Changes by Jim Butcher
Holy shit. Where to start. In my last Dresden Files review, I suggested that Turn Coat, the eleventh book in the series may be a decent starting point for people who were interested in the series, but didn’t fancy the slog of getting through 14 books (to date, with a plan of around another ten according to the author!). I take that back. Changes is a phenomenally good fun book, but it builds so intrinsically on the foundations laid in the series to date that not reading the other ten books would be hugely damaging to it. Otherwise it’s like taking a helicopter up to the top of Kilimanjaro to meet a climber: sure, you’ve reached the summit, but reaching the summit isn’t really as satisfying if you didn’t earn it.
Changes starts off with a massive bang (not literally, that happens later), as Harry’s ex-girlfriend, Susan Rodriguez returns to Chicago to tell Harry that a) she had a kid, b) it’s his, and c) said kid has been kidnapped by the Red Court vampires. Those aren’t spoilers by the way. That’s a summary of probably the first two pages.
Any discussion of the plot is destined for spoiler-hell, so I’ll avoid it beyond saying its great. My only quibble is that the ending of the main plot tips slightly from foreshadowing to being a bit predictable. That’s a minor criticism though, because while it might be slightly predictable it’s still beautifully executed. It’s like ordering your favourite pizza: what you get might not be unexpected, but that doesn’t matter when it’s so goddamn tasty.
And then after that ending, in what would normally be the quiet, wrapping up section of an intense novel, you get at two rather large twists as well.
Instead of saying anything further about the details of Changes (beyond emphasising the “holy shit” from earlier), I’d rather jot down some thoughts about one of the main reasons that I absolutely love The Dresden Files: the absolutely masterful job that Jim Butcher has done of balancing story and mythology.
When I think of “story”, I think of the self-contained plot within each book. And throughout the series, I can only think of one or two (Small Favor and probably White Night) where the plot that was contained entirely between the covers of that book wasn’t completely satisfying. And at worst, the plots of those two books are average to above average, and overall the books were dragged up above that by the consistently entertaining writing and characters. I can’t think of any other series of this length that has accomplished such consistent high standards.
But if each of the self-contained plots are completely self-contained, there’s little point in calling a sequence of books a series. What the Dresden Files has done a masterful job of is what I think of when I say “mythology”. By that I mean the plot, background and characters that overarch the entire series. Despite there being 12 self-contained plots (to date), it’s becoming clear that there is, in fact, one complex overarching plot. From about books three to eight or so, this really took the form of the wizards’ war with the Red Court vampires, but over the last few that’s morphed into something much more complex.
I said during my review for Turn Coat that one of the interesting aspects of that book was that Butcher chose not to tell that story until the eleventh book in the series, when really the story was there to be told at any point after the second book in the series. The same goes here. Stripped of the context provided by the mythology, the plot of Changes is straightforward. Hell, it’s “man’s daughter is kidnapped; man uses skills to recover her” – that’s the plot of Taken. Without the mythology, this could easily have been the plot of the first book in the series, or a standalone, or something not of this series whatsoever.
It’s also impressive how well Butcher has done in escalating the stakes as the series has progressed. In the opening book, Harry was tracking down an unknown enemy intent on making Harry’s heart explode. That seemed like high stakes. Harry has quite literally saved the world at least twice to date (I might be missing a one or two other instances too). And yet the stakes seem to keep increasing from those already ludicrous levels.
I’ve really enjoyed the way Harry’s powers have escalated to match the needs of the plot too. It’s not just that he’s become more powerful (although he has, through experience and some nifty new tricks), but it’s more that he’s gained access to greater intelligence sources and stronger allies who can give him a hand in need. And almost all of those allies are friends who want to help Harry just because they want to help him, which, given that he started the series as a friendless loner, is pretty great character development too.
I really can’t stress enough how much I enjoyed Changes. It felt like the culmination of a whole series of novels which had all been leading up to this point: Changes would not be the novel that it is without everything that has gone before it. And that’s what I mean by the mythology of the series being a real highlight. Changes is a book that is so much greater than the sum of its parts, because it takes many disparate elements of the series to date and folds them together to create what feels like a glorious finale to a series.
The anomaly here, of course, is that there are more books in the series. Jim Butcher has previously said the outline plan is 20 standalone novels, followed by a grand apocalyptic trilogy as a finale. That timeline puts us roughly halfway through the Dresden Files saga. It’s a flat out terrific book that tries a huge amount of things and does them all well, in a terrific series that has done the same. I can’t recommend the book, and the series as a whole, enough.
Why you should read it: Really? You’re asking this?
Why you shouldn’t read it: The only acceptable reason is that you don’t have time to read the eleven previous books, and you should make time.
Up next: Ghost Story by Jim Butcher.