Harry Dresden has been alive. He’s been dead. Now, because the universe hates him, he enters a new phase of life – being a ghost. That’s pretty much the plot of Butcher’s thirteenth book in The Dresden Files, Ghost Story. The 2011 book features Harry returning from the dead and helping his friends deal with his passing, trying to solve his murder, and dealing with a whole bunch of other murderous ghosts. Join me as we go through Ghost Story, seeing what Harry does, and what problems he faces.
Spoilers for the entirety of Ghost Story and Butcher’s other works. (Especially Changes).
So, What Happened?
Ghost Story picks up right where Changes left off, with Harry, drowning and dying. Carmichael saves him from being hit by an actual, not metaphorical, train, and takes him to the office/Purgatory. Murphy’s father offers him the chance to go back, or else three of his friends will be hurt, and Harry takes the offer. Carmichael drops him off at Mortimer Lindquist’s place, which is under attack by angry, sentient ghosts.
In return for helping defend him, Mortimer tells Harry it’s May, six months after his death, and takes him to Murphy’s place. We find out Murphy allied with Marcone and the small talents to keep Chicago safe, and that Molly went crazy after Chichen Itza. After some doubt, the new Justice League believes Mortimer, and then they’re attacked by gunmen. Harry follows them and finds them under the control of a mid-level sorcerer. He manages to communicate with one of the gang and promises to help them. The next evening, Harry finds Mortimer kidnapped by the angry ghosts under the command of Evil Bob and a female ghost, later recognized as the ghost of the Corpsetaker. After some drama with Father Forthill helping the gangers and Daniel Carpenter and Butters almost getting killed, the cavalry shows up to rescue Mortimer.
During the assault, after rescuing Mortimer, Corpsetaker tries to take over Molly, and Harry helps summon Mortimer as the cavalry to keep her alive. Harry remembers that he organized his murder and asked Molly to remove that memory from his mind. Uriel takes Harry on a tour of his family and friends before taking him to the afterlife.
Except not really the afterlife. Harry wakes up on Demonreach, after being kept alive and healed by Mab, the island, and an unnamed parasite.
Best Moment – The Opening Sequence
Ghost Story opens in a wonderful way. After a page of Harry musing about the nature of life and death, we return to the image of a train rushing out of a tunnel. Except, instead of the metaphorical train we assumed it was at the end of Changes, it turns out to be an actual train. Carmichael pulls him away from it. He takes Harry to the office, where we meet Captain Jack, who tells him that Harry’s here because the opposition cheated. “Wait. What opposition?’ ‘The angel standing guard at the elevator is what we cops think of as a clue” (10). The thing that strikes me more is what happens afterwards.
Harry realizes that he’s wearing his duster, and remembers how it got shredded in the battle at Chichen Itza. “But I was wearing it, whole and good as new. Which was when it really, really hit me. I was dead. I was dead. Chicago, the White Council, my enemies, my friends, my daughter … They were all gone” (10). After a completely reasonable panic attack, Jack calms him down, and dangles the bait for the rest of the plot. Harry chooses to go back, and risk his soul to keep his friends from danger.
Before that happens, one last significant thing happens. After Harry agrees, Jack chauffeurs him to a place before he’s stopped.
“Hey,’ someone called from behind us. ‘Murphy.’ Jack stopped and turned around. … ‘Captain Collin J. Murphy?’ I asked quietly. He grunted. ‘You’re Karrin’s dad. Used to run the Black Cat case files” (15).
The opening sequence ties together dead people that we care about (Harry, Jack Murphy, and Carmichael) with the threat to the living world. It serves as a perfect opening for a book that deals with both of those themes.
Most Improved – Mortimer Lindquist Gets His Due
Just like Butters and Molly, Butcher gives Mortimer Lindquist his due. This starts from the very beginning, where Harry, notices his house and appearance is very different, self-assured. This change comes across in all areas of his life and Butcher shows us that.
When a gunman attacks, Mortimer proves what his worth is. Harry offers advice, “Look, just get your weapon and aim at the door and I’ll tell you when to shoot!’ ‘I don’t have one!’ Mort screamed. I blinked. … ‘I am an ectomancer, not an action hero!” (43). But despite his lack of modern weaponry, Mortimer drags the ghosts defending his house into himself and uses their skills to deal with the gunman.
Beyond his use of the ghosts, his ability to control and contain them complicates the plot. When he’s kidnapped by Corpsetaker, Sir Stuart reveals that half of the spirits near Mortimer are dangerous. Those ghosts that weren’t insane he helped move on, but the insane, dangerous ones he kept calm. But he’s gone now, and Harry nicknames them the Lector Specters and deals with them.
Then, at the end Mortimer pulls one final impressive trick. After being tortured for over a day by Corpsetaker, he answers Harry’s summons to help Molly.
“Mortimer Lindquist, ectomancer, limped out of the lower hallway … ‘I’m not really into this whole hero thing,’ Mort said. ‘Don’t have the temperament for it. … ‘But it seems to me, you half-wit, that you probably shouldn’t have left a freaking ectomancer a pit full of wraiths to play with” (456-7).
He shows his strength, and for all he says about not being a hero, he steps up when he needed to. That is one of the themes of this book, and of the series as a whole.
Best Worldbuilding – “Five,’ I muttered, ‘Six. Seven. Heh.”
For a book containing more information about ghosts, it’s probably surprising that the category for Best Worldbuilding goes to the last scene. But how Butcher sets up this scene, seeding worldbuilding into his plot and bringing it all to such a wonderful fulfillment here, means I couldn’t give this category to anything else.
It begins in one of Harry’s ghost-magic flashbacks. We see his training with Justin DuMorne, and how he learns to use fire magic. We get several other scenes with this, including one where He Who Walks Behind appears, but one line stands out as significant. Justin tells him to study magic, not to cheat, otherwise he will be. “Mediocre. Mediocrity is a terrible fate, Harry” (189).
Then, we see Uriel talking with Harry about how the Opposition interfered with his fate. How they lied to intervene with his thought processes. “A slender shadow crouched besides the cot, vague and difficult to notice, even by Uriel’s light—but it was there, and it was leaning as though to whisper in my ear. And it was all your fault, Harry” (451). Uriel promises to balance the scales with seven words of truth at a later date.
Finally, we come to the scene where all of this pays off. Harry wakes up, disoriented, in the hands of Mab and Demonreach. Harry despairs, thinking that Mab will be able to change him, to control him, body and spirit. “He is mine to shape as I please.’ ‘Dammit,’ I said tiredly. ‘Dammit.’ And a voice—a very calm, very gentle, very rational voice whispered in my ear, ‘Lies. Mab cannot change who you are” (475).
Harry then threatens Mab with excessive compliance if she tries to play with his head. “I’ll make every task you command one you must personally oversee. I’ll have the initiative of a garden statue. And do you know what that will give you, my queen?’ Her eyes burned. ‘What?’ I felt my own smile widen. ‘A mediocre knight,’ I said. ‘And mediocrity, my queen, is a terrible, terrible fate.’ … ‘I will be the Winter Knight,’ I told her. ‘I will be the most terrifying Knight the Sidhe Courts have ever known. … But I do it my way.” (476-7).
In this way, Butcher prepares Harry for his future as the Winter Knight. One who owes allegiance to the Queen of Air and Darkness, but one with power all his own. The power to choose. To be, as Lea is, “a trusted enemy” (477).
Worst Moment – Molly, Communicate Already
Molly once again features in this section. This time though, it is not for my personal soapbox, Butcher’s oversexualization of her. This time she appears for following one of Harry’s flaws – aka, not communicating when she needs help and keeping secrets.
When Harry is inside Molly’s head, trying to help her oust Corpsetaker, her mind splits itself into Star Trek-esque versions of herself. Corpsetaker gets too close, and Molly prepares a self-destruct object. Then Kirk-Molly and Spock-Molly start fighting. “I turned to Ensign Molly and said, ‘Dammit, do something!’ ‘There’s nothing I can do,’ she said, her eyes uncertain and full of sadness. ‘They’ve been like that ever since they killed you” (438).
This moment, with Kirk-Molly and Spock-Molly fighting, is a metaphorical representation of Molly’s PTSD and guilt after helping Harry arrange his murder, and the backlash from the battle at Chichen Itza. Both of those things very justifiably cause psychological damage. But her actions to isolate herself make it worse.
To be very clear, I am not blaming Molly for having PTSD. But I can speak from experience that self-isolation makes PTSD and other mental illnesses much worse.
Bottling up everything inside, and saying, “I don’t want anyone like friends anywhere near me” (97) does not help. In this, she echoes Harry at his most distrustful. Remember when he didn’t tell Murphy or Billy about the supernatural threats and it got them hurt? But in this case Molly’s not talking to anyone is getting her hurt.
Ghost Story, in many ways, is Butcher at his best. We get a fantastic plot, snappy dialogue, and more worldbuilding than we can handle. Like last time, the opening and the conclusion are amazing, and so is the stuff inbetween. Finally, we get details about Justin DuMorne and He Who Walks Behind that Butcher teased us with before. The ghost of Corpsetaker ties things together nicely with previous books, and Lea’s comment about Bianca’s knife being a cursed gift foreshadows books to come.
Butcher does delve deep into the noir aesthetic for this novel. Murphy’s Justice League reeks of Batman influence, with the distrust even within its own ranks and the working with Marcone and the White Court. Molly is a vigilante that could show up in a Batman movie at it’s most grim-dark.
But he balances that with hope. Harry’s aid to the gangsters serving the middle-class sorcerer keeps things rooted in the empathy and desire to help that drives the heart of the series. He sees in Fitz’s confrontation of Aristedes himself going up against DuMorne. Molly talking in code about how “Chewbacca” (Mouse), is with Maggie makes me smile every time. Uriel’s tour of Harry’s friends and family, with the final visit to Maggie, safe at the Carpenters, reads like something out of A Christmas Carol. “She’s … I mean, she’s …?’ ‘Cared for,’ Uriel said, ‘Loved, of course. Do you think Michael and Charity would do less for your child, when you have so often saved their children?’ I blinked some tears out of my eyes” (466).
Butcher does some of his best work here, and I look forward to looking again at Cold Days and seeing how that book holds up to this one.