Hugo Awards: Skin Game

Nominees like this are difficult to judge. It’s the 15th installment in Jim Butcher’s long-running Dresden Files series of books detailing the exploits of that other wizard named Harry. The series started out as a mashup of fantasy with detective fiction, with Harry Dresden playing the role of a PI with magical powers. He even has a listing in the phone book. Of course, as the series went on, some variation crept in, some are still traditional noirish detective stories, others not quite so formulaic. My experience with the Dresden Files actually began with the short-lived SyFy television series. Not even realizing at the time that it was based on a book series, I actually enjoyed the show quite a bit (for a time, it was on Netflix Instant and Amazon Prime streaming, but it appears that convenience is no more). It’s not one of those things that would get cited as part of the hallowed golden age of television we’re currently ambling our way through, but it was an entertaining enough series (and without going into personal circumstances at the time, it was exactly what I needed). I wish it lasted more than one season.

A few years later, and a book club run by some coworkers selected the first book in the series, Storm Front, so I figured it was time to check it out. I enjoyed that first book quite a bit, but the bounced right the hell off the second book, Fool Moon, which put me off the series for a while. Last year, after I burned out on SF, I read the third book in the series (looking for something trashy and fun), Grave Peril, and found it better than the second book, but still not quite fulfilling the entertainment quotient provided by the TV show. Then Skin Game gets nominated for the Hugo Awards this year and despite not having read the intervening 11 books, I feel like I need to give it a shot. I was a little hesitant about this because I was reliably informed that the book featured mostly long-standing characters whose personalities and motivations were rooted in earlier books.

This is certainly true, but I found that I was able to follow along well enough given my knowledge of the first three books (and even the TV series, to some extent), and indeed, the central plot here is self-contained enough to be compelling even if there were some personal matters that weren’t entirely fleshed out. I’m no expert on urban fantasy or anything, but the series seems to pull from enough folklore that I was generally able to keep up with the proceedings. I ultimately enjoyed the book heartily, and it had enough going for it that I think it compares favorably to the other nominees (such that my initial #2 ranking feels justified).

The book started off a bit on the rough side, with Harry living on the island of Demonreach, acting as a Warden to a sorta magical prison. He’s running around the island and jumping over obstacles while screaming “Parkour!” which is pretty painfully silly at first, but sorta rebounds during a few later callbacks (at one point, Butcher even acknowledges how ridiculous it is in the text, which is nice I guess, but doesn’t make it any less ridiculous). There’s a bunch of stuff going on here that is clearly from earlier novels, but it doesn’t take long for things to settle in, as Dresden’s Faerie Queen arrives to offer him a job: help fallen angel Nicodemus steal something from the vault of Hades.

It’s a heist story, complete with all the tropes, but with a nice magical twist or two thrown in for spice. Assemble the team, devise devious ways around the vault’s magical safeguards, deal with some obstacles, prepare for deception and betrayal within the group, and so on. It’s a pretty well executed heist tale too, with some neat puzzles, intrigue, double agents, and so on. I’m sure most of the characters on the team were well established in the series, but for the most part, I was able to pick up on the specialists, and the shifting allegiances weren’t hard to follow or anything like that. Of course, I recognized Harry’s primary allies in Karrin Murphy and Michael Carpenter (and, to a lesser extent, Waldo Butters and Bob the Skull), but most of the other characters were new to me. Again, I didn’t have much trouble catching on, and even grew to like a few of the characters.

As with previous books, this one feels a bit bloated, with Butcher never missing an opportunity to expound on this or that magical theory, and while I was able to follow along, there did seem to be a fair amount of what I’ll call continuity-service, consisting of references to the fallout of recent books and so on. I’ve never been a particularly big fan of the way Butcher portray’s action in this series either, and that’s also the case here, though it is better than I was expecting, and the puzzle-like nature of some aspects of the story are enjoyable. Some of it is just lingered on a little too much.

One of my problems with the earlier entries in the series is the sort of escalation of magical powers that necessarily happens in stories like these, as well as the damage that Harry typically takes on in the course of the story (usually an absurd amount that beggars belief, even assuming some sort of magical healing power). Some of that is certainly here, but there are plenty of times when Harry reasons things out for us and it all makes logical sense, which is more than I can say for some of the early novels. There’s even some explanation for why Dresden can take more punishment than normal here, which is appreciated. Butcher also has a tendency to revel in pop culture references a bit, which sometimes works, and sometimes just seems extraneous (I mean, a Black Hole reference? Another situation where Butcher explicitly has a character call out how ridiculous the reference is, which is nice and all, but doesn’t make it less ridiculous!)

I really enjoyed the heist aspects though, and there were plenty of well executed twists and turns late in the story that kept things moving at a brisk pace. I particularly enjoyed when Hades singles out Harry (during the heist, of course) to sit down and have a drink. It was probably my favorite part of the book, even if it’s a bit hokey. It’s my kind of hokey, I guess.

Ultimately, I really enjoyed the book, and I can see why this series is so popular. Not having read the previous 11 books in the series, I have to say that some of that probably sailed over my head, but I seemed able enough to follow along, and was still able to find plenty of enjoyment here. I think my #2 ranking on the ballot is warranted, and will probably remain that way. I’m also resolving to read more from this series, as from what I understand, I’m past the worst bits. Don’t hold your breath though, I’ve got plenty of other stuff to read. This basically concludes my Hugo reading for this year, though I’m sure I’ll have something to say when the winners are announced in August…

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