Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Harry Dresden: From Changes to Ghost Story

Harry Dresden wears a lot of hats. Private investigator, wizard for hire, Warden of the White Council, and general all around good guy. Or is he?

Spoilers for both Changes and Ghost Story after the jump.

It's tough to talk about Ghost Story without discussing Changes. Ghost Story picks up right where Changes ends, namely after the murder of one Harry Dresden, wizard. We find our hero in a ghostly Chicago version of purgatory, where he's promptly sent back to the 'real world' as a ghost. Harry has to find his murderer and thereby save the lives of three of his friends.

Ghost Story forces Harry to take a step back from 'doing' and actually review the consequences of his choices. Harry is by nature a man of action. He has the ability to do more than most, and he uses those abilities to the hilt. During Changes, he was especially single-minded and the consequences of the drastic actions he took then were of no relevance to him; he did what he felt he had to do and he was fine if the world burned down around him. Ghost Story shows us that while Harry might have taken a bullet as a result of his choices, it's the rest of the supernatural world that is going down in flames.

Unfortunately, it's really tough for Harry to gin up much remorse or a list of things he should have done differently. There's a lot of sorrow over the way things are, but almost no discussion of what he could have or should have done differently, because Changes makes it clear that Harry did the only things he really could in every situation.  It's the tight plot and exceptional writing in Changes that make Ghost Story's attempt to walk Harry back onto the side of angels ring a bit hollow.

If you read through Changes, every time Harry makes a bad call, it's a choice between the least bad of options and Maggie's death. "I have to do this or my child dies" is almost impossible to criticize. Harry tried absolutely every legitimate way to do the things he needed to do and at every turn was forced into something less and less savory. Even the murder of Susan was completely and perfectly justified in the moment. When you've turned your character so far down the left hand path that murdering the mother of your child is not just an option, it is an imperative, what you've got on your hands is no longer a good guy. You've got, at best, a nascent bad guy, and, at worst, someone who has embraced evil and made it his good - even if he doesn't know it yet. Changes is basically the chronicle of the last few steps from Anakin to Vader. (You know, except done right.)

So, here we are with Harry poised to become the Winter Knight, he's bound to what the older wizards seem to think is an alarmingly malevolent genius loci, and he just pulled off the largest supernatural genocide of the age.  Most importantly, Changes showed the shift from Harry doing what was right to doing what was necessary.  Those two things are most emphatically not the same.  It was a critical turning point for the character. At that point, I think Butcher freaked out and decided to retcon. He put Harry in a "I must think about my actions and repent" mode by getting his A Christmas Carol on and casting him in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge, only this time Scrooge is the ghost. That was a ballsy move and I think it could have worked except for one thing: You always come up against the "I have to do this or my child dies" scenario. When we're looking at what Harry's decisions did to screw up the world, it's impossible for him to say, "I shouldn't have done this" or "I should have done A instead of B" because we already covered that ground so thoroughly that we know there were no other options that didn't end in his child's death. So, without being able to actually acknowledge he made bad choices when better ones were available (because they weren't) the whole premise is castrated.

When Harry gets all preachy at Mab and says he owns his soul, I rolled my eyes because while that's true, Harry had no significant changes of heart because none were available. He had no specific regrets except that he regrets the impact of what he had to do. So, even with all that moral hand-wringing and realizing he wrought a lot of chaos, he's still the guy who did a bunch of evil shit to accomplish a selfish - yet ostensibly good - goal. He's not sorry, and he'd do everything the same again. Ghost Story was what my mom calls The Man Apology. Not, "I'm sorry I did that" but "I'm sorry you got hurt."

All that said, I think the next book will kick ass. Watching Harry dish out some hurting as the Winter Knight will be interesting. I think Titania is neck-deep in the Black Council, and with Fix and Lily bound to her, there's going to be some major tension there.  I just hope we aren't treated to a bunch of moral wrangling over every decision going forward as Butcher tries to show us that Harry's really and truly a good guy.
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1 comment:

  1. I was a little frustrated with this book too. I love Harry and Changes completely blew me away so this book was a bit of a let down. I do think Jim Butcher is about to take the series in a whole new direction and this was his way of moving Harry along to the next part of his journey. One thing I am curious about is how much we are going to see of all the supporting characters as Harry takes his place as the Winter Knight. Will they still play a big part in the story or will we get a whole new cast of characters?