Turn Coat by Jim Butcher
At some stage it becomes pointless to write further actual reviews of the Dresden Files series. This is the eleventh book of the series, and at this point in my reviews either you’ll be convinced to read them, or you’ll just skip right on by. You don’t need another review of me saying how much I love the characters or mythology, so instead of just doing a straight review explaining what’s good (almost all of it) and what’s bad (very little) in Turn Coat, I figure I’ll instead concentrate on some stuff that I found interesting.
In many ways, Turn Coat is the archetypal Harry Dresden story. Harry has been established as a guy who has an alarming tendency to gets involved in things way, way above his pay grade for a pretty much the same reason over and over again. The plot to pretty much every story in the series starts from the simple fact that Harry is just a damn good guy. Harry’s predominant motive is just belief in right or wrong. He doesn’t tend to give a shit who might have been wronged, he doesn’t tend to worry about the potential consequences for him of setting it right, he just wants to make sure that innocent folks aren’t punished without deserving it, even if he hates their guts.
Which almost brings us to the plot of Turn Coat, but first we need a little backstory. Right back in the first novel of the series, Storm Front, Warden Donald Morgan was established as an antagonist to Harry. He is introduced as the Warden responsible for overseeing Harry’s Doom of Damocles, a punishment for wizards found guilty of breaking the laws of magic but with just about ameliorating circumstances. It’s essentially a one-more-strike-and-you’re-out-deal, with “out” here meaning “decapitated without trial”. In Storm Front and the next few books, Morgan was so convinced of Harry’s guilt that he regularly sought to trick or trap Harry into breaking another law of magic. As the series has progressed, and particularly since Harry was inducted into the Wardens, Morgan’s character has become more well-rounded, painting him as ultimately hyper-loyal to the White Council above all else, and willing to brook no argument or dissent from the Council’s path, something which he tends to see Harry as representing.
So it’s more than a bit of a shock when Turn Coat opens with Morgan pounding on Harry’s door, on the run, wanted for the murder of a member of the Senior Council. At this point it’s known that there’s a traitor somewhere high up within the White Council. Could it be Morgan?
Well, no, because that would be stupid. It would directly contradict the entire character to this point, and not in a “oh, he was cunningly hiding it” sort of way. It would just be a case of Jim Butcher going “yeah, all that was bullshit”, and Butcher is better than that. So Harry hides Morgan and starts investigating. It’s a fairly insane idea for him to do so, for a fair host of reasons, not least that simply hiding Morgan would be enough to warrant his execution as an accessory. And as the investigation escalates and draws interest from factions of increasing power (and, separately, Harry is pursued by a naagloshii, an ancient native American skinchanger that feeds on wizards to increase its power) Harry never backs down, and in fact keeps increasing his stakes in classic Dresden style, because fuck it, if he fails he’ll be dead, whether he fails quietly or spectacularly, so he might as just plow headlong into it.
The highlight is the section right before the finale, which takes place back on the creepy deserted island in Lake Michigan which first appeared in Small Favor and that Harry has now dubbed “Demonreach”. Harry at this point has managed to bring together at least half a dozen people (or people-like things), all of whom wildly outclass Harry in anything approaching a straight fight, and his plan consists mainly of inviting them all to come and have a go if they think they’re hard enough.
There are always opportunities for Harry to just walk away. It’s not like he made an impulse decision to shelter Morgan and was at that point fully committed. But that’s part of what makes Harry Dresden such a fun character – he’s a constant underdog, and seems to live his life by the adage “it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog”, and Harry is full of fight. It’s just really great how clearly Turn Coat escalates in a way to force Harry into being his most… well, his most Harry! Intransigent, arrogant, probably about to die a horrible death of which the only doubt is which foe gets to do it. Classic Harry Dresden.
The other interesting thing about Turn Coat is simply that it took to the eleventh book in the series to reach the point of actively investigating the identity of the alleged traitor within the White Council. That traitor has been strongly hinted at for a long time, and been bubbling along in the background as Harry has become more involved in the workings of the Council.
I guess there’s a sense of delayed gratification here: this story could theoretically have been told at any point after Fool Moon (the second book in the series), where the pattern that indicated the existence of a traitor in the White Council was established. But by having the confidence to delay this story until this stage in the series, it has a much greater impact. Rather than introducing us to the potential suspects as potential suspects, we know the potential suspects as characters in and of themselves, each with various degrees of rounding to them. Even discounting Morgan, virtually every single wizard that is met in the book is potential the traitor. And actually, even after the denouement, most of them are still potential suspects, as the traitor who is revealed doesn’t, for some reason, feel like that’s the full story.
I think what I loved about Turn Coat was how well it serves as a crystallisation of both Harry’s character and the series as a whole: neither do anything by half measures. They wait until they need to do something, and when they do it they commit to it 100%.
It feels like the series is really picking up the pace now, and Turn Coat wouldn’t actually be a terrible starting point if you wanted to get in on a great series without reading ten books! You’d miss a fair amount of character development, particularly with supporting characters (especially Murphy), but Butcher does a good job of sort of flagging up events from previous books that you need to know about, so I don’t think you’d be lost at sea. So I guess what I’m saying is that you should definitely read Turn Coat. It’s another great entry into a great series, and it also probably works pretty if you treated it as the opening book of a series too.
Why you should read it: because it’s just bloody great fun.
Why you shouldn’t read it: honestly, I can’t think of many reasons.
Up next: A Quiet Belief in Angels by RJ Ellory