Cold Days: Urban fantasy doesn’t get much better

Cold Days by Jim Butcher urban fantasy book reviewsCold Days  by Jim Butcher

If the Harry Dresden stories have ever had a problem (reflecting, I think, an issue with urban fantasy in general), it’s that they can tend to feel a little repetitive. A monster of the week shows up, and Harry goes through hell both emotionally and physically to stop him. Along the way we get the requisite number of quips, film references, attractive non-humans, old-fashioned courtesies, and cackling villains with vaguely British syntax. At the end of it all, Harry goes back to his Batcave apartment and gets to be the snarky private eye pastiche for a little bit before the credits roll.

It’s been a very successful formula for Butcher, and one that has indeed made him essentially the new crown prince of the urban fantasy subgenre (both in sales and in stylistic influence), but in book twelve, the appropriately titled Changes, he undid many hallmarks of the Dresden universe (dorky car, ramshackle apartment, private investigator work, vampire war) and drastically altered the game. Unlike its predecessors, Changes did not return us to the status quo, thus leaving readers with the question of whether Butcher actually intended a Dresden overhaul or if he was going to clear it all up in the next book.

Ghost Story, the thirteenth novel, seemed to keep us moving in the new direction, but then, Harry was dead. There was a possibility that this was all just a tangent and that Dresden would cruise back in to fix everything and resume his usual place (albeit with a slightly better bachelor pad) when he rejoined the living in Cold Days. Instead, Butcher has finally laid to rest all suspicions that Dresden would somehow pull a magic rabbit out of the hat and find the old status quo hiding in a corner somewhere. The subtext of Cold Days — and the further surprising changes that take place — is clearly that the old Dresden is dead. And long live the new Dresden.

The plot of the book… well, actually, in typical Dresden fashion, the “plot” is essentially several different plots that all tie up in a big bow during the finale. Harry’s problems this time are extravagant enough to suit his ever-growing powers: his new employer, the possibly bonkers Queen of Unseelie Fae, has demanded he kill a powerful immortal. At the same time, Harry’s oldest and most-feared nemeses, the Outsiders, have hit town, and the mysterious island of Demonreach is finally revealed as something far more dangerous and important than anyone could have realized. It’s all very fast-paced and exciting, and Butcher crafts it with precision, juggling the various elements with all the skill and confidence he’s gained over the course of the thirteen previous novels. The early DRESDEN FILES could tend to feel a little frenetic as they hopped rapidly from plot thread to plot thread, but in Cold Days it’s all very slick and well-managed.

The characterization is, as usual, entertaining. Even as his circumstances change, Harry struggles (quite overtly in this installment) to remain his own man. Not that he’s stagnant. While Harry remains just as funny and nerdy as he’s always been, Butcher moves ahead with the long-building, subtle alterations he’s been making to the character, and the changes feel overall fairly successful, even with new elements making themselves chaotically felt as a result of some of the doings in Cold Days. The supporting cast hits their usual beats and hits them well, although I will say that there isn’t much of a big character moment for anyone but Harry here. Thomas, Murphy, Molly, and the rest of the gang all show up to stick their necks out as usual, but if I do have one quibble with how this played out, the reunions with the supposedly dead Dresden occurred a little too glibly and easily. Conveniently, Murphy and Molly have already figured out he’s back before they meet him. For those readers hoping for some extravagant moment of tearful reunion and emotional eruption attendant upon Dresden’s return to the two women in his life, you may be a little disappointed. Harry’s meeting with Thomas has more of those qualities, but as it’s Harry and Thomas, Suuuuper Siblings, the scene naturally must be played for laughs at their over-the-top manly machismo.

Now, to clarify, major events do occur in relation to the supporting characters, but in terms of their emotional states, they’re much the same as they’ve always been. Molly is still nursing her slightly creepy infatuation with Dresden, Thomas is still too-cool-for-school, and Murphy is still the most ridiculously badass little blonde ever to upstage the protagonist in his own action scenes. They’re entirely adequate and amusing, but their rather typical interactions with Dresden are some of the only notes that ring slightly stale in the proceedings. Not that I wanted big, sudden development right off the bat — Butcher has always been at his best with fairly slow, even glacial, characterization shifts — but I did feel a bit of missed opportunity in how relatively painlessly everyone falls into their usual positions. Still, given what occurs at the end of Cold Days, perhaps this book really was the last hurrah for the old team and their comfortable, predictable banter. If so, allowing the characters their familiar roles for one last outing could simply have been Butcher’s strategy to ease readers’ transition to his new direction for the series. In any case, it will probably not be a major issue to most fans of the books.

Otherwise, it’s difficult to find anything wrong with Cold Days, particularly given that those reading this review are probably already long-standing Dresden fans. The action scenes? Terrific (indeed, better than ever given Harry’s new physical options, although I wonder how many more credible threats Butcher will be able to find for him). The love scenes? Finally occurring again, giving Harry’s social life some much-needed suspense once more. The jokes? Rapid-fire and hilarious. The goofy cinematic clichés? Still present, but as always rather endearing in the Dresden texts.

The only real problem some readers may have with the book is its pacing, and it’s not really an objective negative so much as a possible sensation that events are occurring too rapidly. Like Changes and Ghost Story, Harry is yet again operating on a very rapidly approaching deadline, so there are no scenes in particular where he sits down to contemplate his life, do a bit of old-fashioned private eye work, or even deliver one of his by-now-patented sermons on “Why People Don’t Want to Believe in Magic Today” (even the hallowed “I’m not sexist; I just love women too much” speech is given a miss — and just when I was anticipating its next iteration as a full-blown soliloquy in iambic pentameter). There really is no downtime in this novel, no moment for either the reader or Harry to catch a breath. And, of course, there is no “back to the good old days.” I’ve already been hearing buzz from a couple of Dresden fans that “the story didn’t let Harry relax.” By this, it’s increasingly apparent, they mean that while the series may be returning a little bit to form after the slight curveball that was Ghost Story, the alterations made in Changes seem permanent and they’re not sure how they feel about that. In other words, for some readers an obstacle to complete enjoyment may be simply that Butcher did a lot of books with Harry Dresden in one set of circumstances, and he hasn’t yet firmly constructed the new set. This book, because of the pacing, doesn’t make much headway into building up the little things in Harry’s life that keep him (and us) from feeling adrift. I can’t say that’s a flaw, however, because I’m pretty sure that is exactly what Butcher intends. It’s a darker life for Harry Dresden, with less security and more danger, and for the moment fans of the series will just have to wait to see where the author takes the narrative. What Butcher has proven with Cold Days is that the new version of his series has the potential to work just as well (if not better, with less predictability) than the old, but that won’t stop some fans from preferring what they know or wishing that Butcher could have put settling Dresden’s new standing in life ahead of his next whirlwind adventure.

That said, no dedicated reader should be less than eager to read that whirlwind adventure, or once through it to begin anticipation for the next one. The finale of Cold Days is a real humdinger even by Dresden standards, an explosion of action and drama. Only Changes has Cold Days beat in terms of a thrilling, repercussive climax. There’s even a bit of surprisingly subtle emotional depth at the close of the story: following the usual Harry Dresden pryrotechnics (both literal and emotional), Butcher leaves us on a quietly forlorn note that does not need to be stated by the narrator and does not require such mawkish displays as the Single Manly Tear or the heartfelt “Oh, Harry/*sympathy face*.” Instead, Butcher lets his imagery speak for him, and uses his construction to convey to the reader perfectly the protagonist’s sense of uncertainty, melancholy, and quiet dread. It’s in moments like these that I have to applaud what Butcher has turned into as a novelist, and what he is consequently putting into urban fantasy itself. The subgenre has — perhaps fairly — gained a reputation for popcorn fun and zippy plotting over complexity or emotional depth, and while Butcher does not try to change what his readers are clearly enjoying about his writing, he gives little glimpses at the careful plotting, elegant design, and real depth of understanding underlying his books. THE DRESDEN FILES are unabashedly popcorn fantasy, but I report it with grinning approval. Harry Dresden is some of the very best of the type, and after all, who doesn’t like popcorn?


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TIM SCHEIDLER has recently finished a degree in English literature. He currently lives in Canada but will soon be on his way to Trinity College in Dublin for graduate school. Tim enjoys many authors, but particularly loves J.R.R. Tolkien, Neil Gaiman, George R.R. Martin, Robin Hobb, and Jacqueline Carey. When he’s not reading, Tim enjoys traveling, playing the fiddle and bagpipes, writing in any shape or form, and pretending Kung Fu as he does it is a real sport.

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7 comments

  1. thanks for the review, Tim! I am now officially two books behind in this series.

  2. I guess I don’t like popcorn…except I know I do. I’m very lukewarm towards this series. I keep intending to read book 2, and have checked it out from the library (I donated the first 3 books after buying them based on the glowing reviews, but the first was … rather boring.) I just haven’t gotten around to reading book 2 yet.

    • Tim Scheidler /

      I’m a little surprised, to be honest. I’ve heard a lot of criticisms levelled at the Dresden books, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard them called boring. Granted, though, the issue may be the general shakiness of the first two or three instalments, especially if you’re not a big fan of urban fantasy. The series does take a little while to find its voice. After a while, though…well, I’ll just let this link speak for me:

      http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lcqktmYtOw1qe757yo1_500.jpg

    • Hmm… boring is not the word I would have used. Can you amplify that statement a bit, Maria?

  3. Mine arrived on publication day but I haven’t read it yet — so thanks for a review that is not spoilerish but makes me even more eager to do so! At the moment I’m recapping the series in the James Marsters audiobook version. The reads, like the books themselves, are just getting better!

  4. James Marsters reads the Dresden audiobooks? I’ve just been thinking that I can’t do audiobooks. Now I’ll have to re-evaluate!

    • HAll but the one before this one, when Penguin apparently thought it didn’t matter who voiced it. Apparently sales figures plummeted, and James is back with this latest. He’s *very* good.

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