I love reading series fiction. I’m less a fan of reviewing it; particularly when it comes to long-running series. When you’re looking at a trilogy this aren’t so bad but when a series is 15 books in things get difficult. Who is the review aimed at? New readers picking up Skin Game certainly aren’t going to have the same experience as long-vested fans and I’ve been reading this series so long that I’m not even sure how a new reader would react to Skin Game on its own. While Butcher’s Dresden Files don’t really break down into distinct arcs I feel like the last several novels starting with, appropriately enough, Changes have been a sort of transitional shift in narrative both in terms of Harry’s character and the focus of the plot itself. Where the early focus of the novels was primarily on Harry dealing with the magical shenanigans in and around Chicago the scope of the series has gradually broadened to encompass something much larger. It hasn’t been until the last several novels where the scope and nature of magical conflict in Harry’s world has really come into focus and I’m beginning to suspect that Butcher has something epic in store as the series winds towards its conclusion (Butcher envisions 20
“casebooks” plut a 3 book “apocalyptic trilogy“). Changes’ finale started a new chapter in Harry’s life with a single gunshot. Since then Ghost Story and Cold Days were transitional novels as Harry deals with the fallout of his decisions and actions. With Skin Game I feel like readers get the first glimpses of light at the end of a long tunnel of darkness that Harry has been travelling down. There has been a certain air of melancholy and isolation in the previous novels that is markedly present in the beginning of Skin Game but is slowly peeled away the further we get into the novel.
Skin Game opens with Harry alone (and practicing his parkour) amidst the supernatural prison that is his home: Demonreach (side note, Demonreach is also one of my favorite new characters). This doesn’t last too long however as Mab arrives with a job for her new Winter Knight and while Harry does his stubborn best to refuse but none-the-less finds himself stuck working with none other than Nicodemus Archleone, leader of the Denarii and host to the fallen angel Anduriel. Butcher aims his sight at an Ocean’s Eleven kind of vibe as Nicodemus acquires a crew of supernatural heavies in order to break into the vault of none other than Hades himself. The crew that Nicodemus brings together includes some familiar faces including Binder (last seen hunting Morgan in Turn Coat) and Anna Valmont (last seen in Death Masks). Harry, as a condition of his presence on the team brings in Murphy as backup. Perhaps my favorite addition to Skin Game is the character of Goodman Grey, an amoral shapeshifter with a quick wit. The verbal and mental sparring between Harry and Grey is one of the highlight of the novel and Grey was such an intriguing read that I’d absolutely love to see more of him either in future installments of the Dresden Files or a perhaps a short story.
While Harry is required to help Nicodemus or risk breaking Mab’s word (a deadly prospect) he also has to figure out precisely what Nicodemus and the Denaari are up to while planning for what he knows is their inevitably betrayal once their goals have been reached. At the same time Harry is a ticking time bomb, staring death in the face as the brain parasite (revealed in Cold Days) is nearing the apex of its growth and its birth will not go well for Harry (think Athena but with messier results). Thankfully, Mab provides harry with an earring that stunts the parasite’s growth buying him some more time. The presence of the parasite lends a nice fatalistic quality to Harry’s experience pushing himself to confront some truths that he might not otherwise have chosen to confront.
There is a point in the novel where Harry turns to Michael Carpenter for help. I’ve always liked Michael whose steadfast nature and deep faith plays counterpoint to Harry’s tendency towards own flagging faith, even if that flagging faith is in himself and the forces around him rather than a higher power. The Carpenter household plays an important role in Harry’s life and his absence from that place has left him curiously adrift. There is a sense of spiritual rejuvenation after Harry visits Michael and his family and felt to me that the Harry that arrives wounded at the Carpenter home is not that same Harry that leaves the Carpenter home.
Skin Game is chock full of awesome scenes. From desperate chases, frantic battles, trial of wit and might, and not to mention an entertaining palaver between Harry and another powerful being makes Skin Game one of the more jam-packed Dresden Files adventures we’ve seen. Skin Game felt to me like a return to form for Harry and his supporting cast. Reconnecting with the Carpenters, leaning heavily on Murphy’s support, and even the appearance of Butters in the novel all serve to advance Harry’s character helping remove a weight from his shoulders and lending the novel a lighter feel than either Ghost Story or Cold Days. Skin Game is novel that opens up a lot of new doors for Harry Dresden and moreso than ever before I am excited to see what comes next.