Stu slid his readied pistol back into his belt. “For shades, memories are life, sustenance, and power. We are memories now, wizard.”
— Ghost Story
It was never too late to learn something. The past is unalterable in any event. The future is the only thing we can change. Learning the lessons of the past is the only way to shape the present and the future.
— Harry’s Inner Monologue
Harry Dresden is a detective and a magician and now, a ghost. It’s a bit for anyone to have on their plate. As a detective he’s of the wisecracking, hold his own in a bar fight, wears a hat and duster, Marlowe-Spade mold. As a magician, he’s a bit more advanced than your average Harry Potter, adept at working with various realms, runes and revelation. Magical detective that he is, caseloads usually eschew cheating spouses and money launderers for the unseen dangers that lurk in the other side of Chicago.
Over the course of 13 novels, in an ever-expanding universe of magicians, vampires, demons, mystics and fairy godmothers, Dresden has become adept at dealing with the laws of the paranormal world. It’s usually just another day at the office, calling in friends for favors (supernatural or otherwise), squashing the latest punk trying to mess with his town, saving the world once again. Things were going fine as expected for the hard-assed magician detective—that is, until his murder.
As a ghost, Harry gets to see the other other side of Chicago. It’s a side that, in the 13 novels in Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files, has been referred to several times but never fully detailed. This in-between offers a chance for the author to view his world from a different perspective and start a new arc for the series.
On the other other side, Harry meets old friends who gave up their “meat-suits” long ago. It’s a new set of rules when you no longer have a physical presence, but with time and a little bit of practice, Harry is able to master his newfound abilities as he did magic. It’s a parallel drawn throughout the book. Ironically, now that the hero is his dead, we learn how he became the man he was.
In life and death, in any examination of the past, there is regret; for loss, for suffering, for pain and failure. Throughout Ghost Story Harry comes to terms with why he is who and what he is. The people in his life, his experiences with them are indelible. They influenced him as his presence did the same to them. Going back to Chicago six months after his death, Harry’s primary objective may be to find his killer, but his ever-present purpose is to protect those for whom he cares.
In a brief period — while he was ‘out’ — a lot has changed and none for the better. His long-time, will-they-won’t-they gal Murphy has lost her job on the police force due to Harry. She has become hardened, near ruthless in her judgments, doing whatever is necessary to fight the nocturnal threats of a city in decline. Harry’s apprentice, Molly, was forced to take on a magician’s responsibility. She is unprepared, her sanity cracking, driven to disregard the laws of wizards and men.
Other long-time fan favorites such as the Alphas (a team of werewolves), Father Forthill (a priest with a deep understanding of the paranormal), Daniel Carpenter (possibly half-giant brother of Harry’s apprentice) and Butters the medical examiner all make appearances, a little more worse for the wear. Old villains come back for another go. A body-harvesting witch returns to feast on the souls of the dead. Small-time sorcerers are leading gangs of kids in attempts to fill the power void left by Harry.
Being unable to smash his way through his enemies, Harry must look to other devices to solve his problems. He has more time for thought and contemplation as he attempts to reconcile with the events leading to his current crisis. After a drive-by shooting injures one of her team members, Murphy is ready to shoot first and ask questions later.
Ostensibly, this was the Harry role in the prior books—it was the personality flaw that led to his death. Harry, having the ability to track the murderers but unable to do harm, comes to understand their lack of choice in performing the operation. He takes sympathy on them in a way that Murph would have before his death. His inability to be a man of action allows him a chance to revaluate his priorities. Having his own life taken from him, he has a new disdain for those who control others and kill without regard: “‘Take away someone’s will, and you take a way everything they are. Their whole identity…Wrong is wrong, even when you really, really want it not to be.’”
As Harry slowly evolves, his world and adversaries stay largely the same. Genre fiction features the unenviable goal of meeting fan expectations. Devotees anticipate particular beats and characterizations: a dash of supernatural action, some witty-remarks and pop-culture references, an ever-growing and twisting mythology, and a cast of characters who are familiar if not always friendly. As such, the change-up in Harry’s physical condition does not do much to alter his personality or his detective formula. He may be a bit more introspective and than in book one, a natural evolution of getting older, but he’s still the same smartass. There are new obstacles to overcome, fresh methods of dealing with adversaries, but nothing too radical.
Those who have dismissed the series before won’t likely find anything to draw them back in; with so much back story, those who are new to The Dresden Files may want to start elsewhere. For the devout, it should be a pleasant delight; one that will ease worries of the series ending after the hero’s death. As the plot unfolds, it feels more like a side step than a leap forward. Despite the ambiguous position of the hero, it’s clear that as long as the fans are happy, this is a series that will continue to live on.