Ghost Story by Jim Butcher
Harry, Chicago's only wizard in the phone book, is asked (again) to risk it all, this time his very soul, to help his friends and to solve a crime that has robbed Harry of very important. It's not the first time Harry has been in between a rock and a hard place or had to recover something that he or a friend needs.
Proceed with caution: Spoilers ahead.
This time around, Harry has lost his own life. Changes ending with his body sinking into Lake Michigan.
Now Harry must figure out who pulled the trigger on the gun that killed him and who paid the rifleman. Oh, yeah, Harry's also has to help save Chicago, (but Dresden fans know that Chicago or the world are perennially at risk in the Dresden universe.)
Harry's Windy City resembles contemporary Chicago complete with gangs and gangsters, Butcher made-up the magic and monsters are creative twists on legends and myth and folklore. Compared to some of the magical powerbrokers in Harry's city, organized crime has a good name. Most people in Butcher’s Chicago don’t know that magic exists. Most of the older Dresden Files read like the hard-boiled PI novels they were influenced by. The more-recent books are about Harry and his friends’ battles in a supernatural war but Butcher doesn't forget the best in the urban fantasy genre follow the horror and mayhem with a chaser of mystery.
As mentioned above, a staple of the Dresden Files has been Harry risking it all for his friends or innocents or not-so-innocents caught in the crossfire of various magical turfwars, as well as all-out magical wars. The first installment Storm Front was published in 2000. It’s a solid start but the writing really takes off and doesn't stop in books three and four. Butcher’s Dresden Files keeps getting and better and Ghost Story is no exception.
While high stakes drive the plots forward in the Dresden Files books (and Ghost Story is no exception,) what sets this series apart from other urban fantasies is Butcher’s humor and his unique twists on the problems that complicate his characters’ lives. How many wizards do you know who would re-animate a T-Rex as a battle steed? Just Harry.
Butcher does not shy from making his characters pay a price -- often with interest (Harry dying) -- for their actions, make readers keep coming back to see what Harry and friends will risk next.
At the opening of Ghost Story, Harry learns that defeat of the Red Court vampires several months previously (in Changes) created a power vacuum. Now, a new Big Bad (to borrow Buffy the Vampire Slayer jargon) and moderately-sized bads are trying to take over the Chicago and the world. These nasties aren't content with their little corner a sewer in the Windy City.
These threats have caused Karrin Murphy, (Harry’s sidekick who is a former police detective and holder of two Swords of the Cross,) and their friends and allies to form an uneasy alliance with Chicago’s top crime lord Gentleman John Marcone and the White Court vampires, succubi who could teach Machiavellian to old Niccolò.
In what passes for a weird halfway station in the afterlife, Harry is told by the dead father of one of his closest friends. that he must risk his soul to help or at least three of his friends will die. (Though Harry realized he should have asked more questions and looked at the fine print. But that's Harry with the leaping before looking.)
So Harry returns to Chicago as a noncorporeal being but he is handicapped because death makes it almost impossible for him to tap into his powers. Being a noncorporeal makes it near to impossible to get around Chicago trying to solve his own murder and help his friends. It doesn't help that he keeps running into the ghosts of people he's killed. Dying sucks, especially in Chicago, where the dead don't rest easy.
To make matters worse, Harry’s friends distrust his apprentice Molly Carpenter, who was severely wounded both physically and emotionally during the final battle against the Red Court. It doesn’t help Molly's PTSD any that her new magical tutor is Harry’s fairy godmother, Leanansidhe, who is crazy on her best days and homicidal on her worst. Lea missed out on modern progressive education techniques and thinks throwing kid wizards in the deep end of the pool or an alley filled with bad guys with no back up is a great training regime. Yeah, Molly got some issues.
What sets Ghost Story apart from the other Dresden Files books is: Harry got introspection. Being dead does that to a guy. Just like in Changes, he must face the consequences of his actions. Because of limitations on his powers, he is forced to take time-outs and this gives him to take time and think, not something Harry has spent much of the past 13 books and several short stories doing.
But having to hunker down in dark, safe spots during daylight so his soul doesn't get gone will make even a leap-and-then-look guy like Harry start to ponder.
Some characters and continuing plot threads that I missed in Ghost Story were Toot-toot and the other pixies (perhaps, no one was buying them pizza;) Thomas, Dresden’s halfbrother and a White Court vampire; and Ebenezar McCoy, another wizard and Harry’s former mentor and turns out grandfather.
I was pleased to see Butters, the medical examiner who serves as Team Dresden’s battle medic, and Bob, a romance-novel-loving spirit trapped in a skull, returned and have grown as characters, especially Butters.
Harry's introspection is balanced with plenty of fast-paced scenes and high stakes, as well as Butcher's quirky brand of geek humor. Star Trek vs. Wars jokes abound. A particularly riotous meta-geek moment is when Harry has a peak at Molly’s mindset during a magical battle. Her internal fighting focus is a replica of the bridge of the Enterprise (Star Trek original series.) Though Butcher never explains how electronically challenged wizards managed to absorb so much geeky pop culture and not accidentally destroy televisions while watch so much old school SF. (Perhaps it was Trek in the park.)
It didn't surprise me who killed Harry, the possible suspects were limited, but the reason why and who paid for the hit is the best twist.
The final scene after Team Harry wins a decisive battle and Chicago's only wizard goes on to what he believes will be an afterlife jerks the reader's mind delightfully. Mab the Queen of Winter comes back into the picture like an ice storm on the East Coast. And Harry learns that she's not one to let a little thing like death stop her from making Harry her Winter Knight and executioner.
I’m looking forward to the 14th book, Cold Days. (Update: I read Cold Days in January 2013 and will post when I can.)