Friday, June 21, 2024

The Black Council Emerges in Turn Coat

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It is not only the Black Council that emerges in Jim Butcher’s 2009 Turn Coat, the White Council gains more clarity as well. Indeed, most of the book Harry deals with council politics and in much more depth than he has previously. We see Morgan, Harry’s fledgling romance with Anastasia Luccio, and all of the Senior Council. We learn about the ideologies of the various people pledged to the council and allied with Harry, and what happens when those ideologies are pushed. This is an important book, the most important in the series so far, though the next book will change that. Join us on a journey to find the traitor in the White Council.

Spoilers for all of Turn Coat and of Butcher’s previous books

So, What Happened?

Donald Morgan turns up on Harry’s doorstep, claiming someone framed him for killing LaFortier, a member of the Senior Council. Wardens found him standing over the corpse with the murder weapon and a bank account with 6 million dollars in it. He managed to evade the council and came to Harry to ask for help. Harry patches him up, gives him hospitality, and agrees to take the case. Afterwards, he starts to investigate, realizes he’s being trailed, and sees a monstrosity. Harry almost passes out and takes shelter with the Alphas. The monster is a Naagloshii, a Native American Skinwalker. It kills Kirby and severely wounds Andi. Molly and Morgan engage in one of several standoffs.

Harry, Molly, and Thomas move Morgan to a safe location. Then Binder, a magic-user who corrals beings from the NeverNever to attack others, attacks them. Thomas disappears, kidnapped by the Naagloshii. Luccio shows up, and she and Harry go talk to Lara Raith, since he believes that Madeline Raith is partly responsible. Mostly because she had hired a private eye to tail him and sent Binder on him and Morgan. The Naagloshii, now nicknamed Shagnasty, decimates Lara’s security, killing all of them. Molly discovers that someone tampered with Luccio’s mind, which leads to another standoff with Morgan.

Harry sets up a meeting on the island from the last book in the series, which he names Demonreach. Dresden, the Raiths, and the Senior Council ally to fight Shagnasty, Binder, and Madeline. Afterwards, Morgan surrenders to the council. Harry produces evidence that Peabody instigated the murder of LaFortier and kills him during his escape attempt. Peabody tampered with the Council’s minds using drugged ink, including Luccio’s (the actual unknowing killer of LaFortier). Dresden and Luccio break up after discovering Peabody engineered their relationship. Finally, Ebenezer and Harry found the Grey Council to stop the Black Council.

Best Moment – The Battle on Demonreach

While this takes up over a hundred pages, I feel like this battle sequence justifies it. First, we get the tense negotiation between Lara and the representatives of the Council. Then Harry reveal’s Shagnasty’s approach and we get this gem of a moment:

“Wile E. Coyote,” I said to him soberly. “Suuuuuuper Genius.” I saw him thinking and I recognized when my old mentor got it, when he understood my plan. I could tell because he got that look on his face I’ve only seen when he knows things are about to go spectacularly wrong. (p. 371)

Beyond being a funny reference, Harry did what he wanted to do. He manages to communicate with his mentor and arrange an alliance when Binder’s minions attack.

From there, we get the wonderfully written fight scene, replete with firework traps and magic and fairies and werewolves. Madeline’s ambush of Harry and Billy, and Georgia’s interference with the result of eating a White Court vampire’s blood, are perfectly paced. Lara’s destruction of her cousin is suitably horrifying. Harry saving Binder because, “Somebody has to be human” (p. 392) could be the thesis statement of the series.

Then comes Shagnasty. Harry fights him, gives it all he’s got. He calls on the soulfire Uriel gifted him, but he can’t stop the Naagloshii. Then Listens-to-Wind arrives. I can’t quote the entire sequence, but I can quote this:

The naagloshii came down, its mouth stretching into a wolflike muzzle extending claws on all four of its limbs as it prepared to savage the old man. But Listens-to-Wind spoke a single word, … When the naagloshii came down, it didn’t sink its claws into a leatherly old wizard. Instead, it found itself muzzle to muzzle with a brown bear the size of a minibus.” (p. 413)

Just read this section, please.

Most Improved – Billy Turns Into Will

In the beginning of the series, Billy was a college student. He learned how to turn into a werewolf, yes, but still a college student. Still stupid. Speaking as someone who graduated college a few months ago, college students can be very stupid. Even though he gave one of the best pieces of advice in the book, his age colored how Harry saw him. Even almost a decade later, even after Kirby dies, Harry thinks, “Billy – I couldn’t think of him as Will” (p. 55). He can’t accept that Will is old enough to make these adult decisions.

Over the course of the book, that changes. Harry goes to visit Billy and Georgia at the hospital, where they’re treating Andi. He tells Billy that he needs their help. Billy refuses to go into this blind another time. He asks Harry to tell him the secrets Harry kept close to his chest.

He stood facing me solidly, tired eyes steady, and I realized something I hadn’t ever made into a tangible thought before: he wasn’t a kid anymore. Not because he’d graduated, and not even because of how capable he was. He’d seen the worst—death, heartless and nasty, come to lay waste to everything it could. He knew in his heart of hearts, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it could come for him, take him as easily as it had taken Kirby. And he was making a choice to stand his ground. Billy Borden, kid werewolf, was gone. Will was choosing to stand with me. (p. 264)

This scene closely parallels when he told Murphy about the supernatural world. Harry’s internal dialogue shifts from calling him Billy to calling him Will. He respects him and asks him and Georgia to stand with him on Demonreach. He treats them like adults.

Best Worldbuilding – The Council Splits into Black, White, and Grey

We learn so much about Council politics in this book. We have the traitor Peabody working for the Black Council. Luccio explains the White Council’s non-interference policy. And Harry and Ebenezer begin shenanigans. The wizards of the world have unofficially split into three factions, the White, the Black, and the Grey.

The Black Council is the opaquest so far. But Peabody worked to subvert the White Council members and to nudge the Senior Council. So, we can assume from that that the Black Council opposes the White Council’s attempt to keep order. In addition, consider Peabody’s refrain of “The end is nigh” (p. 451), and that they stir up warlocks and Denarians. Given Butcher’s intent to end the series with an apocalyptic trilogy, this make me think that the Black Council will likely bring that about.

We also learn about the White Council. We see the day-to-day workings both when Harry visits to gain information and with Peabody’s secretarial work. Luccio also explains why the Council limits itself. They’re an international organization, so if they tried to move against one country, even in the name of justice, some would rebel against it and the Council would dissolve. “For gaining control over others, for gathering great power to oneself, there is no better tool than black magic.’ ‘Which is what the Laws of Magic cover already.’ … ‘And so the Council limits itself. … The White Council is not about justice. They are about restraining power” (p. 248). But the Merlin refuses to acknowledge the existence of the Black Council.

So, thus enters the Grey. Ebenezer arranged a group of interested wizards and allies to figure out the Black Council: “Learn more about them. Determine their goals. Shut them down” (p. 465). To do something the White Council can’t without betraying their ideals.

Worst Worldbuilding – The Naagloshii

Shagnasty is a wonderful enemy. His and Listens-to-Wind’s fight scene is amazing. But using the naagloshii as a character is appropriative based on the research I have done.

The only things that Butcher got correct in his depiction of the naagloshii was the name, the fact that it is a shapeshifter, and that there is a connection to Navajo, or Diné, folklore. Based on the research I could do, it is not “semidivine” (p. 254).

Butcher himself says that Western mainstream academia often ignores the voices of Native Americans on their own mythology when he distinguishes the naagloshii from European werewolves. So it may be that the academic sources I consulted were wrong. However, “I’d advise anyone to at least read something that was written by someone who talked to a Native American at some point, though. Preferably one of the Diné, though it is not a matter of open discussion among the tribes, even today” (Link). He implies that he talked to Native Americans but does not talk about the research he did before depicting the naagloshii.

Besides that, the one consistent thing between Butcher’s explanation, Wikipedia, and the other sources were that the Diné do not like talking about their beliefs with outsiders. Because of that, I feel like he should have picked another mythological monster.

At the same time I do admire the fact that he tried to address Native American issues, especially that he mentions the Native American genocide by Americans in the conversation with Luccio and Harry about the White Council. Listens-to-Wind also discusses his own past with that genocide. So, in a way, it makes sense that he wanted to include a legend from that mythology, to widen his mythological range. Nevertheless, picking something that the Diné don’t like talking about with outsiders wasn’t the best decision.

Worst Moment – Molly and the Private Eye

Here I am, back on my soap box of the voyeuristic treatment of Molly’s budding sexuality. While she’s over eighteen at this point, there is something that still bothers me. Harry confronted the detective following him, and while Vince agreed to stop sending his client information, he didn’t give them up either. Molly decided to go convince the man in his twenties to change his decision.

She dropped [her bra] on the shelf, picked up the bottle, and held it to each breast in turn. Then she turned to face me, took a deep breath, and arched her back a little. The tips of her breasts pressed quite noticeably against the rather strained fabric of her shirt. “What do you think?” she asked, giving me a wicked smile. I thought Vince was doomed. … Morgan made a low appreciative sound as the door closed. I eyed him. Morgan looked from the door to me. “I’m not dead yet, Dresden.” He closed his eyes. “Doesn’t hurt to admire a woman’s beauty once in a while.” (p. 186)

Molly comes back with the name of the client and with a date. Morgan’s appreciation of the much younger Molly, even though Harry calls him out on it, still feels creepy. Even beyond Morgan’s actions, the whole scene is voyeuristic.

The ‘private eye spills all of his secrets to an attractive young girl in distress’ trope is very tired. It has it’s roots in the detective noir genre that the Dresden Files has been moving away from. Vince is an important part of this story, both in trailing Harry and working for him to gather evidence against Peabody later, so the resurgence of some tropes makes sense. However, I do have qualms that this is the trope that emerges, not another, less sexist, less voyeuristic one.

In Conclusion

Turn Coat does all the good things that Butcher knows. Unfortunately, it swerves into some of the familiar bad ones. I do admire his intent in making the mythology of various Native American tribes part of his world and in acknowledging the genocide against them. However, the execution is less then perfect and edges quickly into the offensive with the Naagloshii. It was a blunder. What was not a blunder was his depiction of the White Council. I feel that we understand them better now, both the good and the bad. Beyond that, Thomas’s reversion to a more traditional member of the White Court by feeding freely is going to be interesting to deal with in the coming books.

But Changes is coming up, and it lives up to its title. See you next month when we cover Butcher’s twelfth and most exciting novel to date.

Image Courtesy of Roc Books

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