Sunday, May 22, 2016

A brief lull

Hokay, so, I've locked comments on the latest Dresden post as a peace-of-mind thing.  I love passionate debate and having our blog chosen as a forum for serious ideas to be discussed, but I'm on, like, chapter twenty of book one of an interminably long series and I don't feel like I can effectively engage with or moderate a discussion that ranges over the entire body of work, so I'm going to request that we keep the references to later books to a minimum in future threads.

Also, as a general rule, if a rape survivor says 'I feel that you are ignoring and dismissing the views of actual people here regarding sexual assault in our culture' and you come back with 'I guess you just don't like complicated morality in your fiction', you're a colossal jackass and you need to rethink your life choices.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Storm Front, chapters 20 and 21, in which Our Hero just can't be blamed for being terrible and useless

This post would have been done yesterday, but I had to have the 'let's not use homophobic slurs as casual slang' talk with one of my online D&D groups.  I think I surprised them by skipping over 'you can't say that' and going directly to 'I can't control what you say, but I will judge you for it, and if you're my friend I appreciate it if you choose your words such that I can easily distinguish between you and the people who want me dead'.  At least I have the GM's support this time (and the lone woman in the group, who was immediately apologetic for not calling the dudebro out herself).  Anyway, that experience pretty much ruined the day for anything except thinking about the angry rants I couldn't unleash on the guy in question because it would at that point be counter-productive.  I got my unimpressive 'I didn't mean anything by it, they're just words to me, but I'll try to cut back' apology and that's the best I could really hope for in this situation.

Uuuuuuuuuuuuugh.

(Content: parental abuse, partner abuse, implied rape, murder.)

Storm Front
Chapter Twenty: Ebony Black'stone Copperfield Dresden*

Dresden cabs it to Monica Sells' house with zero fanfare or difficulties.  She never gave him her address, but presumably he was able to look her up via the phonebook, because she told him their real last name (Sells) even though she was afraid to speak her husband's true name and we don't know if 'Monica' is really hers.  Now that Dresden has worked out that she was actually just trying to drag him into this to stop whatever evil her husband is getting up to, he (and we) might wonder why she didn't do a better job of trying to clue him in (like giving him all the personal information she could and saying 'I'm like 40% sure he's gone supervillain') but maybe we'll get some justification for that now.

Dresden describes what seems like a pretty typical suburb to me--young trees, minivans, lots of 'for sale' signs on properties, not a lot of birdsong or barking dogs--and declares that it feels "blighted, a place where a black wizard had set up shop".  (I want to make a joke here about property values and white flight as soon as one 'black' person shows up in a neighbourhood, but it's hard to formulate one that's clearly only mocking racist people and Butcher's insistent use of 'black' to mean evil.  I leave it as an exercise for the reader.)

Dresden knocks and rings for a few minutes and is about to magic the door off its hinges when Monica finally answers, and we get another paragraph describing her look (jeans, flannel, and #nomakeup, which makes her look "both older and more appealing" because Dresden is That Guy).  She tries to send him away, but he bluffs that he'll tell the cops Everything if she does, then forces his way through the door.  Monica tries to taze him and I cheer up immensely for a moment, but he dodges once and when she almost gets him in the face the second time he exhales wizardliness all over the taser and it shuts down.

So, Dresden has managed to avoid burning out any of the phones he's used so far, any of the cars he's travelled in, or any of the police computers he's been near, but now that there's a taser in his face his anti-tech field ramps up to full power.  Yes.  Truly this is such an inconvenience to his life.  Butcher continues to not seem to grasp that in order for something to count as a flaw it has to actually impede the character.  It has to have effects they don't want, or that objectively hold them back.  This is also why I can't count Dresden's sexism as a legitimate 'character flaw', because while he's incredibly misogynistic, the book would also have us believe that he's right and his terrible decisions (like pushing Murphy away) are the correct and moral calls to make.  I'm trying to figure out now whether Dresden has any 'flaws' that are actually bad in Butcher's estimation, or if they're all of the same league as 'I'm so beautiful it's a curse'.

Anyway: Monica also makes direct eye contact with Dresden for the first time while she's try to electrocute his face, and they sooouuuuulllgaaaaaaze.  Dresden finally understands All The Things by reading the intense fear and love motivating her.  Monica, being a womanish lady-woman with ladybrain, has the typical soulgaze reaction to Dresden's grimdark man thoughts, freezes in shock, starts shaking, and nearly goes limp.

(Aside: is there any actual reason that a good soulgazing wouldn't prove without a doubt that Dresden was innocent of these murders and also everything else the council hates him for?)

Dresden informs us that from the gaze he learned more than he wanted to about her abused childhood and abusive marriage and her desperate desire to protect her children.  The kids, both preteens, choose that moment to appear and ask mom if they should call the cops, but Monica has just learned that Linda is dead (apparently they knew each other) and tells them it's fine.
I stepped closer to her. I had to have her help. No matter how much pain she was in, no matter what kind of agony she was going through, I had to have her help. And I thought I knew the names to invoke to get it. 
I can be such a bastard sometimes.
So here's that question about flaws again, because we're obviously not supposed to think that Dresden is a terrible person for breaking and entering and interrogating here, we're supposed to think that he's been forced into a bad position and he's doing what he must, for JUSTICE.  Because of that and many other aspects of his personality, Dresden's self-loathing here doesn't really characterise him as a sweet little woobie who needs a hug.  He comes across as another aspect of That Guy, the one who joins a discussion by saying "I know everyone's going to jump on me for saying this, but..." or who vagueblogs about how awful he is as a passive attempt to guilt people into telling him how great he really is.
DRESDEN: I'm so heartless and closed-off; it's no wonder everyone leaves me in the end. Siiiiiiiigh.
ME: I know, right?  And let's not forget your pointless dramatics and condescension.  Like, you never actually stop being awful, you just change the current configuration of awful, like a Rubik's cube constantly rotating into new permutations of overbearing patriarchy.
Dresden rattles off Jennifer, Tommy, and Linda's names again and begs Monica for her help, and she relents, though the chapter ends with her solemn declaration that "There's nothing anyone can do, now."  Personally, this is not a type of tension-raising that works for me, because I'm 100% certain that there will in fact be something that can be done.  A writer can't scare the audience with something that they know won't happen.  A cliffhanger that's meant to actually be scary and not just dramatic won't put the protagonist in danger--it'll have them racing to save a secondary character who legitimately might not make it.  (Or, you know, some other consequence that isn't as heavy-handed as character death, but we're taking little steps here.)  Of course, in this situation that would probably mean Murphy, and I can do without damselling of our lone Strong Female Character, but casting is Butcher's problem to fix.

Chapter Twenty-One: Abusers Are Bad People, This Should Not Be A Controversial Statement

In Monica's prototypical kitchen--her sanctuary, Dresden intuits, sparkling clean from all the time she spends being a Good Wife--he confronts her about the vague resemblance that he's mentioned a couple of times, and she admits that she is Jennifer Stanton's older sister.  (Rebellious Jennifer "ran away to become an actress"... in Chicago?  Is that a thing people do?  I thought it was always New York or Los Angeles.  Or, like, Vancouver if you're Canadian.)  Monica has some pseudo-deep thoughts about her sister becoming a sex worker, but they're not worth repeating here.

She explains that she was evasive in her first meeting with Dresden out of simple uncertainty--she knew her husband was up to something but that didn't mean she was comfortable setting a stranger to hunt him down.
"Who killed your sister?" [....] I knew the answer, already, but I needed to hear it from her. I needed to be sure. I tried to tell myself that it would be good for her to face such a thing, just to say it out loud. I wasn't sure I bought that--like I said, I'm not a very good liar.
Dunno what to make of this either.  'I know who the killer is, but I don't actually know who the killer is, so better maximise this woman's trauma anyway even though I totally don't want to'?  This reads more like Dresden is vaguely aware that he's a sadist but still trying to downplay it to himself.  I generally wouldn't actually put 'sadistic' on Dresden's list of flaws, but it sure sounds like Dresden thinks he is himself.  Anyway, totally unforeseeable plot twist: the killer is Victor Sells.

Dresden accuses her of knowingly sending him to the lake house where he performs his rituals so Victor would see Dresden and pick a fight.  She wanted to protect her children from her husband--her husband, she explains, who was a good man who got so angry that he couldn't provide as much for Monica as her wealthy parents could, and "sometimes he would lose his temper"--I feel like I'm reading Speaker for the Dead again--and then five-ish years ago Victor discovered magic.  He'd spend all night performing weird rituals in their locked attic and get steadily more magical, burst out shouting or laughing for no reason, set the curtains on fire with collateral anger.  Monica didn't confront him, having been raised in an abusive household and thus used to just desperately staying out of the way.

I'd like to think that we're not supposed to have any sympathy for Victor here, an entitled and narcissistic man who felt inadequate because he didn't make enough money 'to provide for his family' and so abused his family to vent his frustrations.  I'd like to think that Monica's remaining loyalty to him is supposed to be the realistic scars of abuse and not some heroic patience hanging onto the goodness that was buried underneath the abuse.  I would really like to.  But I'm not sure.

Victor invented ThreeEye and forced Monica to take a drink so she could see the world as he did.  Dresden informs us of how horrible this is, how she would have seen the true power-obsessed greed-consumed monster that her husband had become and the memory would never fade.  Victor tried to mass-produce ThreeEye but couldn't get enough power for the volume he wanted, no matter how much emotion he tapped into, until he realised he could also siphon emotional power off other people, and that lust was more useful than fear or anger for his purposes.  Obvious conclusion: track down investors to hold magic orgies.  Monica tries to say that even then, "there were moments that I could almost see him again", but Dresden is a Man and he has no room to feel compassion for Monica when he's too busy feeling RAAAAAGE at Victor.  Monica flinches away, fearing Dresden's anger, because of course she fears anger, so much of her life and her trauma revolves around getting trapped in or avoiding other people's anger.  Dresden isn't doing a thing to make this easier for Monica, which ought to count as a flaw, but since it won't actually hold him back at all (send her into a panic attack where she can't exposit plot for him anymore, for instance) it still doesn't count narratively.

Victor found the Beckitts and got their cooperation by promising vengeance against Marcone; used Monica to get to Jennifer to Linda to Marcone's lackey (Lawrence or Tommy?).  That made for enough people that Monica got to stay out of the magic orgies sometimes, but Victor continued power-hungry and she could tell he was starting to think of ways to use the children.  Jennifer threatened to go to the cops and Marcone if Victor didn't let Monica and the kids go, and thus the murdering began.

Dresden tells us that he wants to comfort her, soothing words and arm around her shoulders, et cetera, but he realises that would just make her scream now, so he gets her a glass of cold water and says he's sorry.  It's the least terrible thing he's done yet.
I wanted so badly to tell her that everything would be all right. I wanted to dry her tears and tell her that there was still joy in the world, that there was still light and happiness. But I didn't think she would hear me. Where she was, there was nothing but an endless, hopeless darkness full of fear, pain, and defeat. 
So I did the only thing I could. I withdrew in silence and left her to her weeping.
Funny, innit, how every time Dresden abandons a person to their fears without trying to give them any solace or hope, it's because he intuitively knows that none of the things he could say would actually help.  Forensic scientists want him to explain magic murder--nope, nothing he can say.  Monica thinks Victor is invincible and her children are doomed--better just leave without saying anything to her.  I mean, dude, since you're not apparently in a pit of despair yourself anymore, you must have some idea what you're going to do next, so why not give her a lifeline, or even some vaguely convincing balderdash?  'Your husband might think no one can escape his death traps, Mrs Sells, but my dad named me after Houdini for a reason--I'll be back when I've saved us all'.

Tween Jenny (named for her aunt) stops Dresden on the way out to be innocent and precocious at him, saying she recognises him from the Arcane and if he'll help her mom.
"My daddy used to be one of the good guys, Mr Dresden."
Pictured: Five-Tongue Fleming reminds us that abusive fathers are not, in fact, good guys.
"But I don't think that he is anymore." Her face looked sad. It was a sweet, unaffected expression. "Are you going to kill him?"
(I assume 'unaffected' here has to mean 'sincere, not an affectation' rather than 'dispassionate', but it can be hard to tell after a bit of evocative prose like 'her face looked sad'.)  This is of course Dresden's opportunity to tell the audience that he doesn't want to kill Victor but might have to for everyone's sake, and Jenny goes on about hoping Dresden is "one of the good guys [....] we really need a good guy."  As per usual, the author fails to grasp levels of mental development among children; eleven-year-olds (or thereabouts) might not be up for a serious debate on the morality of lethal force in the apprehension of violent criminals or the acceptability of the death penalty, but they're also not going to ask in childlike wonder if you're 'a good guy' or breeze past the question of killing their superpowered evil father.

Dresden returns to the idling cab and asks to be taken to a payphone.
Then I closed my eyes and struggled to think. It was hard, through all the pain I felt. Maybe I'm stupid or something, but I hate to see people like Monica, like little Jenny, hurting like that.
Bruh, I don't know what the dealio is, but sometimes, like, I have feelings just because other people are having feelings?  Like, someone who isn't even me is in pain, so like, I'm not here for that, bruh, and then I feel bad?  What the heck?  No one else does that, right?  It's just me being stupid and it'll go away?  Bruh.  Bruh.

Dresden thinks about going to Murphy for police support, but concludes that even if she believes him there's too much bureaucracy trying to get a warrant to raid a house in a different jurisdiction on a Sunday.  Going to the Council isn't an option because they're all travelling and thus incommunicado, because apparently there's no wizard version of a text message and despite thousands of years of magical development it's just an inviolable law of nature that people can't be communicated with while moving.  (The lesser-known third corollary of the Heisenberg Principle.)  Not sure why he can't throw a flare into the air for Morgan and just say 'Hey, I know I have a court date tomorrow, but I am 95% sure I've also tracked down an evil wizard selling wizard meth to mundanes, would you get someone to look into that for me if I accede to literally any conditions you demand?'  Like: Dresden's not even taking steps to make sure that someone will go after Victor if Harry fails.  No.  Dresden must do this By Himself Alone Solo With No One Else.

His task is to drop Victor (presumed to be at the lake house for some reason; I guess that's his only ritual spot?) without breaking any Laws of Magic.  Victor, who was untalented and ignorant and easily banished in shadow form just a few chapters ago, is now "as strong a practitioner as I had ever gone up against".  I dunno, Dresden, I bet he doesn't have a bulletproof forcefield like you do.  I feel confident that this is a situation that can be resolved with a smashed window and a blunt instrument.  Or you could go for the quick-draw solution, tap the storm before he has the chance and just pour lightning onto his house, then grab him when he runs for cover.  Or bluff, phone him up and tell him that the cops are about to hit the house on a drug bust.  Victor probably doesn't know how hard you've worked to burn that bridge yet.  'You have until the storm hits to stop this wizard from completing his evil ritual' is the kind of problem that an RPG group could have a field day with.  Have you considered hanging out around gaming shops and grabbing some Call of Cthulhu veterans to be your tacticians?

Dresden realises that he forgot to check the Sells' bathroom for Victor's hair or the like, but "I had the feeling that he wouldn't have been that careless. Anyone who spends time thinking about how to use that sort of thing against people is going to be doubly paranoid that no one have the opportunity to use it against him."  Aren't you supposed to be a magic nerd, Dresden?  Isn't this literally all you think about?  And you can even be bothered to maintain a brushcut?

But then Dresden remembers Chekov's Scorpion, that evil talisman that Monica brought him way back at the beginning of the book, still in his office desk drawer, which he can use to reflect Victor's power easily.  It does finally occur to Dresden to set the cops on Victor as a backup plan, but it turns out that Murphy has already busted into his office with a warrant for his arrest, and she refuses to believe him (over the phone) when he tells her not to go digging in his desk for her own safety.  Murphy, obvs just demands to know what he's hiding and opens the scorpion drawer, followed by screaming and gunshots.

Oh, look.  A cliffhanger where Murphy gets damselled after all.  Joy.

Next week: man save woman from scary insect.

---

*I suppose I should make a consistent note that these books don't have chapter titles and I'm just making them up for funsies, lest new readers be confused that the titles are so much more entertaining and thoughtful than the text.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Storm Front, chapters 18 and 19, in which repetition masquerades as exposition

So, how was your week?  I got a temporary cat (while his usual people are out of the country for a month) and he's very snuggly and he's pretty sure he needs to be fed twenty-nine times a day or society will crumble.

Here in the Department of Analysing Terrible Books the hate engine keeps chugging on.  We're closing in on the final act, with about a quarter of the book to go, and by the looks of it we have nothing to look forward to, so I added a puppy.

(Content: childbirth, parental death. Fun content: magicians, puppies, and the writer's-block panacea.)

Storm Front
Chapter Eighteen: If I Monologue Enough Maybe You Won't Notice These Plot Rails

I could just write MAN ANGST for a couple of lines instead of talking about the actual events that open this chapter.  It starts with "Have you ever felt despair?" and continues with "When I'm in turmoil [...] I go for walks. It's just one of those things I do" and eventually Dresden starts spewing backstory, but leave that a moment.  What we have here is something I tend to think of as emotional hipsterism, a hallmark of the truly pretentious man.  Sometimes he feels despair--but you've probably never heard of it.  He, you must understand, has difficult feelings that even he can't just shrug off immediately, despite his manliness, and so he must go for a walk--who can fathom the oddity of this?  Admittedly, the wizards in this world would make more sense if they were all solipsists.

Dresden refers to his wandering around Chicago at night as "pretty stupid, in retrospect", despite the established fact that he's carrying a heat cannon and a bulletproof shield.

Anyway, we hear a bit about Dresden's parents.  Of course they're both gone now, no points for guessing that, but for the lightning round question, cast your vote: which parent had a formative influence on Dresden?  If you guessed "his father, because his mother died in childbirth", you get all the points and Butcher gets none.  I looked up some statistics just to see how vanishingly unlikely that is, and the answer is 'very', especially when noting that mortality is closely related to the mother's socioeconomic factors of health and (spoilers, like you care) Dresden's mother was actually a fantastically powerful wizard.  (I don't know if Dresden knows that yet.)  I read enough to learn that Dresden's mom was actually killed by a curse, but I'm going to throw out a wild frickin' guess that Butcher decided on that later, as part of Operation: Continuity Is For Suckers.

So here the death of Dresden's mother is not merely sidelined but actually framed in reference to his father: "He wasn't there when I was born. He wasn't there when she died."  We're told that dad showed up a day later, "gave me the names of three magicians" (not Potter, blessedly, but Harry Houdini, Blackstone, and Copperfield) and then took him on the road with his travelling stage magic show.

(Dresden's dad wasn't an actual wizard, and I have so many questions about his parents' life and marriage and arrangement.  Did he know his wife was hella magical?  Did he care?  Did he choose to stay away because he felt inadequate?  Did he ever ask her to teach him?  It turns out that Dresden's mom's signature move was portal-hopping, so why wasn't she on the road with him?  Why didn't he have any actual enchanted tricks crafted by her?  Or friends in the wizard community?  Or did she hide all of that from him for undoubtedly super selfless reasons that coincidentally make this plot way simpler?)

In any case, Dresden's dad then died abruptly of an aneurysm when Dresden was six, and that sense of loneliness and despair is exactly what he feels now, facing certain doom from either his enemy wizard or his court session on Monday.  Which... I mean, Dresden has been in a lot of life-or-death situations before, even ones just referenced in his anecdotes, like He Who Walks Behind or his evil magic teacher for starters.  I know that if you want to shoehorn in some dead parents, you've got to make your own opportunities, but connecting his current situation to a six-year-old's fear of abandonment just doesn't ring true for me.  Others are welcome to make a countercase.  (Did neither of Dresden's parents make arrangements for the care of their son?  You'd think maybe this would be a moment for a wizard friend to swoop in and explain that he's Dresden's godfather.  But I guess Dresden's trying to hammer home DESSSPAAIIRRRRRR and so he leaves the backstory hanging in tension.)

Dresden finds that he randomly walks back to Linda Randall's apartment, a terrible idea if I ever heard one, exceeded only by his subsequent decision to magically unlock the door, duck the police tape, curl up on her bedroom carpet and fall asleep.
"This is stupid, Harry," I told myself. I guess I wasn't in the mood to listen.
The last three chapters have been an amazing parade of contrivance towards set pieces that Butcher clearly decided he wanted to feature but didn't know how to justify.  (Maybe I'm unrealistic, but surely you don't leave a fresh murder scene completely unguarded after just a couple of hours?  Surely there's some newbie who could stand to spend the early hours of the morning standing by a door and preventing entry or tampering?)

Dresden awakens when the sun has risen and literally talks to himself for half a page, with line breaks like dialogue, forcing me to picture him now as Smeagol/Gollum snipping at each other.
"Get off the floor and get to work." 
"Don't wanna. Tired. Go away."
He's telling himself to go away.  I could perhaps let this go as internal monologue, but literally speaking aloud to himself?  I feel like I'm reading fanfiction.

A shocking break from tradition follows: Dresden looks around the room and sees evidence that Linda was an actual person: "a high-school yearbook [...] several photographs serving as bookmarks" and a framed photo of herself at graduation between her smiling parents.  It's not much, especially since it's used to imply how happy she used to be before she got into sex work and everything was terrible forever, but it's the first hint we've had that she had any depth of character.

But that's just a preamble, because this whole weird walk and break-and-enter and murder-scene nap was all a prolonged version of that cliche where our hero is searching desperately for something, can't find it, gives up, lets his gaze fall in a random direction, and there it is, the next plot token--a little plastic film canister exactly like the one he found at the Sells' beach house.  It has a full an undeveloped roll of film inside.

Just how atrociously bad are these cops?

I mean, okay, you know there's magic involved and you can't explain what's going on and maybe there is no mundane evidence that could help, but of all the things in the room to overlook, a full roll of film didn't strike anyone as potentially important evidence?  It could be anything!  It could be blackmail material she was going to use against someone powerful!  It could be secret government documents!  It could be the first non-blurry sasquatch photos!  What kind of hard-driven murder investigator sweeps a crime scene and misses a roll of film because it's slightly under the bed?!

It's not like there was much else in the room for it to get lost in, given the total lack of character-building possessions.

Dresden immediately grabs his rod and sets forth to find "this photographer", implicitly dismissing any possibility that Linda might have taken the pictures herself.  Why would she have the pictures if she didn't take them?  Is there something I forget about her alibi, or does Dresden just assume she couldn't possibly have any skills or interests outside of sex work?  Whatever.  The chapter ends as somebody else unlocks the apartment door and bursts in.

Old noir master Raymond Chandler gave us the one-size-fits-all solution to any stuck plot--a man bursts into the room with a gun**--but Butcher has already given us alternatives such as toad demon attack, the spontaneous existence of tracking spells, and various meddling sex objects women, so I'm not sure if this is a nod to the classics or just running out of ideas.

Chapter Nineteen: The Latest Findings From The Faculty Of The Screamingly Obvious At We-Already-Knew-That University

Dresden hides behind the opening door and the stranger who enters doesn't notice him, despite his eyes sweeping the room in a panic.  (Dresden informs us that it's exactly this panic that causes him to miss Dresden in his peripheral vision, which doesn't really jive with human instincts, but sure, whatever.)
His hair, a listless shade of brown, was drawn back into a ponytail. [....] He was a good-looking man, or so it seemed, with strong lines to his jaw and cheekbones.
I went searching on variants of the phrase 'listless brown' to see if maybe this was just a kind of hue adjective I've never heard before, but all I found was this (you are welcome):

Pictured: an excellent but fatigued puppy.

Personally I feel like the listless ponytail is going to seriously detract from any dude's attractiveness, but who am I to tell our hero which men he should ogle?  More importantly, Hot Stranger Man makes "a strange, cawing little sound" when he sees the bloody bed and immediately dives to search underneath it.  Dresden immediately concludes that this man is the photographer in question, again for no reason I can perceive.

Dresden kicks the door shut, flashes his badge, and startles the man with a solid bluff check: "I knew we'd catch you if I just waited".  (Again, why aren't the cops watching this place?  Isn't returning to the scene of the crime an actual thing killers are known to do?  Google suggests it's not purely a TV tradition.)  The man defends himself as an innocent newspaper photographer, but Dresden produces the film roll and keeps pressing.
I tried to think of what Murphy would sound like, if I was downtown with her right now, waiting for her to ask me questions.
Or... like, maybe what a private detective would sound like if he was questioning someone connected to both of his current cases?  I mean.  This is literally your job, Dresden.  You should not be improvising this.  These are actual skills that you are supposed to have been trained in by actual people.  You are not an everyman hero swept up in circumstance.  You are on billable hours.

Their exchanges remain stupid ("Am I in some kind of trouble?" "We'll see about that."  Of course he's in trouble!  He broke into a cordoned-off murder scene!  You don't need to bluff on this, man!) but the guy identifies himself as Donny Wise before realising that Dresden isn't an actual cop.  He tries to run, Dresden slams the door shut with magic, and Wise freaks out that he's "one of them" and begs for mercy.  When Dresden says he's trying to catch the killer, Wise demands to know why he'd risk death if he wasn't even sleeping with Linda.  Dresden, never one to miss a humblebrag, just says "Who else is going to?", thus ignoring a much smoother opportunity to think about his motivations, instead of the pages upon pages of unprovoked navel-gazing we've had up to now.

Wise demands the film in exchange for telling Dresden all he knows, and insists the film itself is useless "if you don't know what you're looking at".  Then why is it so important to steal it back?

Wise says that he knew Linda because he sometimes does magazine photoshoots with sex workers around town, and she called him in to photograph her through the window at the beach house Wednesday night.  He saw the thunderstorm sorcerer orgy inside, took all the shots as requested, and delivered the film to Linda the next day.  He didn't recognise anyone else inside.
"I wasn't looking. But they wasn't being too particular, if you take my meaning. Turned my stomach."
I don't think I do take his meaning.  'Not particular' doesn't sound like weird kinky stuff.  Was it gay stuff?  Was that the stomach-turning part?  Fuck you too, Donny.  Anyway: Dresden intuits that Wise actually wants the film back so he can blackmail people, though he claims he'll destroy it.  Dresden, genius of the year, instead says "Fuego" and incinerates the film on the spot without actually checking whether Wise is telling the truth.  Also, if that was really Wise's only involvement in this incident, why does he react to demonstrations of magic with 'you're one of them'?  He saw naked things happening, not telekinesis.  Was it magic sex?  (Create your own most disturbing 'was this your card?' joke.)

Dresden lets Wise go, despite not actually getting any information out of him that we didn't already know or at least mightily suspect, and still with no reason that Wise should know wizards are real, let alone involved in this case.  Dresden finally takes the unfathomable leap of induction that it wasn't chance that he was sent to the Sells' house before knowing it was important in this case, concludes that perhaps Monica knows more than she is letting on, and sets out to find her.

I'm 90% sure that Monica never gave Dresden her address and we have no proof that 'Sells' is even her last name, so I'm not sure how he plans to do that, but it doesn't matter because the next chapter opens with him arriving at her suburban home, no questions asked.

I just don't know, y'all.

---

*I suppose I should make a consistent note that these books don't have chapter titles and I'm just making them up for funsies, lest new readers be confused that the titles are so much more entertaining and thoughtful than the text.

**The blogqueen also suggested the alternative "a gun bursts into the room with a man", which I hope to work into my own writing someday.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Storm Front, chapters 16 and 17, in which true rules of power and exchange are demonstrated

Gracious, but it has been so long since a Dresden post.  There's a very simple reason for that, which is that every time I opened this file up to try to write something, I felt immediately exhausted and queasy and started asking myself serious questions about how I wanted to spend what limited time I have in this world.  But I'm feeling more fortitudinal today, ready to go a couple rounds with with this nonsense while I keep sorting out my own next writing project.

(Personal aside: I think my newest prescription is actually working?  A lot of things are still a struggle but I hate myself so much less than usual, most days.  It's nice.  I recommend it to everyone.  Except people like Harry Dresden.)

Storm Front
Chapter Sixteen: Quick, Look Over There*

I was a big fan of magic tricks for a few years when I was little; I performed for my grade three class and would test out card-forces on family members at random and keep books of tricks by my bed to read before sleep, fantasising about the glorious shows I could put on if only I could house and care for enough rabbits.  (We had two.  I never actually tried to conjure them.)  The main lesson I got out of magic was that you can do damn near anything if you can just convince people to not pay attention at the right moments.  Nothing is more versatile or powerful than misdirection.

Appropriately enough, I feel like misdirection is exactly what Butcher is trying to pull on us as this chapter begins with Dresden moping about his confrontation with Murphy.
I had lost Murphy's trust. It didn't matter that I had done what I had to protect both her and myself. Noble intentions meant nothing. It was the results that counted. And the results of my actions had been telling a bald-faced lie to one of the only people I could come close to calling a friend. And I wasn't sure that, even if I found the person or persons responsible, even if I worked out how to bring them down, even if I did Murphy's job for her, that what had happened between us could ever be smoothed over.
(Setting aside for the moment that Murphy obviously does her job because she wants to do her job and thus has no reason to be grateful that some rando sorcerer stole it from her...)

It's been a while since the last post, so let's recap the details that Butcher glosses over here: what is the lie that Dresden told Murphy, and how did that lie protect her?

According to Harry's own internal monologue, the information he's holding back is that "Linda Randall had called me earlier that evening. She had planned on coming to me, to talk to me. She was going to give me some information and someone had shut her up before she could".  He's implicitly admitted that he disobeyed Murphy to talk to Linda, so that's not part of it.  And Linda was literally murdered while on the phone with 911 announcing that she knew who the murderer was, so Murphy already knows that too.  The question I'm left asking is why Linda would make a call to Harry, take a bath, and then call 911 to give them information that guarantees they'll want to grab her first.  That sounds to me like Linda changed her plans (or that one of the calls was faked).  Either way, the fact that she was killed before she could talk to Harry seems like it could be incidental to the fact that she was killed while talking to the cops.  The only information Harry is "keeping" from Murphy is that he met with Linda, which he essentially acknowledged via fake premonition to Murphy anyway.  Everything else he mentions is obvious: Linda knew something and the killer silenced her.

So Dresden literally is not keeping information from Murphy, but he is leaving her believing that he's keeping information from her.  Which could, in its own way, be a tactical choice, offering himself up as a red herring in order to convince the killer that Murphy isn't a threat, exceeeeeeept that in the next paragraph Dresden also claimed that he's 'withholding' this information (which he isn't actually withholding) partly because he doesn't want Murphy to start thinking Dresden might be, say, Linda's jealous/spurned lover on a rampage.

But by talking about what they're talking about, instead of actually laying it out like this, Butcher allows himself to write Tragic Dresden In The Rain, forced to lie to his bestie to save her, hoping that the reader will forget that Dresden has literally created a problem out of nothing, which does not benefit anyone except the killer (who doesn't have to fear a combined wizard/cop team coming at him).  That's actually some decent misdirection performed on the author's part; whether it's for the audience's benefit depends on whether you want more man-angst or coherent narrative in your life.

Well done, Dresden.  You played yourself.

In an inadequate response from the universe, no sooner has Dresden called a cab** than he gets jumped by one of Marcone's lackeys.  From the specific tang of his "sweat and cologne" Dresden identifies this as the same guy who roughed him up the first time, even as he is pummeled into submission, and lies aching on the ground hoping that here in this well-lit parking lot "Surely, God, he didn't plan on killing me. Though at the moment, I was too tired and achy to care."  Instead, the attacker produces scissors and clips a lock of Dresden's hair, which is immediately cause for panic, because a wizard could use Dresden's hair to cast an unpreventable death spell.

I just don't get the way Dresden feels about magic.  Murder is bad, but magic murder is The Ultimate Worst.  Getting killed by a lackey in a parking lot is the type of thing that you can just be too tired to care about, but getting killed by a wizard is a harrowing nightmare scenario.

The lackey flees, but Dresden tackles his legs and begins a prolonged deadly struggle with the mighty man's fist, in which we are repeatedly told that Dresden is very weak but still slowly winning.  The fight gets interrupted by a couple of bystanding dudes, and the lackey flees immediately, still with most of the hair in his hand.  He gets into his car and peels away, leaving Dresden wheezing in the rain.

One of the traditional rules of magic is that the Evil arts will give you great power at the cost of surrendering your virtues.  This applies to the real world as well, which we see among, for example, CEOs who take huge income for themselves by depriving their workers.  Or, less criminally, to writing, where you can write yourself out of a corner by introducing a new aspect of the plot that makes an earlier portion of the story nonsensical.  That's what Butcher decides to do now.

(Well, after Dresden spends a couple of pages giving us a pep rally about how he's angry and not going to take this sitting down anymore and this shadow wizard might have power but Dresden has savvy et cetera et cetera dear lord.)

But then we get to the breakthrough, when Dresden is trying to imagine how, without Bob, he can reverse-track his own hairs to find where the lackey has taken them, when he suddenly realises that he got some of the lackey's skin and blood under his fingernails during their fight, and that is all he needs to perform his own tracking magic.  Because tracking magic is absolutely a thing that exists in Dresden's world, and all you need is a bit of someone's body in order to know exactly where they are.
INTERLUDE: PHRASES THAT DO NOT APPEAR IN THIS NOVEL
  • "Mrs Sells, please bring your husband's comb, pillowcase, or an item of unwashed laundry when you visit my office, so that I can cast a single spell that will instantly solve your case."
  • "Hey, Murphy, I have another list of a dozen missing persons that I was able to track down for you this week, so feel free to send me the next bag of objects borrowed from the families.  I'm glad I can help with these murder cases, but I prefer saving people who are still alive, and some months I really depend on that steady income as a special consultant."
  • "Morgan, I know this looks bad, but we both know that the White Council has a permanent trace on me and would have been instantly alerted if I performed magic powerful enough to murder someone across town."
Anyway.

Dresden chalks out a circle on the sidewalk and performs a ten-second ritual that instantly imbues him with the power to sense the direction of the escaped lackey by smelling for that distinctive cologne.  Dresden's cab arrives and he tells the driver they'll be making two stops, first to his apartment (to arm himself) and then (he does not say aloud) to confront the city's biggest gangsters.

Chapter Seventeen: This Is What We Have Sacrificed For

The hideout is a club called the Varsity, owned by Marcone.  The cab driver calls Dresden "Loony" before driving away.  I am not at all clear why it's so absurd that Dresden would ask a cab to take him to a still-busy club late on a Saturday night.  (Dresden specifies 1:30am, meaning that it's been at least an hour and a half since the events of the last chapter, "just before midnight".  Hell of a long drive, I guess?)

Dresden confirms that he can see Marcone and crew at a table in the back before marching up to the door, magically ripping it off its hinges, and blasting the jukebox with melting force.  Dresden specifically mentions that he doesn't want to "injure a bunch of innocent diners" when he blasts the door off, thus the outward ripping, but he apparently thinks nothing of then walking inside and casually blowing up every lightbulb with a wave of his hand, showering everyone with "powdered glass".  Not dangerous at all, clearly.

At Dresden's request, Marcone calmly dismisses everyone in the club, but when Dresden then demands his hair back, Marcone is honestly baffled.  It quickly comes out that the lackey (actual name Lawrence; Dresden only calls him 'Gimpy') has actually been working for the evil ThreeEye-peddling wizard on the side.  Things then immediately devolve into a gunfight, which Dresden survives unscathed by activating his forcefield bracelet, and Lawrence dies to three shots from bodyguard Hendricks.

Dresden tells us he's immediately nauseous, as he had hoped to win the night through macho bravado and no deaths at all.  Entering the building with explosive violence was definitely the way to minimise escalation, Dresden, you useless, useless man.  He very nearly apologises to Marcone for thinking that the mob boss might have been behind those brutal murders, since he realises that Marcone would never do something so pointlessly unsubtle and cost-ineffective.  Pretty sure that intimidation tactics are absolutely part of the mob boss toolkit, but whatever.

Lawrence the dead lackey doesn't have Dresden's hair on him anymore, having apparently delivered it before he got to the club.  While his remaining lackeys start preparing for the club to have an accidental fire, Marcone says he knows nothing else about their common wizard-foe, but he'll let Dresden go in spite of this show of defiance, in exchange for being able to "let it be known" that if Dresden does take the villain down, he did so at Marcone's bidding.  Dresden leaves, back to zero leads.  So the sudden introduction of tracking magic is at least not vital to the plot, but that does mean that we've had this whole violent episode at the cost of coherent worldbuilding and it wasn't even necessary.  (Wasn't he planning to reverse-track his own hair?  What happened to that idea?)

I'll say this much for the last couple of chapters: by only featuring a bunch of white dudes, Butcher has coincidentally gone for pages without making his hero say anything particularly misogynistic, which makes for a much more palatable story.  Dresden might be a useless, terrible person, but his adventures alone, the action scenes and standoffs and mystery-unraveling, those are entertaining in a slapdash kind of way.  Wonder how much longer that'll last.

Next time: Weird plot contrivances continue to do Dresden's job for him.  For those of you who have felt bereft after my long absence, know and rejoice that I'll be aiming for a weekly posting schedule until further notice.

---

*I suppose I should make a consistent note that these books don't have chapter titles and I'm just making them up for funsies, lest new readers be confused that the titles are so much more entertaining and thoughtful than the text.

**How does he not have better backup methods for travel?  Why does Dresden not have an enchanted bike for those times when his car fails him?  Taxis are expensive and he risks burning them out by sheer proximity.  Surely a magic-accelerated bike and a bespelled raincoat aren't beyond the capacity of a guy who can tame storms and brew potions that turn a person to wind?

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Storm Front, chapters 14 and 15, in which having lots of women in your book is no protection against rampant misogyny

I worry sometimes that these posts are too negative, and that there's only so much benefit that can possibly come from what amounts to a couple thousand words of vitriol.  (I'm not Jewish, but I think about the concept of tikkun olam often.  It's good stuff, in the modern interpretation.)  And then I read another paragraph and I remember that this book fucking deserves my ire and we all deserve to be armed with the knowledge to defend ourselves against this kind of garbage.

(Content: misogyny, sexual assault, murder. Fun content: watch me stumble around trying to make sense of this world's logic, like a drunk man escaping a labyrinth in a centrifuge.)

Storm Front
Chapter Fourteen: Fucking Magic, How Does It Work*

Oh good, we get to start this week with further examination of how unfathomably stupid love potions are (and all defences of them).  To recap, Dresden and Rodriguez are standing in a three-foot-diameter copper circle that is their only defence against some kind of acid toad demon, and she wants to get down on the floor and bang, even though this would lead to their immediate violent deaths.  It takes Dresden a full minute to pull away from the kiss she initiates, though he assures us that he felt self-conscious and hesitant the whole time.
The potion had taken hold of her hard. No wonder she had recovered from her terror enough to come back up the stairs and fire my gun at the demon. It had lowered her inhibitions to a sufficient degree that it must also have dulled her fears.
OF DEATH?!  To be clear here, actually having sex isn't an option on the table for them right now, because they would die immediately upon breaking the circle.  So we have to ask again what it means for this potion to have 'lowered her inhibitions'.  That's a phrasing that implies that the drinker will do what they really want to do, behind their fears and anxieties and all those things that, apparently, aren't the 'real' person.  But obviously that's not the only thing a 'love' potion does, or else people would take them before job interviews and public speaking and the like, to suppress their stressors and just get on with the task at hand.  Stage fright is an inhibition.  'Not dying' seems to me more like one of those things we want, which an anti-inhibition potion would only intensify.  There's also the specificity of trying to jump Dresden: is that because Rodriguez really wants to jump him, or because he made the potion and therefore he's induced her to want him, or because she really wants to jump someone and the only other option is a toad demon?
Susan's fingers wandered, and her eyes sparkled. "Your mouth says no," she purred, "but this says yes."
Dresden is of course still naked and somewhat sudsy from his shower, so clearly this particular fantasy wouldn't be complete without Rodriguez grabbing his junk.  But for extra fun, we have here Rodriguez using a classic anti-consent line to justify her continued advances, which means this 'love' potion has not only obliterated her self-preservation instincts (and probably her entire identity outside of her role in this book as the literally-hypersexual Latina) but also any concern she might have for consent from the object of her chemical lust.  Again: not an indicator of love.  This potion is a terrifying mind-warping poison that turns the drinker into a potential rapist.  What in the actual entire fuck.  Good thing Dresden is a mighty Man and able to easily fend Rodriguez off when she literally tries to judo him to the floor, or this scene might have been uncomfortable for the male readers.  (See also: good thing she's hot, good thing they aren't related, good thing she's a woman... Butcher had a lot of ways that he could have made this scene something other than a 'cheeky' patriarchal wank fantasy, and he made sure to avoid all of them.)

Anyway.  Bob the Skull can see the escape potion and offers to throw it to Dresden in exchange for twenty-four hours of freedom from his skull.  Dresden refuses, on the grounds that he is responsible for Bob's actions while free (he says this like it's some kind of legal quirk, and not a moral concern), but Bob is a terrible person and insists.  Can't wait to find out what kind of sexual assault he gets up to.  Dresden gets Rodriguez to drink half the potion by implying it's an aphrodisiac or something, and they get a few seconds of magic wind travel before it drops them outside in the rain.  Dresden says they'll be safe if they can get to Reading Road, which always floods in the rain and will count as enough running water to kill the demon if it follows.  Combining potions leaves Rodriguez nauseous and thus still useless, but it seems like it may have at least neutralised the 'love' potion, so we're spared any more of that garbage.

Halfway to the flooded road, a shadowy avatar appears under a broken streetlight to villain-talk at Dresden: how they didn't think he'd survive this long, do you really think I'd give you my name, soon my demon will kill you, et cetera.  Dresden is "stunned" that they summoned the demon, as if he isn't well-versed in the risk-reward ratio of doing so and this isn't a pretty standard thing in his world and life.  The shadow is in turn startled when Dresden mind-slaps it, demanding to know how he is capable of such a thing, as if they don't all know he's a wizard.  The shadow calls for the demon and for some reason Dresden watches it walk out and casually toss a car aside, instead of running more.

Maybe it's a pet peeve, but there are few narrative decisions I detest more than characters stopping to watch a threat be dangerous rather than running.  Especially if they end up just barely missing a closing door or something by one second later on.  Dresden compounds this by taking the time to "thrust [his] staff" at the shadow and dispel it, which apparently causes the caster on the far side some pain but otherwise does nothing to improve his situation. (He gets a one-liner out of the experience, which is presumably good enough.)  Then he tries to haul Rodriguez to her feet and does the whole angsty 'if I run I can still make it to the river but she'll die'.  But no, he is too Good and Pure to do such a thing, so he faces off against the demon, and then finally strikes upon the Million-To-One Chance that he could tap into the storm himself to draw enough power to kill it.  (There is much talk of channeling power to the tip of his staff.)

It works, leaving him exhausted but completely unharmed.  What a twist.

Naturally, Morgan the Warden arrived just in time to see the demon but not the avatar of the person who summoned it, so he declares that Dresden is a blight and he's convened the Council to come to Chicago in two days and sentence Dresden to death.  He disappears immediately, and within minutes a cop car has arrived to grab them both.  ...What?  Okay, sure.  Rodriguez declares this to have been the worst night of her life:
She glanced aside at me, and her eyes glittered darkly for a moment. She almost smiled, and there was a sort of vindictive satisfaction to her tone when she spoke. "But it's going to make a fantastic story."
Damn right it is, Susan Rodriguez.  I'm sure we're supposed to think ill of you for daring to profit off this, but you have been drugged, mind-controlled, and nearly abandoned to die, and you are the only person we know who's trying to crack the masquerade on the parade of magical horrors running unchecked across the world, so as far as your journalistic career goes, you have my goddamn sword.

Chapter Fifteen: Somewhere Alison Bechdel's Scar Is Burning

It turns out that the cop car was sent there by Murphy to pick Dresden up, and that's because she wants him to check out the scene of Linda Randall's murder that night.  So that's both our sex workers dead now.  Butcher knows when he wants to be consistent (kill the sex women) and when he doesn't (worldbuilding).  The cops let naked Dresden grab some clean clothes (sweatpants and a t-shirt that says "Easter has been canceled--they found the body", perfect for a murder scene) and drive him over there.  The banter starts up immediately and I am trying to imagine a person who wouldn't wish harm on Dresden after thirty seconds listening to him talk.
"Dresden," she said. She peered up at me. "You planning on having King Kong climb your hair?" 
I tried to smile at her. "We still need to cast our screaming damsel. Interested?" 
Murphy snorted. She snorts really well for someone with such a cute nose.
I don't know what any of this means.  I actually miss Wheel of Time and its compulsive capitalisation and 'here are the sixteen different names we have for this thing'.

In another weird quirk, Murphy explains that Linda was killed in the same manner as "Tommy Tomm and the Stanton woman".  Was that actually easier or more natural to say than 'Jennifer'?  Really?  Would anyone call Tommy 'the Tomm man'?  No.  That's a reference reserved only for women to make them sound less like people.  Just put on your fedora and admit you'd rather call them all 'females', Butcher.

After actually being pretty consistent about not being able to guess at his wizard enemy's gender last chapter, Dresden immediately starts defaulting to 'he' and calling them "the Shadowman" as he explains his new storm-magic theory to Murphy.  Quite reasonably, Murphy wants to know how he failed to consider this option before now.  I know we readers are new to magic and so these ideas aren't going to leap to mind, but if tapping storms is an adequate replacement for things like getting twelve other people to perform a ritual with you that requires absolute trust and unity, I feel like maybe it would be a more commonly considered method.  Like, if you talk to an engineer about possible engines for a doomsday machine, they're not going to say 'I don't understand, it's impossible to get this kind of power from coal... unless... unless they somehow managed to tap the power of the atom!'  They're going to say 'Well, it's stupidly dangerous, but I guess this thing has a fission reactor'.  Dresden has acted throughout this sequence like he and his enemy are inventing storm magic as they go along, but he's talked about it like established fact.

I pause here to note again that I would probably be less petty about this if Dresden weren't an awful person navigating a world that hates women and people of colour.  I guess my point is that this book is not only socially reprehensible, but I don't think there's any case to be made that the 50s-era patriarchal morality is something that's worth suffering through for the sake of the great magical story.

Dresden scopes out Linda's apartment (he's pretending he never met her, because Murphy would have questions) and it looks about the way you'd figure a thirtysomething white guy likes to imagine a sex worker's apartment looks: lingerie everywhere, half-burnt candles on every flat surface around the giant bed, an open drawer full of sex toys, unused kitchenette full of pizza boxes.

Distinctly absent from the description: literally anything that would suggest Linda was an actual person.  No books or movies or half-finished knitting lying around, no photographs of friends or family or holiday memories, no gecko in a terrarium.  Not even a terrible manuscript about a sex worker, a dashing foreign prince, and the tumult of their courtship.  Butcher actively dismisses the idea that Linda's life could not be summed up with 'fucks people for money'.

He nevertheless makes an effort to tag her as sympathetic anyway: Dresden feels "a sudden pang of understanding and empathy for Linda", since the emptiness of the apartment has much in common with his own (but even he has a cat and a blasphemous t-shirt, which is more depth than she's been granted).  Seeing her body (murdered in the same heart-ripping manner as the others), he thinks about her personality, "a quick wit [...] sly sensuality [...] a little hint of insecurity", which is still more a sex fantasy than a person, but I'm willing to give Butcher a D for effort.  Dresden is still particularly hung up on someone murdering with magic, which I get is a cultural taboo for him but remains weird to me.

(Before I forget: Linda is also naked, because she just got out of the bath.  Dresden notes her tan lines.  Help me.  Someone.)

The forensics team falls silent at his approach, and Dresden sees in their faces the deep fear of scientists faced with "bloody evidence that three hundred years of science and research was no match for the things that were still, even after all this time, lurking in the dark."  Perhaps it's fitting for Dresden's arrogance that he wouldn't realise the only reason 'science' can't explain magic is that it hasn't had a chance.  Magic still has observable, reproducible rules.  That's all you need in order to do science.  Though it pains me to say it, Dresden is a scientist of magic.  Dresden even knows exactly what happened here (murder-wizard tapped the storm to kill Linda) but he insists he doesn't have the answers they're looking for and walks away.

Murphy gives us the timeline: Linda called 911 to say she knew who killed Jennifer and Tommy, then the phone cut off as the spell hit her.  She's also done the digging to know that Linda's employers, the Beckitts, had a daughter who was killed three years earlier in a gunfight between Marcone's mob and "some of the Jamaican gang that was trying to muscle in on the territory back then".  (Is this the first mention we've had that black people exist in this universe?)  Dresden immediately concludes that Mrs Beckitt's "numb face and dead eyes" are fully explained by this loss.  Marcone, of course, dodged any legal case the Beckitts took at him.

Murphy reveals that she found Dresden's card (he gave one to Linda) but hasn't yet added it to evidence, and demands to know what he knows.  He roundabout admits to having spoken to her, that she said she knew nothing, and she used to work for Bianca.  Murphy, at long last, loses her fucking chill, slams Dresden against the door, and points out that if he'd told her this right away, not only might the police have gotten information from her, but she might not have been murdered.
She stared up at my face, and she didn't look at all like a cutesy cheerleader, now. She looked like a mother wolf standing over the body of one of her cubs and getting ready to make someone pay for it.
As much as I think physical intimidation is not admirable, I'll take a million of this Murphy over forehead-kisses nurse-mother-girlfriend Murphy.  (Also, points to Murphy for properly valuing even the one-dimensional Linda the author has given us.  Dresden is morose about how all of this relates to him and his Feelings; Murphy is just furious that another of her citizens is dead.)

Dresden considers what limited information he's still withholding from Murphy (that Linda had said she was coming to see him tonight) and decides to keep on withholding it, for fear that she'll either decide he is the killer (a vengeful boyfriend jealously taking out Linda's other lovers first) or that she'll draw Shadowman's attention and end up murdered next.  I cannot fathom how telling Murphy that Linda had called him before 911 would somehow raise her profile (she's already leading the investigation), but Dresden seems pretty convinced that it will, and that's good enough for him.
Then, too, there was the White Council. Men like Morgan and his superiors, secure in their own power, arrogant and considering themselves above the authority of any laws but their own, wouldn't hesitate to remove one police lieutenant who had discovered the secret world of the White Council.
Wait, what.

WhAT


Okay, we've been operating this far on the induction that there isn't strictly speaking a Masquerade in this world.  That there's no wizarding law against mundane people knowing that magic and demons re real, but it's mostly dismissed as fairy tales.  So Dresden lists himself in the phone book as a wizard, so that people specifically looking for magic solutions know who to call, and we can presume that over the next few decades the social trends that Dresden listed for us earlier will lead to a rediscovery of the supernatural sides of the world.

And now here's Dresden saying that the Masquerade is actually to be protected at any cost, up to and including the death of any mundane person who learns too much of the truth.  The White Council might literally murder a cop for successfully tracking down a killer wizard.  Dresden is in fact putting people in mortal danger every time he tells them he can perform a cantrip to find their missing shed key.

I've talked a lot about inconsistency in this book, but holy fuck.

Dresden doesn't look at Murphy as he says again that he knows nothing more, so he can only "sense [...] the little lines of hurt and anger around her eyes" and he's not certain if she wipes away a tear before passing Dresden's card over to Carmichael for tagging.  She asks Dresden to come to the station to make a statement (he refuses) and says she'll get a warrant if he's not home to be questioned in the morning.  And, of course, declares that if he is behind this she'll take him down, magic or not.

It occurs to me that her sudden flare of aggression earlier was perhaps less 'Murphy finally stops coddling Dresden' and more 'Murphy is a woman brimful with chaotic emotions and cannot be dispassionate like Dresdenman'.
I understood the pressure she was under, her frustration, her anger, and her determination to stop the killing from happening again. If I was some kind of hero from a romance novel, I'd have said something brief and eloquent and heartrending. 
But I'm just me, so I said, "I do understand, Karrin."
I assume we're supposed to think that is eloquent and heartrending under the circumstances, but Dresden is too humble to realise what a romantic hero he is.

That is roughly the end of the chapter, but one more question about the total lack of worldbuilding in this book: who is supposed to investigate magic killings here?  The White Council knows that there have been murders, but apart from Morgan's pet theory that Dresden is evil incarnate, they don't seem to care much.  There are apparently no wizard cops checking out the scene or following leads (if there were, Dresden would hopefully contact them), but the council is apparently also happy to kill any mundane cop who digs too deep into wizard business, including murder.  If Dresden weren't around, who would actually be there to identify and stop the killer?  It's tempting to say they don't care unless the killer is targeting other wizards, but Dresden also seems pretty sure that any magical murder is the worst taboo possible, so... yeah, I'm really lost.

Next time: tracking magic absolutely exists and this whole plot is nonsensical.

---

*I suppose I should make a consistent note that these books don't have chapter titles and I'm just making them up for funsies, lest new readers be confused that the titles are so much more entertaining and thoughtful than the text.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Storm Front, chapters twelve and thirteen, in which Dresden must endure women throwing themselves at him

I keep taking weeks off between Dresden posts, because I just cannot with him, but the downside is that it can feel like I'm taking forever to get anywhere in this book, and every page is more of the same: Dresden is insufferable and the people around him talk smack about him while making it glass-clear that he is Amazing and Dangerous and they don't really mind how terrible he is after all.

For fun reading, I'm currently halfway through the second Alloy of Law book by Brandon Sanderson, and while I have my issues with his philosophies and I think the protagonist is some kind of Boredom Singularity, at least Sanderson has the courtesy to surround his grim tough protagonist with a cast of vastly more entertaining people, even including multilayered nonsexualised women, people of colour, and--le gasp--people who might not be straight or cis.  And they criticise the hero for good reason, and he takes those criticisms to heart and tries to change his behaviour (slowly).  I could probably stomach Dresden more easily if this book included, for example, a scene where the Lord God Himself calls Dresden out for being such a misogynist tool.

Storm Front
Chapter Twelve: Tsundere and Lightning*

Let's just... get through this together.

Dresden awakens twenty minutes later in Murphy's office; she's cushioned his head and feet and is busily holding cold compresses on his forehead and throat but tragically not his mouth.  Dresden immediately takes the opportunity to 'joke' about his secret fantasy of Murphy in a nurse outfit.
"A pervert like you would.  Who hit your head?" she demanded. 
[....] Her hands were no less gentle with the cool cloth, though. 
[....] "If you didn't already have a concussion, I'd tie your heels to my car and drive through traffic."
The above three lines basically summarise all of Dresden's interactions with Murphy here: she makes it clear verbally that she has nothing but disdain, scorn, and animosity for Dresden, while also taking the utmost care to personally ensure his wellbeing.  Giving him first aid herself, okay, that makes some sense for a practical person like Murphy.  Then he tries to get up and hurls all over her office floor, so--without a word--she cleans off his face, gives him another cool cloth on the neck, and personally drives him back to his apartment.
But mostly I remember the way her hand felt on mine--cold with a little bit of nervousness to the soft fingers, small beneath my great gawking digits, and strong.  She scolded and threatened me the entire way back to the apartment.
The picture of Murphy this gives us is less 'complicated' than 'someone's very specific kink'.  She's tiny and soft and feminine and nervous, but cares for him like a nurse and scolds him like a mother.  I'm pretty sure there are women who get paid a very good hourly rate to deliver this precise fantasy of denigration/adoration to men, but do we need one of them in a cop outfit to be our ostensible female lead here?

Murphy hauls Dresden into his dark apartment (all the lightbulbs burnt out last week) and declares that she's putting him in bed after she lights some candles.  The phone rings, next to Dresden:
"Mister Dresden, this is Linda. Linda Randall. Do you remember me?" 
Heh. Do men remember the scene in the movie with Marilyn standing over the subway grating? I found myself remembering Linda Randall's eyes and wondering things a gentleman shouldn't. 
"Are you naked?" I said. It took me a minute to register what I'd said. Whoops.
Pictured: Agent Scully, praying for our deliverance from this creepy fucker.

Murphy, as part of her new 'service top' designation, goes to make Dresden's bed and give him phone privacy.  Linda has decided she does have a lead for Dresden after all, and wants to meet him tonight--Dresden has forgotten about the "date" that Susan Rodriguez "tricked" him into tonight, and agrees anyway.

Naturally, every sentence Linda speaks just overflows with seduction and implications of imminent nudity.  I won't quote them, because they're truly not worth inflicting on you, but it's important that you understand just how dedicated Butcher is to this AU where sex workers are literally compelled to hit on everyone all the time regardless of the subject matter.  They're talking about her friend's murder investigation, and she's no longer trying to distract him like she supposedly was last time--this is just who Butcher has decided she is.

Murphy is of course exasperated that Dresden has apparently made a date for tonight, and in response to his assertion that she's just jealous, snorts back:
"Please. I need more of a man than you to keep me happy." She started to get an arm beneath me to help me up. "You'd break like a dry stick, Dresden. You'd better get to bed before you get any more delusions."
I understand that we live in a dystopia where romcoms and bad subplots have cemented the notion that any form of woman-rejects-man can and will be used to foreshadow their eventual hookup.  From that, it's hard to find any way to legitimately shut that down in the text.  However, Murphy here has 1) interpreted "you're just jealous" not to mean "you can't get a date" but rather "you wish you could date me" and 2) rejected him on the basis of his supposed sexual inadequacy, which is the type of thing that gets treated as a flirtatious challenge ("why don't you try me?") that no Red-Blooded American Man like Dresden can truly allow to stand.  If there is any reliable way to cancel out sexual tension, it doesn't involve saying 'I've thought about sex with you and decided I am too sexually aggressive for it'.  Which is fine if you actually want to flirt, but supposedly Murphy does not, so what the hell.

She could have avoided all this by passing Dresden over to a police paramedic or getting a rookie constable to drive him home.

Dresden thinks he remembers what he's forgotten: he said he'd call Monica Sells.  Murphy resignedly helps him do so, grumbling about how "my first husband" was just as stubborn.  (I figured this meant he was dead, but a quick google informs me that they divorced and he's going to be a minor antagonist later on, because of course.)  A little kid answers Monica's phone, screams for mom, and wanders off.  Monica herself is in full Stepford mode and discreetly asks to "cancel my order", which Dresden thinks is weird but apparently not suspicious.
I thought I heard a voice in the background, somewhere, and then the sound went dead except for the static. For a moment, I thought I'd lost the connection entirely. Blasted unreliable phones. Usually, they messed up on my end, not on the receiving end.
I will completely break from form here to observe that, artistically speaking, Butcher is good at this: making innocuous statements that solidly imply information to the reader while keeping the character plausibly ignorant.  Here, for example, I would bet my own bone marrow that he's indicating that there is wizardry happening at Monica's house, messing with the phone, but Dresden never phones other wizards and he is generically Unwell, so he doesn't realise that this is literally the reverse of his usual problem.

There, I said something nice about Jim Butcher's writing skills.  Let it not be said I cannot be a kind and generous hater.

Murphy takes Dresden's temperature, checks his eyes with a penlight, and gets him some aspirin, continuing with her nurse deal.  I'm really confused about what's supposed to be wrong with him at this point: he's dazed because he got concussed yesterday, that makes sense, and that can mean all sorts of bad things, but why does she keep acting like he's feverish, covering him with cold cloths and such?  If you get a fever as a result of a head injury, I'm pretty sure you should see a doctor immediately.  Is Murphy taking care of Dresden so she can quietly end him?
I only remember two more things about that morning. One was Murphy stripping me out of my shirt, boots, and socks, and leaning down to kiss my forehead and ruffle my hair.
The rising level of mother subtext for Murphy, in addition to running against everything else about her character, is raising some uncomfortable questions about Dresden's fantasies.  ...Well.  Some further uncomfortable questions, anyway.

The second thing Dresden remembers is that the phone rings again, Murphy answers, and tells them they have the wrong number.  Not sure what that's about, but at least Dresden falls asleep and the chapter ends.

Chapter Thirteen: Title Drop

Dresden awakens that night as a thunderstorm rages outside.  Murphy folded his coat and left him some cash with a note that "You will pay me back"--because it's not like she likes him or anything!  (I've seen this anime.  We've all seen this anime.  It's every anime.)  Dresden puts his coat on in the dark, still shirtless, so now instead of a generic grim detective, he looks like a rejected model for the generic grim detective calendar.

Dresden mulls the way he can "feel the storm, in a way that a lot of people can't", because hearing how special he is hasn't gotten old yet.  I would be fine with him observing it, thinking about exactly the same stuff that he says here (how it's a huge knot of energy, all four classical elements in the wind and the rain and the lightning racing down to the earth), if he could maybe just say these things instead of emphasising how he FEELS SO MUCH MORE because he's just better than non-wizards.  More plot-relevantly, Dresden realises that a wizard with limited self-preservation instincts could tap into a storm to fuel the murder magic he had theorised about previously, and that there was a storm Wednesday night as well.  The mystery begins to unravel maybe!

But that's enough plot progression for now; time to pour on the filler.  Somebody knocks at the door; Dresden expects it to be Linda (silently thankful that, with her, it probably doesn't matter if he's disgustingly unshowered and such, uuuuugh) but of course it's Susan Rodriguez, here for their date.  Dresden lets her in and she shows off her form-fitting backless dress for a while before asking if he's working overtime on the magic murder and if he'd make a statement.
I winced.  She was still hunting for an angle for the Arcane.
Dresden.  That's literally her job and you knew from the start that was the point of this.  She dates people to get at their secrets.  That is the only conceivable reason anyone would date you, because you're terrible.  Dresden leaps into the shower and then leaps out again minutes later when he sees through the window that Linda has arrived:
I couldn't let Linda just come to the door and have Susan answer it. That would be the cattiest thing you've ever seen, and I would be the one to get all the scratches and bites, too.
Why am I inflicting this on you?  Because you have to know.  If I have to suffer through this mess, then by Eru Iluvatar you will all leave my blog knowing down to your deep tissues that this character is unequivocally a misogynist catastrophe (and his author's got a lot to answer for too).

Thankfully we get a break, because it's not really Linda at the door, but a demon that has just barely been holding together an illusion until now.  Susan of course screams uselessly as it hocks a shot of acid at Dresden, who dives behind the sofa and tells her to get back in the kitchen.

Awk.
"Susan!" I shouted. "Get back toward the kitchen! Don't get between it and me!" 
"What is it?" she screamed back at me. 
"A bad guy." [....] 
"Why isn't it coming in?" Susan asked from the far corner, near the door. Her back was pressed to the wall, and her eyes were wide and terrified. My God, I thought, just don't pass out on me, Susan.
This is the kind of objective female inferiority that makes it impossible to pass off all of the misogyny as being Dresden's bias creeping into the narration.  I mean, yes, Dresden judging her harshly for not handling it well when her lousy date gets interrupted by an acid frog monster, that could just be him.  But the decision that Rodriguez, composed investigator and magic-sleuth, should turn into a screaming wreck incapable of even running for safety at the first glance at a short demon, that was Butcher's doing.
"Can it get in?" she said. Her voice was thin, reedy. She was asking questions, gathering information, data, falling back on her ingrained career instincts--because, I suspected, her rational brain had short-circuited.
Pictured: Princess Bubblegum cutting someone off and sending them to jail.

No, Dresden, you colossal jackass, that is VITAL FUCKING TACTICAL INFORMATION at this moment.  She's not being a stupid drone; she's determining what's safe and not, since that will seriously impact how you two respond to this invasion.  Sigh.  Dresden shoves her down into the basement (with a brief interlude as Rodriguez notices that his towel has fallen off and he's naked) and then does battle with the demon, hurling a gale-force wind in its face and commanding it dramatically to get out.  It's too powerful even for naked Dresden and his mighty staff (which he summoned into his hand and now holds straight out from his body--everyone praise the ancestor of your choice that this book wasn't illustrated), so he tells Rodriguez to drink the escape potion from earlier (oh god, we saw this coming).  That fails to spirit her away, but she also finds Dresden's revolver, climbs back up the stairs, and unloads all six rounds, giving them time to... run back downstairs.  Well.  Classic horror movie mistake, but okay, at least Rodriguez tried.

And now, of course, it's time for the wacky shenanigans, because Dresden uncovers the copper circle he inlaid in the basement floor, pulls Susan into it with him, and erects an unbreakable anti-demon barrier (also acid-proof, apparently).  Demons can't remain summoned during the day, he explains, so they just have to stay in the circle for the next ten hours and they'll be fine.

It is at this point that Bob the Sex Offending Skull points out what we all realised would inevitably happen back in chapter eight: Susan didn't drink the escape potion; she drank the love potion and she will now disregard their safety in favour of trying to get Dresden to bang her on this concrete floor before they die.

Hang on a second here.

We all know love potions are fucked up; overriding someone's mind and consent is not cool under any circumstances.  But this isn't even a love potion--this is a fucking potion.  Rodriguez isn't suddenly filled with admiration for Dresden's (hypothetical) virtues, she doesn't weep for the family they will never get to make together, she doesn't suddenly ask if she can somehow save him by sacrificing herself.  She stops caring about anything (including her own life) except getting that pasty wizard D.  I'm all in favour of love and sex in whatever combination makes everyone happy, but there are only two conclusions that we can draw here:

Option 1: 'love potion' is a euphemism for 'elixir that causes the drinker to stop wanting anything except sex with one particular person'.  Evidence in favour: classically, love potions lead to sex in most stories, probably because they're introduced as an excuse to get two people to have sex in an unusual circumstance.  Evidence against: the brewing of this potion involved candlelight and love poetry and the sorts of things that are supposed to be associated with high-minded romance, with sex as a possible consequent rather than the entirety of the event.

Option 2: 'do me here and now' is the specific response of Susan Rodriguez to this love potion, because like most women in this book she is nothing more than a projection of lust and she cannot fathom any way to express affection other than sex.  Evidence in favour: look, you've all read as much of this book as I have; you know what it means for her to be pretty and female and brown.  Evidence against: ...

...

Maybe I'll have something by next time.  (Merciful spoiler: they don't have sex.)

---

*I suppose I should make a consistent note that these books don't have chapter titles and I'm just making them up for funsies, lest new readers be confused that the titles are so much more entertaining and thoughtful than the text.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Drizzt Do'Urden and the failure of fantasy racism

(Content: discussion of racism and other oppression.  Fun content: I hope you like elves.)

I should preface this with a giant disclaimer (in case there was any question) that I'm white, so this whole post is an extended 'it seems to me...' and I don't want to speak over anyone's experiences.  I don't think I've seen anyone address this specific flaw to supposedly progressive fantasy; I'd be happy to link to any such works if y'all know of them.  (Also, I think a lot of what I say below can translate to representation of other demographics and types of oppression, like LGBT people and comic book mutants, but it's Black History Month, so that's where we focus.)

Pictured: either my family tree or a box of assorted entertainment crackers; who can tell?

The best thing that speculative fiction can do is show us a bizarre new world that loops into our real mundane world right now and gets us to see something in a new way.  Consider classic Star Trek's episode about an alien cop chasing a fugitive, each of them literally half paper-white and half ink-black, divided down their centre line, but the cop is convinced that he's racially superior because he's black on the correct side.  The Snowpiercer movie (thankfully nothing like the original comic) is a beautiful, layered, sickening, and ruthless exploration of capitalism and literal class war.  And if I start talking about Discworld novels we'll be here all day.

Countless stories--like Star Trek there, and like Forgotten Realms and Lord of the Rings and X-Men and basically every other serialised speculative story sooner or later--take the opportunity to criticise racism, usually by showing us elves and dwarves scowling at each other or something.  The first problem with this kind of scenario is that it extrapolates human 'races' (a nebulous and nonscientific concept) into entirely different species, so that the story is about (white) humans learning to get along with weird other-y pseudo-natural entities (of colour?).  We can do better.  But, at the same time, there's no reason that identifying with the badass werewolves or dragons or fae should be restricted to white people either, so yes, let's have elves with high tops:

Pictured: painting of an armored elf with distinctively black features, by Nick Robles.

Running with this, writers sometimes give us a paragon of virtue like Drizzt Do'Urden.  Drizzt is one of the most iconic characters in modern fantasy: a renegade drow (dark elf, literally black-skinned) from the underground city of Menzoberranzan who grew up disgusted by his people's cruelties and so ran away to the surface, where he roams the land of Faerun slaying monsters and rescuing the helpless.  He is, of course, nevertheless hounded at every turn by people who see his black skin and assume he's a monster.  I won't speak to authorial intention here, because I haven't read RA Salvatore's mind at any point in the last thirty years, but there's only one common reading of Drizzt's story and what it symbolises for our world.  We readers look at these presumptuous bigots, who think the only good dark elf is a dead one, and scorn them for failing to get to know Drizzt before judging him.  We know better and we are enlightened.

Drizzt is a good guy.

Drizzt isn't like other drow.

Drizzt is one of the good ones.  A credit to his kind.

#notalldrow

But the thing about those narrow-minded common peasants who flinch or scream at the sight of Drizzt walking into town is that they're only wrong this time.  With literally any other member of his species, they'd be absolutely right to freak out, because a powerful and sadistic murder-specialist would have just said hello.  That's not racism; that's basic probability and pattern recognition.

Fantasy racism like a fear of dark elves is ultimately a terrible allegory for real-world racism because the dark elves have worked long and hard to gain that reputation for monstrosity, whereas in the real world white history is basically a laundry list of the other nations and peoples we've slaughtered and enslaved and oppressed for monetary gain, political power, or occasionally just for sadistic fun.  In order for Drizzt the onyx-black elf hero to be an actual metaphor for black people in North America, our continent would have to live in constant fear of invasion from a subterranean army of African-diaspora wizard-ninjas, and I figure there can't be more than five or six million registered voters who actually think that's a concern.

What I'm getting at when I say #notalldrow is that Drizzt's experience, being a variously privileged individual walking into vulnerable spaces full of people who have been hurt before by people who look like him (and who know that he has the power to hurt them further), is the experience of the oppressing class, not its victims.  White people, especially but not exclusively white men: we're the drow.  When Drizzt sees someone afraid of him at first glance, it's not because they've been arbitrarily taught that black people are inherently inferior and disgusting.  If we read these scenarios and all we think is "Bah, foolish bigots, we Drizzt would never be so villainous!" we're only reinforcing the idea that vulnerable people owe us their reflexive trust or they're the real racists.

To the credit of Drizzt's fictional persona, he sympathises with these people and is patient with the caution strangers take around him.  At least, this is a good aspect of his character if it's taken as a model for, say, white people to not go around acting indignant that people of colour aren't always ecstatic about our presence.  From the 'surface' reading of his story, where Drizzt is the victim and he is patient with having to work to personally win over every single racist he meets... that's suboptimal to say the least.  The tangle that this kind of speculative fiction has made of power dynamics makes it harder to draw any conclusive arguments out of the text beyond a lukewarm 'everyone should be good to each other'.  That kind of 'equal opportunity learning' gives us stuff like the unholy mess that was Disney's Pocahontas, in which the indigenous Powhatans are also guilty of prejudice against strangers just because the white people are here to conquer, pillage, and murder.  I cannot even.

Fantasy racism doesn't speak to real-world racism as long as it seeks to justify its existence: as long as those simple innocent farmers are afraid of orcs because orcs are literally and objectively the twisted embodiment of malevolence forged by an evil god to burn the world, fearing orcs isn't racism, it's self-preservation.  Fantasy that wants to tell us that racism is bad has to start by admitting that racism isn't a defense mechanism but a weapon--a philosophy that helps the people in power convince everyone else that it's okay to kill and exploit those other people, without provocation, because they just don't deserve any better.  Stopping racism is about acknowledging and revealing and destroying that idea, and it's got to be done in us, the privileged, oppressing class.

I'd love to add some examples here of fantasy racism done properly (purely as propaganda and not based on objectively truth) but... I'm not sure I can think of any.  Even in Discworld, the conflicts between trolls and dwarves ultimately come back to 'both sides bear guilt'.  In the Warcraft universe, primary example of a setting where orcs are heroic protagonists as often as villains, the orc-human divide stems back to those one or eight times that the orcish horde got cursed into raging berserkers and tried to burn down the planet.  In settings like Star Trek (and often Star Wars, depending on the book) aliens often are pretty one-dimensional in ways apparently defined by their species.  I think a good case can be made regarding house elves in Harry Potter, but that'd be a book unto itself and there are plenty of people who feel the text ultimately fails to make a proper case distinguishing the racist propaganda from the truth.  If any of you readers have encountered a good speculative treatment of how racism functions that doesn't make these kinds of errors, I would love to hear about it.

Let me end by sharing with you a quote from Chris Rock, in an interview from 2014 which I was lucky enough to encounter this week:
So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years... The question is, you know, my kids are smart, educated, beautiful, polite children. There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.
Hope everyone's been having a good Black History Month.