With Cold Days, we enter a new phase of the Dresden Files. Instead of a lone operator occasionally obligated to help the White Council or Mab due to debts, we now see Harry as the Winter Knight. This makes some fundamental changes to the series, and also to Harry as a person. Because while Mab cannot abrogate his free will, there are definitely some impulses and instincts that she makes stronger. Join me as we see Harry Dresden return from the dead and take up his mantle of the Winter Knight, and what this book means for the series to come.
Spoilers for Cold Days and Butcher’s Previous Works.
So, What Happened?
We begin Cold Days with Mab’s version of physical therapy. Sarissa, Harry’s physical therapist and dietician, helps him re-learn how to move and helps build his strength. Mab tries to kill him an inventive way every day, including piranhas, spiders, and guns. Harry survives for almost three months, and then Mab invites him to a party, and Sarissa accompanies him. It turns out to be a birthday party for him since it is now Halloween. Maeve tries to kill him, first directly, then through having one of her goons, the Red Cap, hold Sarissa hostage. Harry beats Red Cap in a duel, and Mab asks him to dance. She gives him his first assignment, to kill Maeve.
Harry goes to Chicago after Mab blocked off the rest of Faerie to give him a head start. He steals Bob back from Butters, getting into a fight with Andi in the process. Bob explains that he knows how to kill an immortal, and tells Harry Halloween is the perfect time to do so. Harry reconnects with the Little Folk and is attacked by a mysterious small Faerie. Molly saves him and tells him that Demonreach is about to explode. They head for the Water Beetle, and Thomas attacks them. The brothers reunite and immediately start bickering.
Once at Demonreach, Harry talks with the genius loci, who tells him that the island is a prison built by Merlin for dark forces, and naagloshii are in minimum security. Someone plans to attack the island, freeing the prisoners and exploding most of the continent. Demonreach also informs Harry that the parasite that helped keep him alive will kill him eventually, though the island can stop the headaches it’s presence causes.
Outsiders attack Harry at Mac’s bar, and he drives them away. Fix threatens Harry if he goes through with Mab’s plan, and Harry brokers a meeting with Lily. She meets him with Maeve, who tells him about a contagion that emerged and that has taken Mab, driving her insane. Outside, Red Cap and his son, Ace attack Harry, and Murphy rescues him. Harry talks to Titania about Mab, and Titania refuses but tells him the name of the contagion is Nemesis. Then, Harry summons Mother Winter, who tries to cook him, before he escapes. She then relents and talks to him with Mother Summer. When he reveals he knows about Nemesis, Mother Summer takes him on a tour to the Outer Gates and says that Nemesis comes from Outside them. He meets Rashid, the Gatekeeper there, who offers some advice.
Harry returns to Chicago and sets out to stop the barges with rituals currently heading for Demonreach for the ritual to destroy it. But the Wild Hunt comes after him, so he and Murphy manage to evade them until Harry challenges and defeats Santa Claus aka Kringle aka Odin. This gives him control of the Hunt, which he uses to help fight the Outsiders currently setting up the rituals. Harry heads for the center of the island, where he finds Lily, Maeve, and their followers battling the genius loci.
Fix fights Harry, and Harry tells him that Nemesis infected Maeve and gave her the ability to lie. Fix blanches, realizes that they’ve been deceived, and temporarily allies with Harry. His friends come charging in, but they are all, except for Molly, captured by Maeve. Maeve yells at Sarissa, claiming she wanted to undermine her, and we discover that the two were twins, the children of Mab. Mab arrives, and Maeve taunts her, before killing Lily, and the Summer Lady mantle comes to Sarissa, instead of the Winter one, as Mab intended. Maeve is killed, and the Winter mantle goes to Molly.
Harry pitches a hissy fit to Mab, who barely tolerates it. Mab takes Molly and Sarissa away to help them get acclimated to their new roles. Harry decides to stay on the island until Molly can return to help with the parasite, which Demonreach assures him she can help with.
Best Moment – The Outer Gates
One of the scenes that always sticks with me during my re-reads of Cold Days is Harry’s walk with Mother Summer. Because this moment raises the stakes of the series immeasurably. They talk of Maeve and Mab and then they come to a wall, thousands of feet high, with gates made of crystal or ice, manned by “tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of soldiers” (365). All Winter Fae. All fighting Outsiders, like He-Who-Walks-Behind. Mother Summer explains that Mab has this power, power that greatly strips past what the White Council estimates her forces to be, to protect the world from the Outsiders. Titania exists to protect the world from Mab, as a final check and balance. That the adversary, Nemesis is an infiltration fighter, meant to undermine those defenses, to prepare the way for the Outsiders to succeed.
“When?’ I asked. ‘When did this start?’ ‘Oh, Harry,’ Mother Summer said gently. ‘What?’ I asked. But I had noticed something. Those layers and mounds of shale? They weren’t shale. They were bones. Millions and millions and millions of fucktons of bones” (367).
It’s a sobering moment. Then, the two approach the Gates, and Rashid, member of the Senior Council, Gatekeeper welcomes them. He explains that he exists as someone who helps avoid that infiltration and places faith in Harry that he will see things done, without aid, save for the White Council paperwork. Rashid says, “Unwitting or not, virtually your every action in the past few years has resulted in a series of well-placed thumbs in the adversary’s eye” (376). What that says is that while Harry has overcome many difficult things, and thwarted Nemesis before. It also says that all of the previous books have been warm-ups. Little influences by Nemesis, not its full power, and that of the Outsiders. It makes Butcher’s planned apocalyptic trilogy make sense. If someone has been playing chess, all the way back to the first book, the final confrontation with that entity could only be apocalyptic.
Butcher caps this scene with Harry’s realization that he is the only one standing in the way of Nemesis’s current plan. It scares him. Then, as he always does, he sets to work, now understanding the scale of this conflict a little better.
Most Improved – Harry and Thomas
When Harry and Molly arrive at the Water Beetle, they meet an angry Thomas. First, he’s angry because he thinks they’re intruders. Then because he thinks Harry’s a fake. When Molly confirms his realness, that anger doesn’t go away. He yells at Harry for a while, and when Harry tries to justify himself and his lack of communication, things devolve.
“Dammit, Thomas,” I said. ‘I haven’t lived my life the way I have to watch myself get turned into—“ I broke off suddenly, and looked away. … ‘No, you don’t get a pass on this one, little brother,’ Thomas said. ‘Say it.’ ‘Into a monster,’ I snapped. ‘Right,’ Thomas said. ‘A monster. Like me. … You were going to be tempted, eh? Going to have to deal with monstrous urges? Going to have to face the possibility that you might change if you lost focus for a minute? Lose control of yourself? … You’d rather be dead than be like me,’ he said. ‘That’s one hell of a thing to say to your brother.’ … ‘Why?’ I asked him tiredly. What would it have change? What could you possibly have said that would have made a difference?’ ‘That I was your brother, Harry?’ he said. ‘That I loved you. That I knew a few things about denying the dark parts of your nature. And that we would get through it.” (155-6).
Harry apologizes, and Thomas hugs him and insults him a lot. And just like that, they’re brothers again. He badgers Harry about going to see Maggie or Murphy, or both. Also true to his word, Thomas helps Harry adapt to the impulses of the Winter Knight. Pride, possessiveness, lust, all come as part and parcel of the mantle. At Mac’s, Thomas points out that, “you’re looking at Molly like she’s food. … It isn’t all the time. It’s just little moments. You look at her, and I can see the calculations running. You notice every time she yawns” (242). He reminds Harry about the virtues of control, that he needs to get a handle on those instincts before he does something he’ll regret. Thomas keeps badgering Harry about Maggie, giving him a final lecture on the subject before he leaves Demonreach at the end.
I love this dynamic of their relationship because we haven’t seen Harry and Thomas together since Changes. Also, given the changes that Harry underwent into becoming the Winter Knight, Thomas’s experience in overcoming the demon inside him becomes even more pertinent. Also, the fight at the beginning brings Harry’s internalized hatred of monsters, even including his brother to the front, and forces him to confront it. Thomas has always provided ballast for Harry, and now he’s needed even more as Harry transitions into something a little more monstrous than he’s comfortable with.
Best Worldbuilding – Nemesis
Nemesis beats even the Black Council for Butcher’s best moment of worldbuilding in the entire series so far. Lily is the first one to make him aware of it. During their meeting, Lily tests him and then is relieved when there is no response. When Harry asks about the purpose of that test, we see the response.
“What were you looking for?’ ‘A disease,’ she replied. ‘A parasite. A poison.’ … ‘Sir Knight, you must have seen it. You must have seen the contagion spreading. It has been before your eyes for years.’ … ‘And . . . This plague. What does it do?’ I asked. ‘It changes that which ought not to change,’ she said quietly. ‘It destroy’s a father’s love for his family by twisting it into maniacal ambition. It distorts and corrupts the good intentions of agents of mortal law into violence and death. It erodes the sensible fear that keeps a weakly talented sorcerer from reaching out for more power, not matter how terrible the cost.’ … ‘Victor Sells the Shadowman,’ I whispered. ‘Agent Denton and the Hexenwolves. Leonid Kravos the Nightmare. My first three major cases” (273).
Then she explains how you can’t mention it directly you let someone infected know you have knowledge about it, leading them to kill or turn you. Even though Lily’s ability to sense the adversary is made up, her description of the effects is highly accurate. The paranoia that it induces is even more so.
It even affects Harry. When he regroups with Molly, Murphy, Thomas, and Butters, he finds himself walking through ways they could have been infected. He doesn’t tell them about the infection but lets them draw the conclusion that the Black Council is at fault. That leads Harry to an unfortunate realization. “But what if I’d been wrong? What if the Black Council was just one more offshoot of one enormous, intangible enemy?” (315).
Harry summons Titania to ask about Mab’s sanity and the possibility she was taken by the adversary. Titania almost attacks him for having the audacity to do so when he murdered her daughter. But then she tells him that the adversary’s name is Nemesis, and that it is aware. Mother Winter and Mother Summer confirm that name, but simply call it the adversary to avoid its attention. During the walk with Mother Summer, she confirms that it comes from beyond the Outer Gates.
And at the very end, we hear Mab say that the Leanansidhe was infected by the knife that Bianca gave her, all that time ago, and that it passed to Maeve in that time frame.
Now we have an enemy, that caused the death of three Queens of Faerie, Aurora, Lily, and Maeve, that empowered wizards to do nightmarish things, that is the true Black Council. Now we know its name, and where it comes from. We know its goal is to destroy the world. Now we get to see where it goes next in the future books.
Worst Moment – Maeve’s Despair
In some moments I feel bad for Maeve. Not in her villainous moments, when she manipulates events at Harry’s birthday party, but in others. From the moment she was born, she felt like she was competing with Sarissa for Mab’s love. She Chose to be Sidhe, while Sarissa could do whatever she pleased as a changeling. The way that we see her list the careers and degrees Sarissa worked for, and deride all of them tells me that Maeve was jealous. Especially when taken against this line of dialogue. “I have choice, Mother, while you will be destroyed in your shackles,’ Maeve said. ‘You will die, and I will have freedom. At last. ‘To fulfill one’s purpose is not to be a slave, my daughter,’ Mab said” (541).
That exchange, and Maeve’s hatred of Sarissa, tells me something of how Maeve came to be the Winter Lady. She Chose to be Sidhe, in an attempt to get her mother to show the care she feels for both her daughters. But Mab didn’t change, because Mab is Mab, and as Sarissa says, “You know she never lets things show. It’s how she’s always been” (532). That exchange comes after Maeve asked if Mab talks about her. Mab didn’t show her emotions, because she is reason incarnate, and that tore at Maeve, who became the Lady, who chose Sidhe to align herself with her mother. It led her to despair, to hate Sarissa, and to hate the mantle she held because even with that power she couldn’t go to “Mortal caterwauls or sporting events” (540) with Mab, but Sarissa could.
She sought her mother’s love, and when she could not have it, she despaired. Nemesis twisted that despair into hatred of Mab and all of her works. It led to the death of Lily at Maeve’s hand, and to the death of Maeve.
Mab loved her daughters, and now one is dead, and the other sworn to Titania. All because Maeve didn’t understand how Mab showed love, in how she kept Maeve alive despite the neglect of her duties because of that maternal love. (538). So yes, I can understand how Maeve came to be, and the evil she did, and feel sad for her.
Butcher does a lot with Cold Days. The arc building that he does takes another form in Nemesis. Harry’s struggle with the primal influences of the mantle will be ongoing. Molly becoming the Winter Lady threw a giant wrench in her entire path.
Butcher even throws in some major improvements to his characters. I’ve talked before about the stereotypes involved in Toe-mass. When Titania and Harry talk, they meet at the Magic Hedge. Titania asks him a question after she calms down for a moment. “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. … I think it’s a cruel world. I think it’s hard to find love. I think we should all be happy when someone manages to do it. … people should be free. And as long as something they want to do isn’t harming others, they should be free to do it” (334-5). This is the closest that Butcher comes to accepting homosexual people and recanting the stereotypes that he’s used previously. That’s something I think should be marked.
This series is about chronicling where Butcher improves, and where he makes mistakes, and quite honestly, it’s getting hard for me to find the latter. With this, his fourteenth book, we see Butcher at his best. I look forward to showing off where he goes in Skin Game and in his short story anthologies in the months to come.