Book Review: Cold Days by Jim Butcher

Cold Days cover
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Jim Butcher is one of the best-known names in urban fantasy, and his latest offering is filled with everything that has made his Dresden Files popular: snarky narrative from Chicago’s only wizard detective, multiple pop-culture shout-outs, and action and magic galore.

The fourteenth installment in The Dresden Files features a resurrected protagonist, power struggles, at least three potential global catastrophes, and the introduction of a new force that is likely going to remain with the series until its conclusion. Readers were anticipating Harry Dresden’s first adventure as the Winter Knight, a role he had steadfastly refused since the ending of the fourth book in the series and which was forced on him by the fallout of Changes and Ghost Story.

Both in years and in skills, Harry has come a long way since his first encounter with Mab, the Faerie Queen he now serves, but he is still unprepared for the forces at play in her Winter Court. One of Harry’s most defining characteristics is his complete lack of restraint when dealing with his enemies, and the best source of tension in the book lies in whether or not Harry can function in a world where deceit, wordplay, and indirect dealings can mean life or death.

But potential apocalypses crop up before long, and enemies infiltrate the already dangerous Winter Court, leaving it to Harry to blast things back to safety. The specific dangers are difficult to explain without spoilers to someone who hasn’t followed the series since the early books, but not impossible. An island jail for the most dangerous magical monsters in the Dresden Files universe is in danger of a prison break. Demons and various entities from outside the reality of the mortal realm are trying to break into the world and set up shop. And Harry, barely adjusted to his position in the Winter Court, is expected to do something about these things.

The high point of this story is easily the tension and the action, with a good chunk of the world as we know it teetering on the brink of chaos, and only a few well-placed punches -blasts of magic- can stem the tide. The long-term problems remain, but the focus of Cold Days is fairly simple: the world is on the line and the forces playing for it have to be stopped.

Because of what’s at stake, the bulk of the action takes place within twenty-four hours. And that leads to the book’s biggest problem: the crisis is averted, but the story itself doesn’t move very far forward. There’s not much character development or change in the big scheme of things; while the characters themselves are well-fleshed out and vivid, they don’t change much over the course of the tale.

Cold Days, however, does serve a larger purpose in the wider course of the series: it sets the rules and the stage for what Harry will have to deal with going forward. He has new living quarters and responsibilities, he needs to learn how to use and resist the power of the Winter Knight, and accept that he is no longer a down-on-his luck wizard detective in a basement. Now that his position has been established, the next stories can focus on how this affects him and those around him- while he deals with the monsters and magic in his world.

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