A Literary Critique of ‘Battle Ground’ by Jim Butcher, Book 17 of ‘The Dresden Files’ series

Spoilers Below! You’ve been warned. Also, all reviews are subjective. My opinions are my own.

I’m about to rip this book to sheds, so I want to start this review by saying: this book isn’t bad. I’ve read worse books just this year. The trouble is that I’ve had my expectations raised by Butcher over the years. If I were to rank this, this book is easily better than the first three books published in this series. As a craftsman of words, Jim Butcher has continued to improve over the decades. ‘Battle Ground’ is a well written novel on a stylistic and prose level. The problem with this book is that’s it’s mediocre- not bad, but not good enough to be memorable.

Sometimes you fall out of love with a series, and that is fine. To me, this book feels like ‘CHANGES 2, ELECTRIC BOOGALOO.’ But where ‘Changes’ provided an excellent culmination of numerous plotlines, ‘Battle Ground’ lacks the emotional stakes present in ‘Changes.’

‘Changes’ was peak Dresden, the best writing in the series. For me at least, ever since ‘Changes’ the series has lost it’s way. Each successive book in this series is a copy of a copy of a copy of what came earlier, losing the fidelity which made the earlier books so good. There are some exceptions to this trend. I thought ‘Peace Talks’ and ‘Skin Game’ were decent enough reads. But overall I’ve fallen out of love with the series.

All that said, I’m going to do my best to remain unbiased in this review, and provide both the positives and the negatives, and also provide (unasked for) advice for how the author could have fixed the problems. Ultimately, I’m writing this critique for myself. I am an aspiring author, and by critiquing this I hope to improve my critiquing skills for my own books.


CONCEPT AND EXECUTION

What was this book’s concept, and how well was that concept executed?

This book’s concept was ‘big magical throw-down in downtown Chicago between the forces of good and evil, where the good guys are badly out-gunned. Harry has to recruit allies, new and old, in order to fight off the creatures of the night and save mankind from a watery apocalypse.’

War makes strange bedfellows, with Dresden having to team up with onetime enemies like the Summer and Winter Courts, the White Court, and even a Knight of the Blackened Denarius. Not only that, but Harry has to fight alongside the White Council, an organization he’s become estranged from for years now. Overall, I liked the whole teeth-clenched cooperation aspect of the story.

Could the execution have been better? I think so.

I would have liked if Harry actually had to re-recruit his allies throughout this book. At the end of the last book, Mab was defeated and the Unseelie Accords were at their weakest point. I wanted the Accords to fall apart, so that in this book Harry had to re-recruit the accorded nations to fight by his side to defend Chicago.

  • This would have added an additional layer of tension to the story. We would begin the book with Mab’s Accords at their weakest point ever, and thus Harry+Mab would be too weak to defeat Ethniu. Reclaiming that lost strength would be a compelling plot arc.
  • This additional plot arc would have also have had the benefit of making the plot more goal oriented. I had a problem with this book’s plot, in that it was rather listless. The heroes went from one battle to the next, constantly on the defensive, with no greater-scope plan in mind besides ‘defeat Ethniu and the Formor.’
  • This story would have been more compelling if the heroes had a solid, multi-step plan leading up to Ethniu’s defeat. In my re-write, the main plot of the story would be Dresden having to re-recruit allies. Each chapter/arc of the novel would have been focused on recruiting a different faction.
    • I thought that a lot of this book was very cluttered with unimpactful fight scenes. One way to make these fight scenes feel more impactful would be to have allies re-join as a reward for winning the battles.
    • For example,
      • by defeating the Black Court Vampires, the White Council would agree to fight (because the Black Court killed the Wardens)
      • by defeating the Jotunar, Odin would agree to fight (because Asgard hates Giants)
      • by defeating King Corb, Titania and the Erlking would agree to fight (because the Formorians and Sidhe are enemies)
      • And so on and so forth.
    • In my plot re-write, each battle the heroes won would have twofold benefits: first, it would recruit a new ally, making the Unseelie Accords alliance stronger; and second, each victorious battle would make Ethniu’s alliance weaker. That would make each battle feel more important, like the heroes were slowly clawing victory from the jaws of defeat.

Overall, I give the story’s Concept and Execution a rating of: (B-)


CHARACTERS AND CHARACTERIZATION:

This is a combat focused book, meaning the author included very few scenes of character building. You can tell this is Part 2 of ‘Peace Talks,’ because all the good characterization is in ‘Peace Talks’. This book suffers as a result. This book is all about action and forward momentum, and there is very little introspection or time to think.

  • I will say that what few moments of characterization which do exist, they are well done.
    • For example, Harry introspectively mourning the destruction of Chicago at the 50% mark was pretty good.
    • Similarly, some of Harry’s and Mab’s quiet, respectful conversations with one another helped bring new insight and depth into both characters which I’ve never realized before. Mab stopped being a cruel monster and started having human elements.
    • Harry rallying the mortal troops was good.
    • Harry going nuts and trying to kill Rudolf was A+ work.
    • After the climax, when Harry went to the Carpenters with Molly, that scene was emotionally compelling.
  • The trouble is that these moments are all too rare.

Let’s get into the big issue: Murphy’s death.

  • To discuss my perspective on this topic, we need to go back to ‘Peace Talks’ as ‘Peace Talks’ and ‘Battle Ground’ are deeply linked.
  • I liked how in ‘Peace Talks’ Harry and Murphy were set up as a couple. I wanted Harry and Murphy to get married, and to keep the dynamic of them cooperating going on for the rest of the series.
  • When you’re writing a 20+ book series, things are bound to get stagnant eventually. We’re on book 17, and this series is stagnant in so many ways. Butcher has a formula, and he sticks to it with a lot of his novels.
  • Having Harry and Murphy get hitched would have been one easy way too keep things fresh.
    • Their marriage would be a sign of personal growth from lone-wolf Harry, proving he’s willing to take the next big step in his life which he’s been avoiding for years. It would show he truly believes and treats Murph as his equal, not someone for him to chauvinistically protect. I wanted to see Dresden in an actual, normal, healthy adult relationship. A relationship not just about fighting monsters, but also about raising kids, buying groceries and doing laundry together.
    • Their marriage would feel very organic and true to both the narrative and the characters. Harry and Murphy have been friends/frenemies for literal decades at this point, and the slow-growth of their romance has been earned over 17 books.
    • This would have been great characterization, if it happened.

In light of that, Murphy dying is very disappointing. It resets the story to the status quo of Harry being a lone wolf- except it’s worse than that.

  • Murphy was one of the best characters in the series. Her death wounds the series.
    • I’m sure that for many readers of this series, like myself, Murphy was their favorite character. Murphy’s had a stellar character arc throughout the series,
      • She began the series as a cop who’s willing to break the rules and beat up suspects in order to get results. In Fool Moon she beat up Dresden trying to get answers out of him. (She was a legit ACAB),
      • She was emotionally damaged when a nightmare monster attacked her psyche, permanently traumatizing her (Grave Peril),
      • She became a redeemed sword for god to defeat literal evil (striking down the Red Court in Changes,)
      • To only suffer the setback of letting down her faith (shattering the sword) and losing her job, and having a moment of emotional collapse where she starts working with a criminal (The Brighter Future Society is operated by Marcone).
      • Leading to the present moment when even after she’s wounded and can’t fight any longer, she refuses to give up. She keeps on fighting, even after she’s been wounded.
      • Why doesn’t she give up? Because she’s Murphy. She knows she’s made mistakes, but that only drives her to try to do better. You can knock her down, you can break her bones, and she gets back up. She loves Harry, she loves Chicago and she’d do anything for them.
    • Murphy’s character arc is legit a good one; it’s better than Harry’s. Killing her makes me less compelled to read this series.
  • Her death can be interpreted as being an instance of ‘Fridging.’
    • Fridging is when a female character with agency is killed in order to give the male protagonist more motivation in a narrative. It is considered to be a cliché, and is widely discouraged in the storytelling profession.
    • This is not the first time Jim Butcher has shoved aside a female lead character in this series, though this is by far the most blatant use of fridging in the series so far.
      • Susan
        • Susan narratively died twice, first in ‘Grave Peril’ when she was turned by the Red Court and was forced to leave the narrative because she had become a monster. The second time she died was the real, final time, at the climax of ‘Changes’ when her death was the catalyst needed to wipe out the Red court.
        • I do not personally consider either of these deaths to be fridging.
      • Luccio
        • Luccio is Dresden’s other other girlfriend. She also had two narrative deaths. The first was in ‘Dead Beat’ when Cappiocorpus killed her (sorta, it’s hard to explain). Second, in ‘Turn Coat’ it is revealed that Luccio was a mind-controlled traitor to the White Council, which functioned as a narrative death because she basically left the narrative completely after that point.
        • I do not personally consider either of these deaths fridging.
    • Murphy’s death might or might not be fridging (it’s debatable, but I’m leaning pro-fridging), but without a doubt her dying DOES shove aside a powerful female character and remove her from the narrative, in a similar way to how Susan and Luccio were also shoved out of the narrative.
      • Will Murph return in the future? Probably. But if she does, her coming back from the dead will be less impactful because her death was so unimpactful.
      • Repeatedly shoving aside female characters like this is stupid. Frankly, we live in a day and age where you can’t just go around shoving aside important, vital female characters so your male protagonist can hog even more of the limelight. I’ve called out other authors for doing this, so I’d be a hypocrite for not calling out Butcher on doing this.
  • Her death seemed random. The Dresden Files has not heretofore functioned on the principle of ‘people die at random turns of events’ a la A Game of Thrones. As an author/book critic, I’m left wondering why Butcher decided to kill her off in the way she got killed off.
    • To explain, Murphy’s dying due to an accident is a fundamental change in how Butcher uses death as a narrative device in the Dresden-verse. I can’t think of another character in this 17 book series who died on accident. Consequently, Murphy dying on accident 17 books into the series rings hollow. Her death subverts audience expectations the author has established.
      • Examples:
        • Shiro died trading himself for Dresden.
        • Lash died trading herself for Dresden.
        • Susan and Martin died and took the entire Red Court with them.
        • Morgan died exposing a traitor.
        • Carmichael died fighting a monster he couldn’t beat.
        • Kirby died fighting a monster he couldn’t beat.
    • My argument is that ‘heroes die in heroic blazes of glory’ is a fundamental rule of The Dresden Files; it’s a mechanic of the narrative style Butcher uses. Does an author have the right to subvert out expectations? Of course. But when an author does seek to subvert expectations, the author must bear in mind that he/she might disappoint some readers in the process.
    • To use a semi-topical metaphor, Murphy dying because of an accident feels as out of place as the presence of sex-scenes in a Tolkien TV show. There’s a rule that you don’t have sex-scenes in Tolkien’s work, and a rule that when characters die in the Dresden-verse die in heroic last stands/making the sacrifice play. They don’t die to accidents.
  • Murphy’s death increased the emotional resonance of this story, but this emotional resonance felt cheap, without much payoff in the rest of the novel.
    • I don’t get why she needed to die; usually you kill an important side character to increase the stakes, but because she died on accident her death didn’t really increase the stakes any. If Ethniu or Corb killed her, yeah it would have upped the stakes. Dresden would want revenge, and revenge is a form of stakes. But dying to an accident? Not so much.
    • Additionally, after Murphy dies, Dresden rapidly goes back to quipping and making Bruce Li jokes. His girlfriend died literally minutes prior; why is he not an emotional wreck? If Dresden’s not sad, why should I be sad?
  • (One last thing. Isn’t Murphy Catholic? If so, why did she go to Valhalla when she died? Weird plothole.)

I’ll admit that Butcher can handle the deaths of female characters and love interests well. Susan’s death is my favorite death in any book I’ve ever read. Murphy’s death just isn’t handled well.

Okay, let’s talk about some of the other characters in this novel.

  • I don’t know how I feel about Knight of the Cross Butters.
    • The reason why I liked Butters in the first place is because he’s a hapless, adorable nerd. Not much hapless or adorable nerdishness is to be had in this novel. I’m fine with him being a badass, but hopefully in future books Butcher brings back his nerdishness.
    • I did like him using his holy blade to de-curse people, though. That was cool.
  • The parallel the author drew between Mab and Harry was actually quite neat.
    • The author framed the parallel as ‘Corruption isn’t tempting bargains made in moments of weakness. Corruption is the emotional trauma you’ve inflicted upon yourself trying to save people’s lives. Mab’s as cold hearted as she is because she’s sacrificed herself thousands of times to save her subjects, traumatizing her so much she can no longer feel kindness or pain. And Harry’s rapidly heading in that direction because he sacrifices himself so much too.’
    • In concept, quite neat. A+ use of theme. In actual practice, I’m not sure how it actually plays off. Harry isn’t that cold hearted, at least yet. He still goes out of his way to save children from a school and save mortals even when saving them are unwise tactical choices.
    • I hope the author returns to this concept in future books, but actually plays up the trauma aspect in Dresden/ PTSD in Dresden. He SHOULD be emotionally traumatized by now, but he sure doesn’t act like it.
  • Harry’s new relationship with Lara is… yikes.
    • Lara is a classy, sophisticated, fastidious predator. Harry is the opposite of that. Just… why? Their relationship goes counter to both their pre-existing characterizations. They don’t have any chemistry. Also, she’s a monster who eats people. Harry kills monsters which eat people. Not to disparage Mr. Butcher, but… wtf?
    • Okay, let’s take this plot point seriously.
      • Let’s assume Butcher is playing the long game and they will never get married, and this is just set up for another book’s plot. If such is the case, is foreshadowing right now really necessary? Couldn’t the author have introduced this plot point at the beginning of whatever book their wedding would have actually been resolved in?
      • Part of my problem stems from this plot point rising in the same book that Harry’s love interest Murphy dies. Having both these plot points popping up in the same book is WAY TOO MUCH emotional baggage all at once.
  • Gentleman Jonny Marcone + Thorned Namshiel
    • Part of Marcone’s charm is his mundane-ness, a mere mortal fighting against gods and wizards and frequently coming out on top. Making him a badass because he suddenly has a fallen angel riding shotgun behind his brain is a bit lame.
    • I’m willing to give the author the benefit of the doubt on this one, but I’m entering the next few books skeptical. Marcone is cool how he is, he didn’t need a supernatural upgrade.
  • Ethniu
    • I complained about this in ‘Peace Talks’ and I’ll complain about it again here: Ethniu is a lame villain. What’s her deal? Why is she angry? She appeared suddenly in the last book, and I have no idea what her motivations are and why she’s a big deal. She popped onto the scene in ‘Peace Talks,’ and I didn’t buy it. There wasn’t enough build-up to her.
    • I’m sorry for going back to ‘Changes’ again and again, but it provides a whole lot of positive examples for comparison. In ‘Changes,’ we knew who the Red Court were. Early in the series, Bianca was the prototypical Red Court vamp. In ‘Storm Front,’ Harry attacked Bianca. Bianca wanted revenge. She got her revenge by turning Susan. In revenge for Susan, Harry killed Bianca. Bianca’s death provided motivation for the next vamp, Ortega, to attack Dresden. Dresden killed Ortega. Ortega’s death provided motivation for Arianna. Arianna’s death provided motivation for the Lords of Outer Night and the Red King.
      • The motivation for the final battle in ‘Changes’ was seeded as early as ‘Storm Front.’ The author put in the hard work of seeding the motivation for the villains over a decade of storytelling. You can’t fake good writing; it takes hard work and time.
      • Ethniu doesn’t have that decade of storytelling backing her up. I personally think Dresden should have introduced Ethniu in ‘Ghost Story,’ made her a recurring villain throughout the Formor arc, so her defeat here felt juicier.
    • I’ve said in multiple of my prior reviews that I do not find Dresden’s villains to be compelling. Ethniu is the apotheosis of an uncompelling villain. She seemed like a Giant Space Flea out of Nowhere, meaning she popped into existence at the beginning of this duology and will cease existing once the duology is over, having almost nothing to do with the meta-plot of the series as a whole.
  • Harry
    • What’s up with the conjuritis plot point? Was it ever explained, or resolved? This felt like a plothole, but maybe I missed something.

Overall, I give the story’s Characterization a rating of: (C+)


PACING AND STRUCTURE

This is a fast paced, action heavy novel. The pacing is fast- too fast. I mentioned above that I missed slower, character focused chapters. Fast paced, combat chapters are like candy. They taste great at the time, but eventually they’ll rot your teeth out. I’m fine reading a fast paced book, but that pace must be offset with at least a little narrative meat and potatoes. There was not enough meat and potatoes in this one.

I’ve heard that originally ‘Peace Talks’ and ‘Battle Ground’ were meant to be one book, but that book was too long, so it was split in two for publication. Overall, I think this book suffered for being split in two. I think the meat and potatoes missing in this book were in ‘Peace Talks,’ and a lot of the action missing in ‘Peace Talks’ was stuffed into this book. I don’t know what the editors were thinking. That original book should have been severely edited down to become one large book, not divided into two small books.

What’s done is done. Let’s set aside the fundamental problems with this duology’s pacing, and look closer at this novel’s structure.

Books usually possess one of several structure types: The Hero’s Journey, the Three Act Format, the Five Act Format, Save the Cat! and so on. Sometimes a book is a combination of these types. I think this novel follows the 7-Beat Plot Structure. (You can find my analysis of this type of structure here.)

Here are the story beats:

  • Hook/Status Quo
    • In this book, the ‘Status Quo’ is very early on, establishing the heroes and the villains. We see Mac’s Pub, meet Lara and Murph, and are introduced to the White Council and Mab.
    • In this section of the book the author clearly establishes what the heroes stand to lose if they lose the battle with Ethniu: friends and family, and a world where normal people and the supernatural can coexist in peace. That’s the purpose of the Status Quo section, to show what is at risk/what needs to be fixed by the story’s plot.
  • Plot Turn 1/Inciting Incident
    • In this book, the Inciting Incident is a series of events including: the kraken, the early assassination attempt on Mab by the flying squid, the Black Court Vampire necromancy party, and the introduction of Huntsmen and Octokongs.
    • In my opinion, I wish the author cut all but one of these battles, and then REALLY doubled down on the one that remained. The Black Court necromancy party was BY FAR the best of these battles. If the author put more narrative juice behind that battle, it really would have set the book off with a bang. Instead, by having many little battles serving as the inciting incident, all of them are diminished in importance.
  • Pinch 1/Protagonist Acts 1
    • In this book, the Pinch 1 is when the Jotunn and kill all the Viking Revenants, forcing Harry to think creatively and recruit mortals to fight along side him. He gives them shotguns.
    • Pinch 1 is Harry saying: ‘Okay, things are really bad, and we’re no longer holding out. I’m willing to break THE BIG RULE of the Dresdenverse and break the Masquerade and bring in mortals to help me fight back against the monsters.’
    • In short, this is when the protagonist is responding to the Inciting Incident. This is a moment when the protagonist shows their agency, and displays what they really believe in. In Dresden’s case, he believes that Chicago (and Humanity by proxy) is worth protecting, so he’ll break the rules to protect them.
  • Midpoint Confrontation
    • The Midpoint Confrontation is when the antagonist Titaness shows up and uses the Eye of Balor to nuke all of Harry’s mortal recruits.
    • The Midpoint confrontation is Harry saying, ‘Oh shoot, I broke THE BIG RULE, but that wasn’t enough to defeat Ethniu. Now what do I do?”
    • This was a good midpoint escalation. The author clearly foreshadowed that the heroes had to force Ethniu to take the battlefield herself, so they could get the chance to defeat her. Unfortunately, when she did she was all too successful.
    • The purpose of the midpoint escalation is to make the hero desperate, force them to question what exactly they truly believe.
      • Ethniu (metaphorically) states her thesis that “Humans exist to fear gods.”
      • Harry (metaphorically) states his thesis that “Humans do not need to fear gods.”
      • Ethniu wins the argument by killing the humans fighting in Harry’s shotgun army, thus proving that humans really should fear gods.
  • Pinch 2/ Protagonist Acts 2
    • Pinch 2 is when Murphy dies, and Harry goes nuts trying to kill Rudolf.
    • This functions as the ‘moment of despair’ in the story, the kick in the teeth after the defeat of the midpoint confrontation.
    • This is the quintessential moment of doubt, when the hero questions if they truly believe what they believe.
      • In this case, Harry decides to act out of character and murder someone out of grief and desire for revenge. In this moment, Harry (metaphorically) turns his back on his belief that Chicago (and Humanity by proxy) is worth protecting.
      • Sanya and Butters manage to stop Harry in time with The Power of Friendship. This foreshadows how all the heroes team up in the final battle to defeat Ethniu in a Power of Friendship beatdown.
  • Plot Turn 2/ Relief and Respite
    • It’s hard to tell, but I think Plot Turn 2 in this novel is Titania showing up and saving the heroes when they need it most. It’s hard to tell because the entire last half of this book is basically one extended battle sequence. It all kinda blends into itself.
  • Resolution/Climax and Denouement
    • Harry and the Scooby Gang vs Ethniu in one big fight sequence. Again, this sort of blends into the previous one or two story beats so it’s hard to really pin down.
    • Regardless, once again Harry and Ethniu have their (metaphorical) argument.
      • Ethniu (metaphorically) states her thesis that “Humans exist to fear gods.”
      • Harry (metaphorically) states his thesis that “Humans do not need to fear gods.”
      • Harry wins the argument by binding Ethniu into Demonreach, thus proving that mortals can defend themselves from gods and thus need not fear them.
      • More on this later, but I think this could have been done better.

Overall, this structure *works.* It’s not spectacular, and it’s a bit confusing in places. But it *works.*

If I were to improve this story’s structure, I would have provided cleaner divisions between the different storytelling acts and beats. This book just had TOO MANY fight scenes. Butcher is a good fight-scene author, but after a while they blended into one another and I zoned out. Fewer, higher-caliber fight scenes would have been appreciated.

(Additionally, about Murphy’s death. Her death DOES fit in quite perfectly with this novel structure as Pinch 2, as a darkest-before-the-dawn moment. Please don’t think that just because I see the narrative purpose behind Murph’s death I agree that her death is a good story beat. The author could have used another moment of extreme doubt at this point (such as as Michael dying, or Mab dying, or Odin dying, or anything really) and it would have worked equally well.)

Now if it were ME writing this and not Butcher, I would have changed Plot Turn 2. In Butcher’s original work, Plot Turn 2 was summoning Titania. In my Plot Turn 2, I would have Harry call in the government/National Guard to help defeat Ethniu at the climax.

  • Why? Because supernatural groups recruiting mortal governments is against THE BIG RULE. Rule number 1 of the Dresdenverse is that none of the secret societies want to anger human mobs, because humans are numerous and well armed. Having Dresden break THE BIG RULE as the last resort would really drive home just how desperate and screwed they were in the last battle against Ethniu, that he would be willing to do something he hasn’t done in any of the 17 books leading up until this moment. And then the US military would come in and prove THE BIG RULE right and do a lot of the work in softening up Ethniu.
    • Note: Ethniu’s main goal is to revert humanity to the dark ages. Her argument was ‘Humans exist to fear gods.’ Dresden’s counterargument is ‘Humans do not need to fear gods.’ Calling in a human army to defeat Ethniu, and then the army successfully defeating Ethniu, would prove Dresden’s argument correct as both a theme and plot point. This is a classic hero/villain conflict-as-argument scenario.
    • Imagine the battle: Ethniu defeats Odin, Dresden, Lara, the Knights of the Cross, the White Council, Thorned Namshiel, Marcone, Mab, Titania, the Erlking, the Archive. She defeats them all. Ethniu’s about to triumph, when bombers fly over and drop missile after missile on her face, weakening her just enough for Harry to finish her off. The mortals would succeed where the supernatural failed, proving Dresden correct that the world didn’t need Ethniu (or Odin, or Dresden, or Lara…) anymore.
    • Watching normal mortals beat Ethniu would have been very satisfying to read, because Ethniu’s underestimating humankind would have been what finally did her in. That’s a literary device called poetic justice/ironic reversal. Who doesn’t like reading about a bad guy getting what’s coming to them?
      • I know that technically Harry counts as a mortal, so technically the book ended with an ironic reversal. However I don’t fully buy this argument. The dude is a wizard; I don’t count him as mortal. Now if it was Murphy or Marcone who delivered the final blow, for example, I would fully buy the ironic reversal angle. But as is, I don’t.
  • And when the heroes win, they would have to live with the consequences of breaking the Masquerade. Imagine if the story ended with all the Alphas tranquilized and locked in cages, Harry and the Knights of the Cross going to jail, Lara and the White Court phoning lawyers trying to get out of prison. THAT would be a cliffhanger to end the book on, with the Masquerade firmly broken and Harry and the Scooby gang the center of international attention.

Overall, I give the story’s Pacing and Structure: (C)


PLOT

This was a battle-focused novel which had lots of side protagonists and antagonists pop up and fight the good fight in an unusually epic battle.

  • In this way it reminded me of the second half of ‘Changes.’ Unfortunately this book lacked a lot of the character building, investigations and side-adventures present in ‘Changes.’ As a result this book felt like it was 80% fight scenes and 20% everything else.
  • From a macro perspective, I think a lot of these fight scenes could have been cut. It didn’t need to be 80% fighting. Perhaps the author could have replaced those scenes with scenes in which Dresden and gang rallied dispirited allies to his side.
  • Having all these random side characters/factions pop up throughout the story felt jumbled.
    • Did we need to see Mavre, Drakul, the White Council, Lara, both Faerie Courts, Odin, River Shoulders, the Outsiders, the Wardens, the Jotuns, Corb and the rest? No. It was too much.
    • I get that this was supposed to be the dramatic last stand where all the heroes/villains face off, but characterization follows an inverse law: the more characters you include, the less well characterized they all become. When you have to choose between quantity vs quality, choose quality.
    • I suggested this above, but I’ll suggest it again here. This book contained too many fight scenes. Most of the fights in the Inciting Incident should have been winnowed out of the book, leaving only the fight with Drakul and Mavra. That was the only fight which was memorable in the Inciting Incident. Similar winnowing of fight scenes should have been done throughout the book. When you have to choose between quantity vs quality, choose quality.

Let’s take a moment to talk about stakes.

  • My problem is that this book is trying to do what ‘Changes’ did, but ‘Changes’ was just better. The narrative stakes of ‘Changes’ were more personal: in ‘Changes,’ Dresden’s daughter’s life was on the line. In ‘Battle Ground’ the stakes were impersonal, namely the destruction of Chicago.
  • In ‘Changes,’ I was emotionally invested in Dresden saving his daughter’s life; I cared about Dresden, so I cared about his daughter by proxy. I didn’t give a rat’s ass about Dresden saving Chicago in ‘Battle Ground.’ Why? Chicago is an abstract concept. I’ve never met Chicago. But I can meet and empathize with Maggie. She was real to me as a reader. The stakes suffered as a result.
  • The stakes were technically higher in ‘Battle Ground’ than in ‘Changes,’ but the stakes were more compelling in ‘Changes.’ And compelling is what matters. Personal stakes>Higher stakes.
  • What I would have changed: The author could have put Chicago and one of Dresden’s friends (Maggie/Thomas/Murphy) in direct danger, and I would be okay with that.
    • If Butcher really wanted Murphy to die, he could have had Murphy kidnapped at the beginning in the book, so Dresden was motivated to save her.
      • By the end of the book he succeeds in saving Chicago, but fails in saving Murphy.
      • Or he succeeds in saving Murphy, only for Murph to turn around and sacrifice herself to save Chicago.
      • Either of these options would have made her death more bittersweet, but both would still have shoved her out of the narrative. I would not make either choice.

The tension of the story was mishandled (in my opinion).

  • To quote Alfred Hitchcock- “There is no terror in the bang, only the anticipation.” This book was chock full of so many fight scenes (‘The bang’) that I had no time to anticipate anything.
  • In a traditional fantasy novel, a fight scene serves as a self-contained moment of temporarily increased tension, leading to permanent catharsis and release. A skilled author includes a judicious number of fight scenes to keep the pacing hot, but not too many to bog down the story.
    • On a mechanical level, what do fight scenes do?
      • Fight scenes temporarily increase the tension of a story, but only for as long as the fight is ongoing. (This spike is due to the reader wondering ‘Will the hero(s) die in this fight scene?’) The increase in tension ends when the fight ends. This spike in tension is a useful tool for an author to use during an extended stretch of a low-tension portion of the story, re-engaging the reader’s attention by adding some action.
      • Once the fight is resolved, the reader feels a sense of resolution and catharsis. Release and catharsis, by their very nature, reduce tension. This catharsis is important: it gives the reader the opportunity to take a deep breath and consider the consequences of the fight which just happened. It makes the fight more impactful by making the heroes have to deal with the wounds gained in battle.
    • A single fight scene can serve to punch up an otherwise dragging section of the pacing, and re-focus the attention of the reader on the plot. You don’t want too many fight scenes, because that will bog down the story.
      • Fights are fun to read, but there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.
  • Which brings us back to ‘Battle Ground.’
    • As I mentioned, this book is like 80% fight scenes.
    • Most of the battles in this book do not have much in the way of catharsis. As a result, the battles seem endless, never seeming to begin or end.
    • There are exceptions to this rule:
      • When Harry’s side loses against the Black Court Vampires and they grieve, that is catharsis. The battle has a definite beginning and end.
      • When Murphy dies and Harry nearly kills Rudolf, his rage and grief is catharsis. The battle has a beginning state, and an end state, and it doesn’t bleed into other battles.
      • When Harry’s recruited shotgunmen are defeated by Ethniu at the midpoint, causing the survivors to mourn afterwards, that is catharsis. That battle has a defined beginning, and end.
    • You need fights scenes to end, and give the protagonists time to properly confront their feelings after a battle. Case in point with Murphy’s death: because the fight scene ended, Dresden was able to process his emotion in the downtime after battle and decide to murder Rudolf. That is well written.
    • A lot of the other battles do not have catharsis.
      • When the kraken attacks, there is no catharsis after that battle.
      • When the flying squid attacks, there is no catharsis after that battle.
      • When the Jotunn attack, there is no catharsis after that battle.
      • When the heroes defeat the Huntsmen early on, there is basically no catharsis.
      • When Harry is victorious at the end and defeats Ethniu, I felt no catharsis.
    • There’s a general rule of thumb when writing battles: Make sure your heroes are fighting over something plot important. Make sure the fight scene isn’t just there for the sake of fighting.
      • If you take a look at some of the above fights (the kraken being the most blatant example), there was no plot importance to the fights. The Kraken wasn’t key to defeating Ethniu. The Kraken was just a Kraken, and they fought it because it was there. That scene could have been deleted.
      • The Jotunn battle with the vikings was very similar. It’s only impact on the plot was removing the vikings from the battle. The fight wasn’t to save someone’s life, or secure a battle objective; no one grieved. The battle’s sole consequence was to eliminate an army from the field of battle. This is better than the Kraken fight (lasting consequences is good for battles), but it’s still not great.
  • I was distracted by the overabundance of fight scenes. This book struck me as a cheap horror movie- all jump scares and no subtle dread. Throwing monster after monster at the screen just got repetitive.
  • My advice to authors: consequences and catharsis make a fight seem real. Without them the fight rings hollow. You can’t hold a book’s tension at a fever pitch for several hundred pages and expect the story to still be deeply emotionally compelling. Give your story a bit of room to breathe after battles, and the battles will seem more powerful as a result.

Overall, I give the story’s Plot: (C-)


EVERYTHING ELSE (SETTING, WORLDBUILDING, PROSE AND THEME)

More of the same Dresden setting and worldbuilding. Butcher has established his setting, and he’s playing around it. By now you either like the setting, or you don’t.

The prose of all Dresden books prose is like butter-scotch ice cream: you either love it or you hate it. The author is unafraid of doing pop-culture jokes, and that either brings you out of the story or invests you deeper into it. At moments his prose was slightly beautiful, but it was never what I would call literary. Butcher is a skilled workman of prose, but his prose style isn’t for everyone.

The book’s theme is very… oof.

I liked the themes in ‘Peace Talks.’ ‘Peace Talks’ theme was ‘dysfunctional families.’ We had the dysfunction between Harry and Murphy; Harry and Maggie; Harry and Thomas; Harry and McCoy; Molly and Michael; Molly and Mab; Thomas and Lara; Thomas and Justine; Thomas and Maggie; Thomas and his unborn child; McCoy and Margaret LeFey; McCoy and Maggie; McCoy and Thomas. It was a well executed upon theme, if not exactly subtle. (For pity’s sake, the author was hitting you over the head with the message he was trying to send.) The author did a good job of establishing his message of ‘Harry needs to settle down and form stable emotional bonds with the people around him, but he’s held back by decades of holding his loved ones at arms lengths so they don’t get hurt in his dangerous life.’ Ending the book with a literal fight to the death between family members because of Harry’s failure to communicate with his family members for literal decades- that’s good storytelling and characterization.

I’m trying to re-apply the ‘dysfunctional family’ theme to ‘Battle Ground,’ and I just can’t. Maggie isn’t in this book, and neither is Thomas. Murphy dies, which is counter to the theme of healing a broken family. Dresden getting engaged to Lara is WTF levels of going counter to the theme (She literally eats people who she loves. That does not equal a healthy, emotionally stable relationship.).

After reading ‘Battle Ground,’ I suspect that Butcher wrote ‘Peace Talks’ without an eye to theme, and just stumbled backwards into a major theme of ‘family dysfunction.’ You know that ‘hitting you over the head with a message’ I just mentioned? I think that was accidental on Butcher’s part.

You might say that ‘Themes are literary professor bullsh!t.’ You are wrong. Theme=Foreshadowing, and foreshadowing is a really important literary tool in an author’s toolbox. Without proper foreshadowing, the narrative structure of plots falls apart.

  • If you want proof that theme is important, consider the Game of Thrones TV show.
    • People don’t like the last season of the Game of Thrones TV Show because the showrunners bungled seven seasons worth of themes. Their themes foreshadowed a bunch of things in the final season, and none of it paid off. ‘Literary professor bullsh!t’ actually matters if you want to tell a story which is marketable to millions of fans around the world.

I went into ‘Battle Ground’ expecting Harry to at long last overcome his lone-wolf personality trait because in ‘Peace Talks’ Butcher went out of his way to foreshadow such a character development.

  • Why did I think Harry would overcome his lone-wolf personality? My line of thinking was: “Okay, there’s lots of family drama here in ‘Peace Talks,’ pushing the protagonists further and further away from one another. Obviously to beat Ethniu, therefore, Dresden and his family and friends will have to come closer together. The Power of Family! No more lone-wolf!”

I was wrong in my thinking. Ethniu was defeated in a traditional Dresden throw-down, no Power of Family required. As a result, I had a MAJOR problem with ‘Battle Ground.’ Butcher (accidentally) promised one thing, and delivered something else. Big disappointment on my part.

I give Everything Else: (D)


SUMMARY

I’ve fallen out of love with this series. Truth is, I always liked this series but I never loved it. It was always *good enough* for me to keep reading. I think I’ve reached the point where it’s no longer *good enough.* I might read more, but only if the reviews are glowing. Hopefully Butcher writes another series soon, because I still enjoy him as an author. I’ve read 17 books in this series; that’s enough.

This is not the worst Dresden Files book I’ve ever read, not by a long shot. To repeat myself, Jim Butcher as an author has continued to improve on a prose level over the years, this book included. This isn’t even a bad book. I’m not happy with ‘Battle Ground’ because I know Butcher is capable of writing so much better than this.

The duology of ‘Peace Talks’ and ‘Battle Ground’ was hampered A LOT by being split into two books instead of being kept as just one. We’ll never how it would have been otherwise, but I think that if the two books remained merged and were properly edited, this would have been one of my favorite books in the series. It might even have rejuvenated my interest in the series.

After reading this, I’m left wondering how the over-abundance of fight scenes, broken themes/foreshadowing and Murphy’s puzzling death made it through the editing process. Has Butcher gotten to the stage in his career where the publishing house stops editing him? I know Stephen King had that problem, where the publishing house stopped editing him because they assumed he was so good he didn’t need to be edited. I do not blame Jim Butcher personally for this one, I’m just… confused.

If you read ‘Peace Talks’ and liked it, consider reading this. If you haven’t read it, don’t read this. Honestly having reading this book, it’s retroactively degraded the quality of the Formor arc for me. If you’re curious about getting into the series, I’d say start with ‘Storm Front’ and read the books chronologically through ‘Changes’ and stop there. ‘Skin Game’ was also pretty good so you can read that too. I wouldn’t read more than that.

Now about the grade. If I factor in nostalgia and allow the previous 16 books do the heavy lifting, this is a 3 star book. But if I’m being honest and factor out nostalgia, we get…


STARS:  2 OUT OF 5 STARS (5 stars=Perfect, 4 Stars=Great, 3 Stars=Good, 2 Stars=Fun but Flawed, 1 Star=Not Recommended)

JUDGEMENT: Lots of Combat, Little Content. Fun, but deeply flawed.

Overall Rating: Recommended With Reservations (How I Rate Books)


Goodreads

Genres/Tagwords: Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Dresden Files

Previous books by the author/in the series I’ve reviewed:


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A Literary Discussion of ‘Ashes of the Sun’ by Django Wexler, first book in the ‘Burningblade & Silvereye’ series

A Literary Analysis of ‘The Sheepfarmer’s Daughter’ by Elizabeth Moon, Book 1 of The Deed of Paksenarion

A Literary Discussion of ‘The Rage of Dragons’ by Evan Winter

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