Lessons from Jim Butcher
A Spoiler Laden Skin Games Review
I just finished Skin Game by Jim Butcher. And, Wow, WOW, WOOOOOOW! Seriously, Wow.
I often cite Jim Butcher as one of my major influences as a writer. Though I definitely have a duality to myself as a writer, I consider my “serious work” to by my Urban Fantasy Series, The Seven Keys Saga.
There are a several awesome Urban Fantasy writers in the world, ranging from Jim Butcher to Patricia Briggs to Kevin Hearne to Illona Andrews. I’ve read work by most of them, but, at least in the eyes of this fanboy, Butcher is the King.
I am ashamed to admit that for a long time, I was a non-reader. Sure, I consumed every Wheel of Time novel as it came out, but as most epic fantasy readers know, that’s one book every few years.
It was a wizard named Dresden that pulled me back into being an avid reader after years of dabbling. Actually, to be fair, it was the audiobook version of Storm Front, read by the wonderful James Marsters, that pulled me back in.
Over the course of a few weeks, I consumed the series, and just kept pulling in more books. Dresden rekindled my love of books, especially fantasy, and introduced me to a whole new world of story telling that I’d been neglecting.
In essence, Choices wouldn’t exist without Jim Butcher showing me how Urban Fantasy can be written. Without Dresden, Terry probably would have been a whiny, emo jerk in some medieval kingdom going up against an overwhelming shadow specter for decades.
As it is, I’m much happier to be able to show my love of the Midwest along with my love of fantasy.
But you’re not here for that.
The Big Lesson
If you haven’t read Skin Games yet, and you hate spoilers:
STOP READING NOW!
Still here? Okay, You’ve been warned.
First, let me start by saying, if you’ve read the book, get the audio of James Marsters reading it. Hearing the way he can emphasize the capital L in Listening without really emphasizing it is awesome, but I actually spit Diet Cherry Dr Pepper from my nose when I heard, “leaping over cars (parkour) and.” Seriously, it was awesome.
But, there was one point in the book that made me absolutely explode in my chest. This is your last spoiler alert.
That line was:
“And in that moment, Waldo Butters chose to be a hero.”
Seriously, it was the pinnacle of the book. The entire story built to that one scene. That one moment, or probably, a little more accurately the scene that followed it, was the purpose of the entire freakin’ story…
…and I didn’t even see it coming.
That is the kind of writing I aspire to. I am not there yet. That level of story telling is built over a career, and Butcher has mastered it. You can go back to the earliest books in the series and actually watch that talent grow. The story telling just get better and better. I want to be that good one day, and I’ll keep reading to try and play catch up.
Emotional Junk Jab
There are a lot of moments that gnaw on the heart-strings in this one. Truly emotional bits of story that do nothing but push tears to my eyes and cause a small, sharp pang in my chest.
I think good characters are built on their emotions, and, damn it, Dresden is a great character.
The entire book spends time building up his paternal instincts as he comes to terms with being a father and then, in the moment when you think that all that was to create a threat to him, it turns so much darker.
Butcher makes Dresden understand his role as a father, so he, and us as readers, can freakin’ empathize with the villain.
That is story telling.
The Small Problems
There are some problems with the story. Goodman Grey.
Although it all makes sense in retrospect, I felt like the complete and udder lack of context clues in the story to Grey’s true nature made it feel a little too Deus Ex Machina for my tastes. Maybe it was the way the story was presented, maybe it was me looking for a criticism of one of my favorite writers, but the scene explaining what was happening came out of left field, and it felt a little like a “Shit, I’ve written myself into a corner,” moment, and Grey was the solution Butcher came up with.
Perhaps a more astute reader would have seen it coming, but I was caught off guard, which can be a sign of good story telling or a bad decision on the writer’s part. With the example of Butters above, it was easy to go back in the story with the 20/20 of hindsight and see that literally every scene he was in was building up for that moment.
With Grey, it seemed like Butcher was giving us a hand-wave. Of course, now I need to go back through the book and see if I can cast a new context on the conversations with an understanding of the code. It might be that taking 3 days to read a book causes you to forget exactly what it was that they said to each other.
Still, it felt a little disappointing.
Wrapping it Up
In the end, I’m still in love with the Dresden books, and will marry them when science sufficiently advances technology to the point that books gain sentience and it becomes decriminalized.
If you’re a fan of Dresden, Butcher, or Urban Fantasy, you’ll be happy.
Here are a handful of random thoughts from my reading experience with no context added. You can probably figure them out:
Three distinct occasions: When a Knight is needed, a Knight appears.
Where the fuck is Toot Toot? I want me some Toot-toot!
I want a magic skateboard.
I really wish she had said, “You can live in my treehouse.”
and finally, About damn time.