresden. Even where there are situations where he could, possibly act, he doesn’t due to the newness of his situation (being dead). We only start to see Harry be Harry in this fashion toward the very end of the book. As another review put it, it’s Harry Dresden with a different set of powers.

The second part of this issue is the exposition. Honestly, the amount of self-induced head-shrinkery (yes, that’s a real word, damn it) that goes on is vast. Additionally, there felt like certain revelations that weren’t so much as revealed as they were plot points that were just thrown at you. By a cannon. Made of other cannons. We learn in this book who kills Harry and, honestly, not only is it given away in the first third of the book, the actual set up of the murder is forcibly fed to us; there’s no gradual discovery, no slow build, it’s simply “This is it. Like it?” The answer to that is no, I didn’t.

Do I think this is his worst work? No. For as much as it started things off, I think Storm Front wasn’t that great and certainly the worse of the two when compared to Ghost Story. But I do wish we could have gotten more. I can’t go into what “more” entails without giving things away (which I’ll do further below), but it definitely needed more Action Harry and less Mental Anguish Harry.

This is not to say that there weren’t parts of it I really enjoyed. There are certain characters who showed up that I really liked, especially some changes that have happened to said characters. There were also a few scenes toward the end that I really enjoyed, one of which made me tear up a little. However, after the epic-ness that was Changes, Ghost Story felt like a three-year old blowing a raspberry compared to the previous book’s thunderstorm.

A friend of mine pointed out that if you took Ghost Story and thought of it as a continuation of the story in Changes, then it wasn’t that bad. This is true, it does work better then, but in order to really appreciate that point, it would have to actually be part of Changes. As a story on its own, Ghost Story falls flat for me.

Here there be spoilers.

As I said above, Harry can’t interact with the real world and that was bothersome to me. It was kind of interesting to see Harry working through proxies, such as Butters (who has grown on me with each passing book he’s been in), Father Forthill, and Fitz (someone new), and in fact the work of proxies is a prevailing theme in this book, but I read this for what Harry does himself. Now, the argument could be made that Harry does do things, he just does it through other people, to which I answer, “Meh.” The fact he tells this person to do that thing doesn’t have the same impact as him doing it, at least not for me.

The amount of time we spend in Harry’s head among his thoughts was also “meh”. The number of times he is filled with self-doubt, guilt, or recrimination about what happened in Changes started to bug me. When the “how many other men’s daughters died because of what I did” line showed up for the second or third time I started to get annoyed. Beyond that, the amount of time Harry spent going, “Oh, hey, I have to actually use my brain! Herp de derp!”, like this was some kind of new concept, made me want to shake him whilst screaming, “You’ve been reduced to a being of pure thought and emotion, you ninny, of course you have to think!

Finally, my main gripe comes across with how some things were just forced to us. The revelation that it was Kincaid who shot him, something that was fed to us within the first third of the book, felt awkward. I mean, it’s not a particularly difficult revelation to come to, right?, when you consider who among the players we’ve seen that could do it, but Harry’s whole reasoning it out made it seem less like a real mystery and more like he’s just dense.

The revelation of who actually killed him, which would be himself (by, again, using a proxy), was similarly forced on us. I would’ve preferred it to have been a slower discovery, make it seem like more of a mystery, instead of just shoveling it down on us.

The thing that gets me is that we saw hints of a truly awesome story, a story that I would be interested in: the story of those six months when Harry wasn’t around. Yes, I know, I said I read Harry Dresden for, well, Harry Dresden, but it sounds like those six months were filled with interesting developments and changes for the characters left behind and that, right there, is my bread and butter. I love character development, it’s one of my favorite things about any media. My favorite moment in all of Farscape is when Jon sells himself to Scorpius in order to free D’Argo’s son (and a boatload of other slaves) and the look on D’Argo’s face when he realizes this, especially when Zahn says to him, “See how you’ve misjudged him?” That right there, the undoing of D’Argo’s previous opinion of Jon and the re-alignment of a new understanding (and the friendship that then built between the characters), was awesome to see. Jim Butcher hints at or tells us about things that I would love to have seen, not just heard about after the fact and I think that adds to my frustration with this book. There was a lot of telling, but not a lot of showing.

For all the things I didn’t like about the book there were some moments in it that I thought were truly great or emotionally poignant. Mister’s reaction to Harry’s ghostly presence, not to mention the whole scene where Harry finds out who is guarding his daughter, made me tear up. I thought Molly really grew as a character and seeing her come into her own was great and seeing a little emotional weakness in Murphy was also nice. Butters being more than an answer man was also a nice touch.

Unfortunately, these were just drops of awesome in a bucket full of “Eh, ok.” for me. Like I said above, not his greatest but not his worst either.

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7 Responses to Book Review: Ghost Story by Jim Butcher

  1. On a couple of points.
    Butcher doesn’t really like writing the GRRM and RJ style novels of just winding through things. he tries to pack the normal content of the current story into a certain limit of pages. Where Ghost Story is on it’s own from changes, this is also the first time that he’s done a major cliffhanger like that and on anyone’s first time we can only hope it will turn out well, but obviously we had high expectations and it fell a little short.

    Another thing is that Butcher rarely alludes to things that have happened, without providing context. As shown in Side Jobs, he does like to do filler in between and fill the gaps of his books with the content we are missing. So that 6 months missing, may actually end up as a story.

    With regards to Kincaid, I really hate to say it, but “Called it”. Arranging to cross a line, and then have himself killed before he could become what he fights against, is something that is very Dresden. And Kincaid is the only one who would not be scarred to take him out.

    I do like the questions it raises and allows for in continuation of the plot, such as who is the parasite (since Lash was supposedly wiped out) which fallen was whispering to him, and now that Murphy and the rest finally accepted him as dead, what sort of a reaction is there going to be with his return, especially since he’s taking a sojourn to the Fae Courts first, when he comes back.

    I think the book did it’s purpose, which is to fill the gap with character growth for both Dresden and the supporting cast, tie up a couple of loose threads AND allow for new plot threads to be rolled out and followed. I have to like it on that standpoint, and it definitely left me wanting to get into the next one.

    I do wish it was better, but I cannot by any stretch call it poor.

    • mattmarovich says:

      I do like the questions it raises and allows for in continuation of the plot, such as who is the parasite (since Lash was supposedly wiped out) which fallen was whispering to him, and now that Murphy and the rest finally accepted him as dead, what sort of a reaction is there going to be with his return, especially since he’s taking a sojourn to the Fae Courts first, when he comes back.

      I know what Murphy’s response will be. A right hook to the jaw followed by a lot of shouting. This will also be his brother’s reaction.

      I think the book did it’s purpose, which is to fill the gap with character growth for both Dresden and the supporting cast, tie up a couple of loose threads AND allow for new plot threads to be rolled out and followed. I have to like it on that standpoint, and it definitely left me wanting to get into the next one.

      True, and I think that after Changes he needed a new direction to take it. I mean, with the Law of the Acquisition of Fantasy Power, in that main characters generally grow more powerful/capable as time goes on, after wiping out all of the Red Court, what was he really going to do for an encore? Butcher needed to change the setting and what Harry would be dealing with in order to provide some new plot.

  2. oakstave says:

    Your reaction to the end of Changes, was MY reaction to Ghost Story. This is simply bad story telling.

    I wish someone would explain to Butcher that a First Person, action-driven storyline really needs a protagonist to guide you through the story. Someone you care about. Someone who’s pain you feel when he gets burned, beaten, bit, and generally abused. It makes you care what happens to him.

    Butcher throws these rules into the garbage and introduces a new character no one cares about: The dead remnants of his last protagonist.

    The author rides a fine line with this type of fiction. It’s hard enough to create compelling fiction and a connection with the reader in a world full of magic, monsters and spells; but it at least previous books still obeyed the laws of physics in a way that is familiar.

    It creates TENSION when the characters find themselves in a tough spot. Scenes that the reader would feel tension in G.S., have that tension evaporated by the very premise of the storyline: That Harry is a dead, disembodied spirit of protoplasm and memories. How exactly are the readers relating to this character? At least ‘Harry the Wizard’ was human! When Dresden complains in this book that his ‘ectoplasm is leaking’ I literally laughed out loud, and not in a good way. Why should I care? What does that even mean?

    It seemed clear to me that either Butcher was having marital problems when he wrote Changes, or he’s just sick of writing the Dresden character. Changes, was a depressing journey of moral debasement, despair and loss ending in a whimpering death.

    I LOVED the series, all the way through Turncoat. I would never recommend Ghost Story, even to an ardent fan.

    • mattmarovich says:

      Ah, but you misunderstand the reasonbehind my cursing the name of Jim Butcher at the end of Changes, which isn’t that I disliked the book because, honestly, I thought it was probably one of his better ones (more on that later) but because of how he ended it, namely that Harry is killed off by an unknown assailant and that’s where the book ends, which meant we were going to have to wait a while to find out what happened to Harry.

      Pretty much everything you said about GS I agree with. I didn’t find it compelling, the suspense in the book was completely absent the main character and thus not *as* suspenseful as it could’ve been (I did like the scene in the alley where Molly is using her illusions and how the bad guys almost caught her). But I found the changes to the characters, absent of the gritty details about what actually happened to them, to be rough and unappealing. It’s one thing to see someone change into a grittier, more-morally flexible individual due to circumstances that they suffer through but to have Molly go from “I’m-trying-to-do-the-right-thing-by-the-rules-and-be-a-good-person” in previous books to who she became in GS? Felt awkward.

      Now, Changes I have to disagree with you on. IMO, while in some ways it is a journey of despair, I don’t see it as one of moral debasement but of one of personal sacrifice. While Harry does give up and finally gives in to the Winter Queen, he does so for his daughter not for his own personal gain, although killing the previous Winter Knight was kind of wrong (though could also be seen as a mercy considering the guy’s situation). The despair only comes from the final act that wipes out the Red Court, when he uses the ritual to kill them but does it by killing the mother of his child, and, you know what, I’m ok with that. We should feel despair when good people die, even if it is a noble sacrifice. While not nearly as serious, it is similar to the despair that I feel when watching videos of the storming of Normandy.

      • oakstave says:

        Good points, I only have some additional comments, not contradictions to what you said.

        I’ll grant you this, technically Changes might be his best novel in the series. The writing was notably improved. Butcher is showing he is master of his craft.

        I’m just upset with what Mr. Butcher did to the lead character, for no reason that I can determine, other than he’s sick of writing him in a consistent manner. I don’t believe that Harry NEEDED to have a character development arc that involved slitting a tortured man’s throat, and killing the love of his life. That’s just how the author decided to write him.

        He violated the Tone of the series. Imagine I wrote an incredible Sherlock Holmes story, where he and Watson gang-rape a woman, and justify it morally while regretting the whole affair. You might appreciate my technical writing ability, but you’d likely say “You entirely missed the tone of a Sherlock Holmes story. Your character, although well written, does not resemble Sherlock Holmes.”

        Or how about an episode of science-series Nova, where they explain the science of Black Holes by singing the facts to country music?

        This, metaphorically, was Changes IMHO.

        Changes felt like watching my parents fight. It was a painful moment between author and protagonist, where it’s obvious that one doesn’t like the other anymore. And you wish you could stop listening, but you can’t…

        Put another way, ask 100 fans what they love about Harry Dresden, and no one is likely to say “His questionable morals, ability to murder when properly motivated, and his never-ending sense of sadness and loss.”

        Changes is not a technically bad book, but it sure isn’t fun to read either. And isn’t THAT why everyone reads the Dresden Files? If so, Changes rides the coat-tails of his previous books, with readers remembering why they USED to read Dresden Files, rather than actually enjoying the book in front of them.

        I guess I could say “If you disliked Changes, you are going to HATE Ghost Story… with soulfire-infused, flaming passion.” Fuego, Pyro-Fuego!

  3. Mischa says:

    Reguardless, all good things must come to an end, sadly. I wish JB would write a million more wonderful stories of Harry. Maybe Dresden Files was a lucky mistake for a young author, and was never ment to actually be; who knows? In either case, I thank JB for the Fantastic ride 😀

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