Cold Days - Jim Butcher

~~Moved from GR~~


Cold Days (Dresden Files #13)

by Jim Butcher


Recommended to Carly by: 13 other books in the series
Recommended for: action-loving Dresdenites

Welp, the pun must be spoken: this book left me cold.

As regards this review:

  • If you're new to The Dresden Files, don't start here. The first books are a little shaky, so if you're not a purist, I suggest trying Summer Knight or Dead Beat.
  • If you've read the last 13 books and are trying to gauge this one, just go pick up the book. You know you're going to anyway.
  • If you've already read this and are interested in other peoples' reactions, if you're a fan...well, I had some issues with this book. Please don't hurt me. One of the impressive aspects of the series is that it appeals to a very wide audience, and I'm apparently the lone voice cheering on Ghost Story, which pretty much predicts my reaction to this. If you're bored enough to read this, I suggest scrolling to the bottom instead--I have a compendium of currently unsolved mysteries and my favourite crackpot theories.


(So spoilerific for the previous books that it gets a pagebreak--but although it's freaking Spoiler City for the previous books in the series, it's Cold-Days-spoiler-free.)

The truth is that I simply did not enjoy reading this. Put it this way: I read at the gym, and when I was trying to read Cold Days, I skipped, procrastinated, and even read scientific papers to avoid jumping back into Cold Days.

In terms of plot, there is a lot of action. A lot. Harry Dresden's life has a pattern: three or four days of hectic action, injuries, and crisis, followed by six months or so of downtime and recovery. Here, the timespan is constricted: other than the first chapter, this entire 500-page book takes place over less than 36 hours. It is probably also one of the biggest game-changing books apart from #3 and #12. We finally get to see the face of the Big Bad who has been manipulating so many of the events since Storm Front (and it's exactly who you think it is). Actually, I thought it was a bit of a letdown, as I don't find that particular paranormal particularly scary.

[I basically find Lovecraftian critters hilarious rather than scary. Maybe I read Lovecraft too young, but his beasties always remind me of this three-part flip book I had as a kid where you could put the head of a crocodile on a cow, etc. I also thought it was a total letdown that Dresden was so easily able to defeat them-- how will they be remotely threatening as the Big Apocalyptic Baddies?]

(show spoiler)

We find out more about Demonreach and Rashid. A few more mysteries get opened up, and certain characters' lives are changed irrevocably. Perhaps the biggest change, however, is the power level. Dresden has continued to "power up" throughout the series, but here he finally swaps from an impressively strong mortal to a supernatural mover and shaker. And one consequence that I loved from this is that, although the conflict between the underdog and the big strong supernatural continues, Dresden is no longer the underdog. Instead, he's the one underestimating his enemies and getting outwitted by his magical inferiors. Maybe it's due to my current ambivalence about Dresden, but I loved this.

[Favorite moment? Dresden is totally pwnd by a bunch of tiny faeries. Awesomeness.]

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My lack of enjoyment here made me try to understand what I love about the Dresden Files. I love it in the same way I loved the Harry Potter series: a wide, imaginative, and well-built kitchen sink world, a huge host of entertaining characters, plenty of humour and absurdism, and--joy of joys--a huge and well-thought-out plot arc with tons of clues sprinkled into the various books. As an inveterate mystery reader, I love developing intricate conspiracy theories, galvanized by the knowledge that the author is intentionally trying to drop clues.

My favorite moments of the Dresden Files are the crazy absurdist collisions between worlds: plant monsters at WalMart, Dresden attempting to hold a woman up at duckpoint, attack by flying purple monkeys, a cabbage patch doll as a humunculous, the holy water paintball gun, a villain attempting to sell Harry on ebay, accidental computer damage, and, of course, zombie Sue. In terms of characters, I identify most heavily with sidekicks and have more of an affection-exasperation relationship with Harry Dresden. The books where I warm to Harry are the ones in which he tends to be innocent, but outcast and distrusted by those he loves. My favorite book is Small Favor, partially because of that confrontation with Michael. I also really liked Ghost Story--I loved it when Harry lost the power to mindlessly blast difficulties out of his way and was forced to confront the consequences of his actions. I thought that in Ghost Story, Harry had finally begun to grow up, to recognize the fallout from his choices, and, during his interaction with Fitz, begin to see that you can't divide the world into "good guys" and "bad guys" and just blast all the "bad guys" to hell.

Which is probably why Cold Days was such a shock. I mean, I get it. Dresden is on one of those textbook "Hero's Journeys"--let's say he's on Leeming's Mythology: The Voyage of the Hero, because I like that one. He recently went through that whole "death/lament" part and now he's on the "descent into the underworld" bit: he might be alive, but he's bound, body and soul, to a chaotic and malignant force. But even if I understand what is happening, it doesn't necessarily make for a likable book. And seriously, how did he learn nothing from the last book? Nothing at all? One of the things Jim Butcher has always been quite good at capturing is negative twists in Dresden's psyche. Dresden's infection by Lash is extremely noticeable from book 6 onward, where he suddenly becomes uncharacteristically savage. I didn't enjoy that, and I really didn't enjoy this. Dresden's winter mantle not only makes him revel in violence; it also increases his pride, his tendency to do harm to any who oppose him without regret, [I was appalled by his murder of the Sidhe who tried to make the same sort of wiseass comment that Dresden himself would have made.] to treat those around him as his expendable lackeys, [Don't believe me? Go back and look at the boat scene, where he actively puts Thomas in danger and commands Molly to expend almost all of her energy.] and--the part I was least able to cope with--an obsessive temptation to rape every woman he comes in contact with.
Cold Days Dresden made me sick.

In general, this probably would have been fine, but I felt that the minor characters were also lacking. We get introduced to a whole new host of faerie creatures--including Santa Claus, who felt reminiscent, in a badass sort of way, to Pratchett's Hogfather-- and most of the minor characters make an appearance, but there just isn't any character development. Possibly due to the whole "36 hour crisis upon crisis" plot, all of the personalities felt superficial and static to me. There wasn't even much confrontation with Harry over the changes in his personality--almost everyone seemed happy enough to play the part of comedic sycophant. There was also what I would like to think of as a regression in the way women are portrayed, possibly because I was just fooling myself that the books were getting less sexist. (Every woman but Murph and Mab [ and Lacuna ] use sexuality as their primary weapon, and at least three women literally beg Dresden to "take them." Please, pass the barf bag.) And Molly. Good god. Everything that ever disturbed me about that relationship is here in spades: his continual viewing of her as a sexual object, his tendency to manipulate her because of her feelings for him, his tendency to make decisions for her and then pretend she has free will, and their weird sexually charged interactions...add to it that he now is dreaming about raping her and that because of her gifts she can tell and I nearly stopped reading this every time she walked on-scene.

Most irritating to me were several multipage sections in which Dresden broke the fourth wall to smithereens and went off on tangents that sounded more like Jim Butcher writing some author commentary than Harry Dresden. Master of retcon Jim Butcher may be, but subtle he ain't. Perhaps the most obvious insert was a completely incongruous four-page conversation Harry has about homosexuality and people gay men having anonymous sex in parks ([sarcasm] because apparently only gay men do this[/sarcasm]), to which Harry comments that it's not his business to judge morality, etc. I know this is probably an attempt by JB to placate those who complain about the homophobia in his books, but unfortunately, I think it contains far too generalizations and is tinged with too much disgust to placate anyone. Quotes under spoilertag:

I get that he's attempting to be broadminded. I give him full points for effort. But I don't think he gets it. To me, it doesn't come out as the words of an accepting person, it comes out as the words of someone who judges/generalizes/looks down (backed up by a handy strawman) and then tries to be accepting.

'The folks who live here also call it the Magic Hedge because it's a fairly well-known hangout for men who are hoping to hook up with other men. The ratio of cruisers to bird-watchers (and don't think I didn't consider an ironic joke about binoculars and watching birds) varies depending on the time of year.'

'[This place] is a location for...unapproved liaisons. [...] What do you think of the men who come here to meet with one another?' 'Uh,' I said, feeling somewhat off balance. 'What do I think of gay guys?' 'Yes.' 'Boink and let boink, more or less.' 'Meaning?' 'Meaning it doesn't have a lot to do with me,' I said. 'It's none of my business what they do. I don't go over in their living room and get my freak on with women. They don't come over and do whatever they do with other guys at my house.' 'You don't feel that they are morally wrong to do so?' 'I have no idea if it's right or wrong.'


'Love? Is that what happens here?' 'The guys who come here for anonymous sex? Not so much. I think that part's a little sad. I mean, anytime sex becomes something so...damned impersonal, it's a shame. And I don't think it's good for them. But it's not me they're hurting.'

I just don't understand why anyone thinks it's appropriate to take homosexuality, generalize it to a risky lifestyle, and moralize about it--even if they are attempting to be accepting. It's as problematic as, say, taking Dresden, generalizing him to say that "all men dream about raping women", and then moralizing that "as long as they don't hurt other people, it's ok". Well, it's not the final sentiment that's problematic. It's that generalization step.

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Runners-up were "Harry" talking about women (specifically girlfriends/wives) communicating on multiple levels and "Harry" being uncomfortable at parties (I'm pretty sure the last party he went to was the shroud heist one in #5). I was also weirdly exasperated by 'Cat Sith's pronunciation--it's actually from "Cat Sidhe", and pronounced more like "the immortal She" than a red lightsaber dude. I feel like an editor should have caught and/or deleted these.

One of the most interesting things I discovered is that I must have liked Harry more than I thought, because reading a book with a Dresden that I pretty much actively disliked was excruciating. Detached from the main character, I also rediscovered how well the books function as noir mysteries. Sure, I'll keep reading the series--I'm addicted, they were my entrance into Urban Fantasy, and I still think they're probably some of the better "canon" UF out there. But maybe I'll wait a few books until Dresden makes it to the next step in the hero's path and I can bear to read his thoughts again. So will you like this book? Well, if, like me, you are sickened when reading the thoughts of someone daydreaming about violation and rape and murder, then be prepared for a bumpy ride. If you're there for the comedy and characters, I'm not sure. But if you like the Dresden Files for the action and excitement and drama, then this is the book for you. Stop reading reviews and go pick up Cold Days already.

Appendix (because I read this book as a mystery):

Current inexplicable anomalies/mysteries (at least, those that occurred to me while writing this review):

--Who rammed Dresden's car in Proven Guilty?
--Who carbombed Murph in White Night?
--Who was standing with Peabody in Turn Coat?
--What is going to come bursting out of Dresden's head?
--Who are Cowl/Kumori?
--Who picked up the Denarian coin in Small Favor?
--Who has Nicodemus on a schedule in Death Masks?

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Current crackpot theories:

One major benefit of not feeling much empathy for Harry is that I spent most of the book musing about various theories.
I figure I'll document them here, so that when I finish the next one, I can come back and laugh about how wrong I was.

Mac is Araquiel.
The Outsider calls Mac a "Watcher." That makes me think of the "Watchers," or "Grigori", from the Christian apocrypha. Mac strikes me as the Dresden Files type of angel: calm, taciturn, and ageless. We now know he's not human. And he brews "God's Beer". We also know that he made some sort of "choice" to no longer participate, which sounds awfully like a "Watcher." So which one? I'd swing for the one most involved with the earth, since Mac really seems into the tangibles: the location of his bar has become a safe haven and a place of peace, brewing beer seems somehow earthy, etc. And that's Araquiel. The name also sounds most similar.
If Butcher isn't invoking the Apocrypha, then I'd hypothesize that Mac is Gabriel, because given that Harry and Thomas have a "bitch-jerk" exchange in this book, TDF appears to be channeling Supernatural, so by narrative causality, both end up as the "watchers."

Elaine is Kumori and Cowl is Justin.
Seriously, no one stays dead in TDF. Justin is bound to pop back up. And even in Dead Beat, he's horribly scarred--like someone who didn't quite live through a fire, perhaps? The fact that they disguise their voices means Dresden probably knows them. In Dead Beat, Cowl calls Kemmler a madman--the words one might expect from one of the wardens who took him down. But more telling is manner of speaking to Dresden. He calls him "boy", talks to him like a strict teacher to a student, and makes all sorts of comments that seem to me to speak of familiarity and a past role as mentor. Compare the following with Justin's conversation in Ghost Story, where he repeatedly calls Dresden "boy" and "insolent child" and speaks about potential and talent and how Dresden is "disappointing". Cowl also uses fire and force, like Harry, and also uses the "X" defensive move (hands across body in an X) used by Harry and Elaine--and no other wizard we've come across.
Elaine also makes a nice fit for Kumori. She's the right height (6') to attempt to slit the throat of a 6'7'' man while holding his hair, and she seems way too familiar with him--when she meets with him in Dead Beat, she knows about his force rings but doesn't know what happened to his hand--which happened after they part in Summer Knight. She also talks about having nightmares for years that Justin is still alive and she's still under his control. From Luccio's whole situation, she could very well be correct. She and Kumori use similar magical techniques, e.g. nets, that we've seen from no one else. Last, some fun with names: Elaine means "brightness", Kumori means "cloudy."

Ebenezar is a traitor within the White Council
Turn Coat intimates that there was more than one traitor. I suspect Ebenezar. (Mainly, this is because I don't like him and I want him to be evil--but look how well that technique worked with respect to my anti-Maeve theories.) I think he's fond of Harry and tries not to hurt him, but he's still the traitor. We know he can lie--he's done little else. He's also the one who goads the Merlin into the disastrous attack in Dead Beat that leads to the almost total destruction of the White Council,then manages to be in exactly the right place to not be massacred--had he gone to the hospital, as he should have, he would have died. Instead, everyone else dies and he gets out with a few scratches. His reaction to Harry's use of the term "Black Council" is odd, to say the least--it's almost like the term means something to him. From Dead Beat onwards, he effectively isolates Harry from sharing information, talking to, or getting assistance from anyone else regarding the Black Council, even from the individuals Ebenezar himself has apparently deemed loyal enough to join the Grey Council. He explicitly dissuades Harry from talking to Rashid, claiming he may not be trustworthy. Anyway, the whole Grey Council setup is a megolamaniacal crock: only Eb knows who everyone is? Please. I think he's Black Council and pulling everyone in with him. Somehow, when all the wizards in Edinborough are laid up after the Ariana's little visit, he doesn't get sick, despite being at the wrong place at the right time. Most tellingly, to me at least, he gives orders to keep Harry out of the loop in TC...maybe for the reasons he claimed, maybe not. I find it difficult to believe that Morgan, Luccio, and even Lara all realized that Harry would be most likely to go out of his way to help Morgan, but Ebenezar didn't. Last, we know JB likes puns almost as much as I do, and I'll just bet someone will eventually say that Eb's not "the real McCoy."

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Also, one last thing: the cover bothered me,but it took a while to figure out why. Is it me, or is Dresden wearing a peacoat (with princess lines)?



Other Reviews

Believe it or not, I've written a review of every single book in the series. I may have addiction issues. Links to the complete set are below. The starred ones are my faves.

[#1] Storm Front    [#2] Fool Moon    [#3] Grave Peril    [#4] Summer Knight*    [#5] Death Masks    [#6] Blood Rites    [#7] Dead Beat*    [#8] Proven Guilty    [#9] White Night    [#10] Small Favor*    [#11] Turn Coat    [#12] Changes    [#13] Ghost Story*    [#14] Cold Days