Saturday, June 22, 2024

Dead Beat and Butters Defy Expectations

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I got the chance to read Jim Butcher’s Brief Cases, a collection of Dresden Files short stories. Before one story he mentioned that Dead Beat was his first hardcover, a place where a new audience would enter the series. So he gave us Butters. That makes sense, given that although we have had several very good moments earlier in the series, everything picks up the pace from here. The fourteen years between here and 2005 gave us the best of The Dresden Files, and I can safely say that the worst of the worst is behind us.

Spoilers for Dead Beat and all of Butcher’s Previous Works. Content Warning for Mentions of Sexual Assault.

So, What Happened?

Dead Beat opens with Murphy leaving Chicago for a vacation in Hawaii with Kinkaid, and Harry and Thomas dealing with boundaries. Afterwards, Mavra, a Black Court vampire threatens to reveal pictures of Murphy’s attack on her base and get her fired, if Harry ignores her. She tells him to find the Word of Kemmler, a terrifyingly powerful necromancer who started World War 1 before the entire White Council killed him. Harry discovers that Bob used to belong to Kemmler. Then he goes to Butters’s morgue, and investigates there. Grevane, one of Kemmler’s apprentices, attacks them, and Harry barely escapes with Butters and explains magic to him.

Harry goes to a magic book store, meets Sheila, a purported employee there, who guides him to a book on the Erlking that Cowl had. Outside, Cowl and Kumori, other apprentices attack him and try to claim the book. He visits Billy and Georgia, tells them about Lasciel’s coin, then goes to investigate various necromantic hotspots. Harry and Butters return to the morgue, where the last player, Corpsetaker, who possesses new bodies periodically. Corpsetaker steals the Erlking book, and Marcone rescues them, and gives them a lead.

Harry returns to the bookstore and Cowl approaches him again and pitches an alliance to them. He refuses. Butters retrieves a USB with the location of the Word of Kemmler, Grevane and Corpsetaker invade his apartment. Harry tries to stop the ceremony to make one of the necromancers a god by capturing the Erlking. He locates the Word of Kemmler at a museum. Grevane’s minion, the Denarian Harry decoined previously, attacks and tortures him. Harry makes a deal with Lasciel to access the knowledge in the Word of Kemmler. He then reanimates a T-Rex, and stops the ceremony with the help of Bob and five Wardens.

Best Moment —Polka Will Never Die

Most readers of The Dresden Files would argue that the reanimation of Sue the T-Rex is the only contender for Best Moment. I would disagree with that. While it remains an amazing moment, the one that sticks with me the most takes place in Harry’s apartment.

“ ‘Listen to me,’ I snarled. ‘We are not going to die!’ Butters stared up at me, pale, his eyes terrified. ‘We’re not?’ ‘No. And do you know why?’ He shook his head. ‘Because Thomas is too pretty to die. And because I’m too stubborn to die.’ I hauled on his shirt even harder. ‘And most of all because tomorrow is Oktoberfest, Butters, and polka will never die.’ … ‘We’re going to make it!’ I shouted. ‘Polka will never die!’ Butters screamed. ‘I can’t believe I’m hearing this,’ Thomas muttered.” (266-7).

This paragraph(ish) excerpt gives us so much. Butcher displays his full sense of humor here, with the nonsensical motto, and Thomas’s commentary. It encapsulates all the humor in one scene.

But, it also highlights each of these character’s traits. Harry’s stubbornness remains entirely consistent. Thomas’s beauty derives from his nature as a vampire of the White Court. As for Butters, polka and Oktoberfest grounds him in the ordinary world he only just left, in hope for the future. It becomes a talisman that keeps him going through the coming darkness. Joking aside, Butters spends the entire book terrified, but this moment shows the point where that terror turns to purpose.

Also, the ‘polka will never die’ anthem foreshadows Butters future aid. Because necromancy requires music, a consistent drummer. Given that Butters wants to attend Oktoberfest so he can participate in a polka competition as a one-man-band, it becomes clear. His taking the role as Harry’s drummer starts being seriously foreshadowed here.

Most Improved – Morgan’s Apology

Over the past seven books Morgan’s antagonism to Harry remained his most consistent trait. He tried to kill him several times in Storm Front, he tried to provoke him in order to hand him over to Ortega two books ago. Luccio says, “There were rumors. Of how Morgan behaved around you. But I thought they were only that.” (369). Their disagreements are water-cooler gossip to the White Council and widely rumored. Morgan accuses him of breaking the laws again when he summons Sue, and trying to kill him when Harry killed Corpsetaker after switching his mind into Luccio’s body.

So, despite all this hatred, their dual moments of compassion in Dead Beat prove stunning. When Morgan tries to kill him after supposedly killing Warden Luccio, Harry realizes something. He realizes that Morgan’s persecution of him comes not from a political hatred, but because Morgan fights warlocks constantly. Harry compares him to a burned-out cop, who sees evil everywhere. “Ten or twenty or thirty years of witnessing the most monstrous aspects of humanity had slowly turned them into walking casualties of war. And Morgan had been on the beat for more than a century.” (479). While Harry admits he still dislikes Morgan, he understands him now.

Morgan also gains understanding of Harry by the end of the novel. He shows up after everything, and admits that now he believes Harry’s actions don’t come from any fundamental evil. Morgan also still does not like Harry. Harry thinks that. “From Morgan, this was the equivalent of Emperor Constantine converting to Christianity. He was almost admitting that he had been wrong.” (509). All of this marks a new phase in their relationship, where they view one another as colleagues. No longer are they bound enemies, but they are not yet friends.

Best Worldbuilding – Harry and Butters Exposition At Each Other

I admit, I am quite fond of the worldbuilding that Butcher does in his works. But this one takes the cake, because we have two people expositioning at each other from different perspectives. Butters introduces a scientific perspective to The Dresden Files. He opens the novel by revealing how wizards can live so much longer than everyone else. Butters explains how for most humans, damage they suffer becomes cumulative and compounds. “You aren’t cumulative,’ Butters said. ‘Eh?’ ‘Your body doesn’t get you functional again and then leave off,’ Butters said. ‘It continues repairing damage until it’s gone.” (68). Butcher does well at describing the physics of magic, what with Harry’s shield blocking the fire, not the heat, leading to his own injury. But he explains wizards here. It’s exciting for both Butters and the reader.

Later, Harry returns the favor and explains magic to Butters and the reader. Harry specifically talks about how human’s capacity for denial is so high that they ignore all the supernatural events around them. Butters tries to deny that and the supernatural, and Harry points out that he’s doing the exact same thing.

But, most engaging to me, is how we see Butters overcome that denial and soak up all the information available to him like a sponge. When they take shelter at Murphy’s empty house, he spends a good amount of time interrogating Bob about magic. Later, after Harry teaches him a rudimentary shield to ward off magic, Butters re-purposes it to defend against necromantic summons in the final battle. It shows how after he overcomes that initial denial, he starts learning everything he can very quickly.

Worst Worldbuilding – The Jokes That Do Not Land

While I enjoy Butcher’s humor, two jokes in Dead Beat do not land. I include these in Worst Worldbuilding hesitantly because they are not ‘classical’ worldbuilding. However, the jokes, or the implications of the jokes will return.

The first of these jokes is ‘The Thomas and Harry Are Seen As Gay and It’s Funny’ joke. Twice in this book alone, someone mistakes Harry and Thomas for a gay couple. The first one is one of Thomas’s one-night-stands. The second person to think this is Butters.

The joke becomes this. ‘These people think that Harry and Thomas are gay because they live together, silly people for thinking that because they are brothers!’ Thomas’s one-night-stand is foolish, but she and Butters accept that hypothetical relationship, before Thomas corrects Butters. Butcher depicting the acceptance of potentially gay people as something foolish, or that needs correction becomes problematic. To my recall, he never treats it much better. I can’t quite elucidate my reaction, but it rubs me the wrong way.

The second joke comes while Harry explains necromancy to Butters. “’Jesus,’ Butters swore. ‘Kinda doubt they had anything to do with that.’” (91).

While this joke made me laugh, on deeper reflection it too becomes somewhat disorienting. But two pages ago, Butters identified himself as Jewish. I know that reaction is not out of the question given cultural osmosis. However, Butters’s Jewishness only surfaces as part of what makes him ‘weird’. Given also that we only see religion through the lens of Christianity, this joke becomes Butcher not looking beyond his own cultural Christian lens. To clarify, I am not accusing Butcher of anti-semitism, but I think he wanted to make the joke, and didn’t think specifically that Butters was the only one available to set it up.

Worst Moment – Thomas’s Sexual Discrimination Comment

In the first chapter of Dead Beat, Thomas describes how he got fired from his job.

“‘The usual,’ he said. ‘The drive-through manager. She followed me into the walk-in freezer and started ripping her clothes off. The owner walked through on an inspection about then and fired me on the spot. From the look he was giving her, I think she was going to get a promotion. I hate gender discrimination.’” (27).

This just feels bad from both directions. On Thomas’s part, the frustration proves perfectly understandable. This situation qualifies as sexual assault, given that she made unwanted sexual advances on him. Thomas exists as a White Court vampire, his father sexually assaulted his sisters on a routine basis, and Thomas almost killed Justine. This situation probably brought back those traumas, in addition to the trauma of being sexually assaulted. Given that it’s ‘the usual’, this presumably happened several times before.

However, the last sentence reads badly in a different light. Thomas’s frustration is justified. But in 99% of cases, the actions of the owner would be justified as well. That last line almost comes across as a reverse racism argument, where the traditionally empowered person blames the traditionally victimized person for receiving better treatment.

In the light of the #MeToo movement, our conversations about rape and sexual assault grew and developed. So, reading Dead Beat in the years following, as opposed to the years preceding this movement, change our view of this moment. There are insensitivities and complications on both sides of this argument, and they should be recognized, not just brushed off.

In Conclusion

I adore the character of Waldo Butters. Given that most of this review centers around him, I think that comes off clearly. To be fair, most of the book centers around him too.

I know I have said this before, but Butcher comes into his own, once again here. The plot never stops, and as Cowl said of Bianca’s masquerade, “A great many things of significance happened that night. Most of which you are not yet aware.” (118). That applies for the rest of the books as well. Butcher gained greater facility in interweaving plots and building his world, and making that world serve the plot.

To step back from my applauding of Butcher for a second, I really wasn’t sure where to put the jokes mentioned in the Worst Worldbuilding section. Because they’re not classical worldbuilding, they don’t fill us in on the supernatural or the world of Chicago. But they are not moments that stand alone either. The gay joke keeps coming back, book after book. Butters becomes a recurring character, and in future books will make and set up jokes like the one here. They set up a pattern that Butcher follows later.

Nevertheless, I liked Dead Beat. I look forward to hearing from you, and talking about what you thought of this book. Was I wrong to put Polka Will Never Die as the Best Moment instead of Sue? How should I have catalogued those jokes? Did any of you pick out different things you wanted discussed?

I’ll see you next month, with my review of Proven Guilty.

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