Fiction Reviews

Howling Dark

(2020) Jim Butcher, Orbit, £20, hrdbk, 340pp, ISBN 978-0-356-50091-1


Meet Harry Dresden, Chicago’s first (and only) Wizard PI. Turns out the ‘everyday’ world is full of strange and magical things – and most of them don’t play well with humans. That’s where Harry comes in. But he’s forgotten his own golden rule: magic – it can get a guy killed.

Finally, after six years of waiting since Skin Game, Butcher’s loyal fan base have been greeted with book sixteen in his Harry Dresden series, and let’s not forget for the newcomer to this series, there is also a collection of short stories, as well as comics and graphic novels and a cancelled TV series. Oh, and what’s this? Book seventeen – Battle Ground – is already out, published not long after this one. And wait a minute. Peace Talks? Followed by Battle Ground? Oh, dear, the titles themselves would suggest that this doesn’t bode well for any peace talks that actually went on in book sixteen.

Therein lies the rub, some loyal Harry Dresden fans feel they have been short-changed, having to buy two weighty tomes when this was supposed to be one gigantic even weightier one, but Butcher’s publisher decided to divide to new book into two titles. As the title Peace Talks, would suggest, a whole host of supernatural races are about to descend on Chicago to negotiate a truce, a new way forward by signing various peace accords with the all-powerful, underwater-dwelling, Fomor, who came to the fore with the demise of the Red Court in one of the previous books and have been causing trouble ever since. As Chicago’s wizard, Harry naturally expects to have a role in the proceedings, but he is put on security duty. Does this feel a bit like grasping the poisoned chalice, especially when Harry’s grandfather Ebenezer McCoy turns up to warn Harry that some in the White Council are moving against him? If the political shenanigans weren’t enough, Ebenezer hates Harry’s friend, the vampire Thomas Raith, not realising that Thomas if actually Harry’s half-brother and his own grandson. Not only that, but McCoy wants to take Harry’s daughter into safe custody, so there is a lot of soap-opera-ish, family “stuff” happening here and as we know family means everything to Harry, sometimes letting his heart rule his head and his better judgement.

And, of course, it all ends with a cliff-hanger setting up the next book in the series, but the actually ending is a bit rushed after the leisurely pace of the early chapters with the major threat coming out of nowhere and the book just seems to stop with a rather weak climax, obviously because it should have naturally rolled into the original longer book. There’s also little in the way of the actual peace talks and the political manoeuvrings as Harry and his gang spend much of the time rushing around the edges of the main event in chapters that will feel very familiar to readers of the series as Harry seems to be going through familiar problems but with a different cast of characters.

You can’t deny the invention, the sheer power of Butcher’s fantasy world-building, but I just find Harry a bit of know-it-all, with his exposition, and jokes and winks to the reader getting in the way of the action and the drama as he explains this and that, even when he is in mortal jeopardy and about to get involved in some heavy magical duelling. Maybe it’s the first person narrative and lack of real danger that has turned me off. After all, Harry did die in a previous book and then come back to life again. But what do I know? Nothing! Scream the hordes of Butcher fans out there, whose loyalty have already turned Peace Talks into a best-seller, but for me, Harry Dresden might have passed his “best before” date.

Ian Hunter


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