Some Skin in the Game

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Jim Butcher’s Skin Game is the latest offering in his urban fantasy series The Dresden Files.  This writing success story (Butcher went from a fan of True Blood to a rival of True Blood for the definition of urban fantasy in modern times) has many rabid fans, including myself.  The release one week ago represents a lot of relief for pent up tension among the fans, since the original release date was late November of last year.

Six months’ delay is a pretty big deal in writing circles.

It has been well worth the wait.

I finished the book, and finished the audio book, within two days because I succumbed to sleep or it would have been one day.

The story generated one of the better fan-made trailers I have ever seen, to boot.

Jim Butcher’s series was planned for twenty books and then a big apocalyptic trilogy, and Skin Game is installment #15 in the series.  Things are really starting to ramp up, and power creep is a problem of the past as we have jumped the shark, shivved him and have him mounted over the fireplace, gloriously.  I loved every minute of it.

It is quite difficult to discuss the issues in this book without dumping a truckload of spoilers on the unsuspecting, so I have to be more general than I want to.

In terms of writing style Jim Butcher is a solid storytelling pro.  His prose is not erudite or flashy, but snarky and clever, fun to listen to.  Butcher refers to himself as writing popcorn, but I eat popcorn far more often than caviar, so I will reread Skin Game (and the entire series) many times before I work my way back through the Aeneid.

Skin Game is victorious because it continues Butcher’s rotation of sub-genres as his main character’s action-mystery wanders out of the Chicago sandbox.  Changes was a storm-the-fort war film between book covers.  Ghost Story was a noir murder mystery slash… well… ghost story.  Cold Days spent the last half of the book as a high-octane chase sequence.  Now Skin Game goes for the heist flick, a bunchy of untrustworthy semi-bad-guys trying to work together long enough to betray each other, and Butcher embraces the style with verve and gusto.  This is going to be one of those books that I re-read knowing what I learn in the end, not because I think Mr. Butcher would commit inconsistency (gasp!) but on a story-based Easter egg hunt of pure awesome.

One spoiler that is no spoiler: In an interview at a Ghost Story book signing, Jim Butcher got the question about who would be the next Knight of the Cross.  Butcher said that it would be not in Ghost Story or the book after, but in book 15.  Book 15 has arrived and Butcher delivered in an unexpected and amazing way.

This series delivers with characters.  Just like television shows, the truly great stories show the entire cast growing, developing, and changing into new and more awesome roles as the adventure continues.  Skin Game has a handful of characters from books 1-3 come fully into their own, and the old supporting cast from books 5-7 or so are now full-on powers and roles in their own right.  Butcher does all this without making his stories stale or predictable.  He has clearly earned his fame.

My medieval Christian side geeks out over Butcher’s understanding of love, grace, courage, conflict, forgiveness, and the role of Christian power.  I don’t really agree with everything in the book but I love its consistency, pure honesty of character and motivation pervades every single character.  Butcher’s characters are people, all of them.  When you have speechless minions with no tongues, and you learn their names as people, you have a good book in your hands.

There is so much more that I want to say.  Butcher’s takes on Hades (the place and the person both), some guest sub-villains from previous novels, and a few main and scary bad guys on Dresden’s team is delightfully full of tension and interplay.  The Dresden Files is a world where actions have consequences that define us for the rest of our lives, but do not imprison us because we can be defined in how we overcome.  I have said it before and I will say it again.  Jim Butcher has a better understanding of God’s Word and Christian faith than most “Christian” authors I have ever read.  His adventures do not merely entertain, they inspire me and challenge me to be a better person without a single paragraph of preaching at the audience.

There is faith and loyalty, explosions and action, mystery and mayhem aplenty.  The choice and use of scenery, the objects of the quest, the true nature of the heist, and so many more things make this one of the most impressive genre fiction novels I have read in years.  Well done, Mr. Butcher.  Well done.

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