Jim Butcher: Skin Game, Seanan McGuire: The Winter Long

I like urban fantasy as a genre, ever since I read Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks and got hooked on the idea of there being supernatural beings in the world we inhabit, or one like it.

I’ve read a reasonable number of authors in the field, and I’m getting increasingly annoyed by the paint-by-the-numbers paranormal romance flood; a lot of the novels and authors entering the fray are perfectly serviceable, but I’d like more; more original settings, plots, and just more attention to making a good book, rather than a good-enough book.
Seanan McGuire’s latest release in her October (Toby) Daye series is The Winter Long. While there have been great things about the series, and it harkens back to my roots in the genre, the works just don’t seem completely polished. The banter and descriptions of places, items and such come occasionally as an attempt to show how knowledgeable or cool one is, without being fully convincing.
The book continues from where the previous one left off, though as usual the plot is mostly self-contained. A lot of assumptions are being made about the reader being familiar with the settings and characters, and more history and meta-plot is being revealed. In the foreword Ms. McGuire says that this is a pivotal part of the story she’d been plotting since the beginning, but unfortunately the book does not feel finished enough for it. While there’s a certain comfort that the protagonist’s relationships are more settled, and she has allies rather than going it alone (thereby saving the reader from a near-universal trope of the paranormal romance genre), being comfortable with the kind of supernatural powers that Toby hangs around with ends up feeling a bit wrong, and the awe and respect for the creatures is lost. On the other hand, the romance aspect isn’t central, and we’re largely back to a supernatural mystery, which I’m happy with.
Prose is good, the characters that have been developed are being taken for granted and don’t gain much more depth, even if they do get a bit more history, and the plot and final result seem a bit loose. Three out of five.
Having read The Winter Long, and having also just made my way through Brust’s Vlad Taltos-series, I’ve had a fair bit of protagonist heavy on narration, witty banter, and lack of respect for authority and power. But hey, let’s have more Harry Dresden.
When a friend recommended Jim Butcher and the Dresden Files to me, I picked up the first book and didn’t care for it. I then caught the unfortunately short-lived TV show, which I liked, and read a few more of the books, partly to fit in with a bunch of people who kept talking about them. And indeed, the series grew on me.
The latest book, Skin Game, is brilliant, perhaps the best in the series so far. I fear that Ms. McGuire fares poorly in a direct comparison here: Jim Butcher’s prose and characters are just solid and well crafted on an entirely higher level. The novel is set some time from the previous one, but largely picks up from its ending for all intents and purposes. Harry was left in a bit of a pickle, and he remains in it — except of course things just get hairier. The complexity of the game the powers in his world are weaving, and his role in it is fairly remarkable, as is the difficulty and moral ambiguity of the situation Butcher places his main character.

At times the prose and narration ends up taking some long detours of (self-)reflection, but in the end I think it works out quite well, bringing a clear intellectual and ethical depth to the plot. In particular, several of the supporting cast are given a lot of responsibility to put Harry in his place and show him where his worldview might need adjustment. This really helps in making the protagonist more human, not only because on a meta-level the author is willing to show us that his perfect lead isn’t nearly as well in tune with reality as he thinks, but also because it gives the character more depth when he has to face re-evaluating things. There way we see family through Harry’s eyes spoke to me a fair bit a well — perhaps it wasn’t realistic, but it hit close to home.

The pacing is noteworthy. No allowances are made for people not familiar with the characters and settings, and once the plot takes off, the foot doesn’t lift from the gas pedal. A comparison to Orphan Black‘s second season opener comes to mind. There’s one plot twist that seemed like a bit of a cheat, but over all it was very well realized indeed.

The grimness and challenges facing the protagonist feel somehow proper, rather than artificially crafted to fulfill the melodramatic quotient, and humor is expertly applied at the exact right proportion to keep things balanced. There are some nice vocabulary treats, but also clever uses of more common words.

Four and a half out of five.