Summer Knight by Jim Butcher
Summer Knight is the fourth book in the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher, starring the only wizard with an advert in the Yellow Pages, Harry Dresden. Much of what I’ve written in my previous reviews applies here, and my recommendation isn’t going to be much different than my recommendation for those three books. But if you want a specific review, fine, read on.
Summer Knight picks up a few months after the previous book in the series, Grave Peril, and finds our hero in a fairly bad way in pretty much every part of his life.
His personal life isn’t going terribly well: his girlfriend, arcane reporter Susan Rodriguez, has left town (and left Harry) after the events of Grave Peril, leaving Harry to spend most of his free time either moping or trying to find a way to save her from the …misfortune that she suffered during Grave Peril. His professional life isn’t great either. His never-thriving detective agency is dwindling as he focuses on Susan.
And his magical life isn’t going brilliantly. His debt to his faerie godmother, Lea, has been bought up by a higher-ranking, more powerful faerie: Mab, Queen of Winter Court. On the plus side, she offers to forget the debt (Harry’s everlasting servitude) in exchange for Harry completing three favours for her. An even bigger plus is that Harry gets to choose which favours to complete (“You say it like that, and I could pass you the salt three times and that would be that.”), so Harry is able to turn down Mab’s first suggestion of a favour: investigating a suspected murder. On the down side, faeries don’t tend to play fair.
In the wider wizarding world, the wizard’s White Council is now at war with the Red Court of vampires, something which the Red Court places the sole blame for at Harry’s feet, following his actions in Grave Peril. There’s a suggestion from the Red Court to the White Council that if they were to hand Harry over to them (for execution) the war could end. Given that a decent portion of the White Council also blames Harry for the war, the Red Court’s offer isn’t as ludicrous as Harry might like.
It also doesn’t help that the Red Court is winning the war, largely due to the fact that wizards (quite amusingly) can’t mobilise their forces too well, as most technology (such as, say, aeroplanes) doesn’t react well to the close proximity to magic. Fortunately, the wizards should have a chance if they can use the Nevernever, the netherworld existing behind ours. Mortal laws such as time and space don’t really apply in the Nevernever, so quick travel from one place to another is easy.
Unfortunately, the Nevernever is a place chock-full of dangerous beasties. But swinging back to fortunately (for the White Council; unfortunately for Harry) the Nevernever is controlled by the faerie Courts. The Summer Court is unwilling to help, but the Queen of the Winter Court (that’d be Mab) is happy to grant the White Council safe passage through the Nevernever. If Harry does a favour for her (that’d be investigating that suspected murder). It’s doubly unfortunate for Harry, because the White Council decides that if he can’t sort this out for them, he’s not really a wizard worthy of the name, and they’ll hand him over to the Red Court.
The opening quarter quickly sets up Harry to essentially be screwed from one of any number of directions. To name but a few: he’s not at the top of his game due to his personal life, so any old threat could be the end of him. He could, as he is wont to do, get mixed up with beings far beyond his power, and die trying to solve Mab’s case. He could survive it, but fail to resolve it to Mab’s satisfaction, leaving him a failure in the eyes of the White Council (and subsequently dead). Or the Red Court could just decide to cut out the middleman and come and have a go at him anyway.
A quarter of the way into the book Harry is looking fairly fucked. After a little investigation of the case, it becomes clear that he is almost entirely fucked: the suspected murder is definitely an actual murder, of a very powerful magical being, and while the suspect pool is small and clear, all of them are wildly more powerful than Harry could ever hope to be.
Oh, and Elaine, he finds out that his thought-to-be-long-dead-ex-girlfriend is alive and well(ish), and she’s back in Chicago. There’s some tension there, as it was Harry who thought he killed her. As if he didn’t have enough to deal with.
Despite the great setup, the actual plot of Summer Knight is actually arguably the weakest of the series so far. The final act is excellent, but the middle act (which covers about 50% of the book) isn’t up to the same standard. The main problem is that plot doesn’t really move on a great deal: Harry investigates, but there’s never really much momentum to the investigation. At times, it feels like Butcher is just stringing things to give us more uncertainty about what is going on, until we get to finale. It doesn’t really feel like we’re building up to anything specific, then Harry has a flash of insight and BANG we’re heading to the finale.
That being said, the finale is fucking fantastic. There’s an adjective I hate to use, but I can’t avoid it here: the last quarter is epic. I might dislike the word, but when the fate of the world is in the balance, with only Harry and his crew of werewolf accomplices standing in the way of the certain destruction of the mortal world as we know it, “epic” is the only word I can use.
Yes, Harry’s werewolf crew. These are the folks who appeared as newly-minted werewolves in the second book of the series, Fool Moon. In the intervening year or so the werewolves have matured from, as Harry puts it, “a collection of misfits with bad hair, acne and wanna-be tough guy leather outfits” into fit, strong, formidable allies. It does feel like Harry has built up a relationship with them over the last year, we’ve just not seen it happening. The werewolves (and particularly their leader, Billy) definitely seem genuine in their care about Harry’s deteriorating mental state in the wake of Susan’s departure. They even threaten to become something that Harry he doesn’t have much in the way of: friends.
Butcher had already created a strong universe for Harry in the first three books of the series, but the werewolves, and particularly their relationship with Harry, are one of the many ways that Summer Knight makes Harry’s Chicago feel even more like a living, breathing city, in a living, breathing world (and associated netherworlds). We also get introduced to a few new supernatural species: ogres, ghouls, and, in one outstanding sequence midway through the book, a cholorofiend. That’s a plant monster to you and I.
Beyond that, we also get to find out more details about aspects of the world that we’ve been introduced to before. The White Council has only previously been mentioned in passing, but here we get to find out about its power structures, its members, and the various excuses that they give for missing meetings of the Council (my favourite being “pyramid sitting”). We’d heard of faeries, but hadn’t heard of their different courts, their borderline ridiculous royal structure consisting of a Queen That Is, a Queen That Was, and a Queen Who Is To Come, and how their relationship to the mortal world. While the plot is arguably weaker as a whole than previous books in the series, the book as a whole is definitely a very worthwhile addition to the series.
There’s not really much more to say beyond that for Summer Knight. I can’t imagine that, at this point in the series, Summer Knight is the kind of book to change your opinion of the Dresden Files: if you’ve liked previous books you’ll like this one. If you’ve not, you probably won’t. I have done, and I did do.
Read if you like: wise-cracking wizards, Jim Butcher books.
Don’t read if you like: not Jim Butcher books.
Next up: Inferno by Dan Brown