Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Dead Iron: The Age of Steam

Devon Monk is best known as the author of the Allie Beckstrom Urban Fantasy series, Dead Iron: The Age of Steam is her first foray into the ever growing world of steampunk.

What sets Dead Iron apart from a lot of other entries in this field is that is not set in Victorian England or Europe, but the American West during a mining boom as the railroads are opening up civilising and populating previously remote and inaccessible areas. I like it when an author is brave enough to take on an established subgenre and do something a little different with it, which is what Devon Monk is attempting to do with Dead Iron, although I believe Mike Resnick’s The Buntline Special does something similar (I have that in my TBR pile, just haven’t been able to get to it yet).

Dead Iron contains many of the Urban Fantasy tropes: werewolves, zombies and witches. It’s never specifically explained exactly what the menacing and mysterious Strange are, but they put the one that we did see a lot; Mr Shunt, in mind of some sort of steampunk cyborg vampire. It’s also only hinted at what exactly the book’s equivalent to the Three Stooges; the Welsh Madder brothers, are, but I felt they may have been some sort of dwarvish protectors.

The book has more than one central character, although the taciturn, tortured, lantern jawed Cedar Hunt, a man cursed with lycanthropy who believes he has murdered his brother, is obviously the ‘hero’. Other protagonists are the vengeful witch Mae Lindsom, her recently deceased husband Jeb and the largely shunned orphan girl Rose Small. The villain is the dandy railroad man; Shard Lefel and his evil assistant with a pencnat for stovepipe hats; Mr Shunt. It was never spelled out, but Lefel may have been a necromancer, he put me in mind of Harry Groener’s Mayor Wilkins from Season 3 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who was also seeking immortality, which seemed to be Lefel’s ultimate goal and reason for wanting possession of an item known as the Holder.

The plot concerns Hunt’s efforts to track down a missing child and do a favour for the Madder brothers, this brings him into direct conflict with Lefel, and also links him with the other 3 protagonists. Mae is trying to track down Jeb and make his killers pay. Jeb’s trying to exact vengeance for his death and Rose just wants out of Hallelujah. For what sounds like something pretty messy it holds together fairly well.

Dead Iron is relatively self contained, although the sub title suggests a series, and I think Devon Monk may be at work on the sequel. It’s a worthy entry into the steampunk field and it’s a fairly original premise. I don’t regret the purchase or the time taken to read it, and that’s always a good start. There’s plenty of scope for more of the stories of Cedar and friends, the epilogue hints that readers have not seen the last of Mr Shunt, and we have yet to find out more about the Madder brothers and Rose Small. I look forward to exploring Devon Monk’s brave new world some more in the future.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Welcome to Bordertown

Sometime in the dim dark ages (mid 1980's) editor Terri Windling dreamt up an idea for a shared world that she called Bordertown. The Borderlands, sometimes called Bordertown was an area where the boundaries between our world and that of the faeries blurred and this seemed to draw disaffected youth from both places like moths to a flame. A number of Terri Windling's authorial acquaintances also liked the idea and contributed to it. There were a number of anthologies released and they achieved respectable popularity at the time.

I never got into Bordertown back then. I had other reading interests and the covers didn't do a lot for me. I wish I had, the original collections are very hard to find and horrendously expensive. The last collection was released in 1998 and the borders remained closed until 2011. Welcome to Bordertown is a brand new anthology of Bordertown stories edited by Ellen Kushner and popular YA author Holly Black with an introduction by Terri Windling. While I found the artwork on the original covers unappealing that's not the case with Steve Stone's bright image of an ivy covered motorcycle on this new collection.

The two ladies have assembled a formidable roster of talent, including names such as Cory Doctorow, Holly Black herself, Jane Yolen, Neil Gaiman, the wonderful Cat Valente and the Urban Fantasy pioneer Charles De Lint.

Welcome to Bordertown is an eclectic collection of stories, poems, songs and even a comic strip.

Like most short story collections there are some good ones, some not so good and one absolute stand out.

I could take or leave the poems, they rarely do connect with me. I don't think the collection would have suffered if they had been removed. Two examples of good stories were Cat Valente's dark, but beautifully written (that woman uses words so well) entry; A Voice Like A Hole, and the bewitching Elf Blood by Annette Curtis Klause. As a new visitor to Bordertown I also appreciated the Bordertown Basics at the front of the book and felt that the excellent Welcome to Bordertown by Terri Windling and Ellen Kushner also gave newbies a good introduction, explaining how the entrance to Bordertown had been closed for 13 years in our world, but 13 days in the Borderlands. One story that I really didn't like or see the point of was surprisingly from one of the original contributors to the Bordertown books Emma Bull's; Incunabulum. The stand out was Charles De Lint's closer; A Tangle of Green Men. I tried De Lint years ago, but could never really get into him, I may have to have another go at it.

Welcome to Bordertown will hopefully entice previous visitors back and attract a new generation to this wondrous place so that more collections can come out and maybe even have the older ones reprinted. I want to go back.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Hugos - my view and a rant

This is my experience of the Hugo Awards ceremony in Reno at Worldcon. After the description of the night comes the rant.

I actually thought the line to get into the ballroom for the Masquerade was long, but it had nothing on the Hugos one. Last year in Melbourne the event had been hosted by Australian YA author Garth Nix, and he had done a professional and occasionally amusing job. This year the gig had gone to the ever popular and irreverent Jay Lake, assisted by his good friend and rising author Ken Scholes.

Once Jay and Ken had established that the Hugos are in fact named in honour of Amazing Stories publisher Hugo Gernsback, and not Hugo Weaving, Hugo Chavez or even Victor Hugo, they got on with the awards themselves. There was a brief and moving video presentation from Japan, which is still recovering from the tsunami earlier this year, and then the presentation of the Forest J Ackerman Big Heart award named in honour of super fan the late Forry Ackerman. This was presented by ‘first fan’ Dave Kyle in his signature red jacket. The award went to Gay Haldeman, the wife of Hugo award winning author Joe. She was given a standing ovation and the ceremony moved on.

Jay Lake, a former winner of the John W. Campbell award for Best New Writer, was at pains to stress that the award is NOT a Hugo. In fact there is a piece of paper stuck to his plaque with the words Not a Hugo written on it. Stanley Schmidt presented the award to Magicians author Lev Grossman, who won it from a strong field including she of the sloth stole Lauren Beukes and Saladin Ahmed. Seanan McGuire in a green dress handed on the traditional tiara, which Lev said will be going to his young daughter. Seanan contends that as she won the award in Australia she is still the Princess of the Kingdom of Poison and Flame and Lev is now the Prince of the Kingdom of Slot Machines and Smoke Filled Neon Rooms (at least I think that’s what she said).

Then the trophy was unveiled. They held a contest which was won by French artist Marina Gelineau. The photos shown on the big screen really didn’t do Marina’s base justice. I managed to get a good look at one of them the following day and they are truly spectacular and as each is individual and unique quite a labour of love.

I don’t really get a lot of the fan awards. I’m more of a casual fan, even though I have attended a couple of Worldcons and read a number of blogs. The first of these was Best Fan Artist taken out by Brad W. Foster and presented by Stu Schiffman.

Claire Brialey received the Best Fan Writer award from John Coxon, a British fan who I had seen on a few panels, he’s also a TAFF Delegate.

Best Fanzine presented by DUFF Delegate David Cake to The Drink Tank editors Chris Garcia and James Bacon was one of the highlights of the evening. Mainly due to Garcia’s totally over the top reaction. Chris Garcia is an interesting looking bloke. He reminds me of The Artist in Dave Sim’s Cerebus. He was in tears before he reached the podium. He babbled incoherently for a moment or two, before his partner in The Drink Tank; James Bacon, who was still capable of stringing a word or two together and had not collapsed into a blubbering heap, made a speech. By this stage Garcia was sitting cross legged on the stage, cradling the Hugo, rocking back and forth, whispering sweet nothings into the awards ear, well rather where it’s ear would be if the rocket ship had ears. I’ve never seen a reaction like that on any awards I have witnessed. Roberto Benigni at the Academy Awards for Beautiful Life comes close. I can understand it to an extent. He obviously puts a lot of time and effort and some of himself into The Drink Tank and to have it validated like that, was for Chris, overwhelming.

David G. Hartwell presented the Best Semiprozine to Clarkesworld and they disqualified themselves from the running next year. I’m still not sure whether is an attempt to give another ‘zine a chance to win it or some sort of protest against the awards and the way they’re managed.

Popular band Tricky Pixie, done up in steam punk costumes, presented the award for Best Graphic Story. Once again Phil and Kaja Foglio, along with colourist Cheyenne Wright, took the stage to accept the award for Girl Genius. I wanted Fables to win, but this may happen next year as the Foglios have asked not to be nominated next year to give another team the opportunity.

Legendary editor Ellen Datlow presented the Best Editor Short Form to a highly appreciative Sheila Williams.

GoH Ellen Asher, with a raging case of laryngitis, presented the Best Editor Long Form to Lou Anders. This was one of the best received and most popular winners of the night and nearly everyone I’ve seen comment on it agrees that Lou was the right man for it. He gave credit to his wife in his acceptance speech for making him take a job that he didn’t think he wanted at the time.

George R.R Martin was the man who presented the award form Best Dramatic Presentation Short Form, next year he may be up there receiving one for Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form, as I can’t see anything topping Game of Thrones in that category. Personally I think everyone was just waiting for George to say the name of the novelty song ‘Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury’ and there was a huge groan when they showed part of the clip, but cut it just before singer Rachel Bloom uttered the ‘f’ word. The award went out for the umpteenth time to Doctor Who (which had its usual 3 nominations), Paul Cornell accepted it on behalf of the show and episode writer Steven Moffatt. There’s been some controversy around this. Everyone knew that Doctor Who would win, but thought that the winning episode would be Vincent, not the 2 parter The Pandorica Opens. There’s also been some discussion that as a 2 parter if those 2 should have even been eligible, put together the two episodes sort of tip it into the Long Form category. I think a lot of people were pulling for the Rachel Bloom novelty entry just to hear the word fuck said on stage again. It’s a funny song with a clever clip, but it really shouldn’t have ever got a nomination. It’s a comedy act, not a dramatic presentation. Maybe there should be a best related media award.

GoH and Fables creator Bill Willingham presented the Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form award. Unsurprisingly Christopher Nolan’s mind bending film Inception won. I would have liked to see How To Train Your Dragon get up, but I think voters tend to be a little sensitive about awarding what is essentially a children’s film this type of award. Chris Nolan actually sent an acceptance speech which was good of him and better than what the people behind Moon did in 2010 which was a short note saying for the presenter, who was George R.R Martin, to accept the award on their behalf.

Aussie artist Shaun Tan took out Best Professional Artist, presented by the legendary Boris Vallejo. The award was accepted by fellow Australian Jonathan Strahan. It capped off an amazing year for Tan who won an Academy Award for his short film The Lost Thing and a major literary award for one of his books, which came with a cash prize of $750,000.

Now we were into the writing awards. Farah Mendelsohn gave Best Related Work to Lynne Thomas and Tara O’Shea for Chicks Dig Timelords. Both women were obviously emotionally affected by the recognition, although not to the same extent as Chris Garcia. Tara was somewhat stunned. It was her first ever Con and when Paul Cornell had told her earlier in the week that she was in his opinion likely to win she dismissed it with a blush. She dedicated it to a recently deceased friend.

The often amusing David D. Levine presented Best Short Story to Mary Robinette Kowal for her work For Want of a Nail. I didn’t read any of the short stuff, not a really a fan of the fomat, but my wife read them all. Kowal was her second choice. She chose the very short Ponies by Kij Johnson as her winner.

Author Nancy Kress presented Best Novelette to Alan M. Steele for Emperor of Mars.

Best Novella won by Ted Chiang for The Lifecycle of Software Objects was another highlight, Not for the winner or the reaction, but because of the speech given by Grandmaster Robert Silverberg. Bob Silverberg is known for his Hugo Award speeches. He did a great monologue last year comparing editors to wombats. This year he took aim at Connie Willis with the avowed intention of making her sweat. For those who have never been privileged to hear Silverberg speak, you have missed out. He has an amazing speaking voice, perfect delivery and he’s hysterically funny. He had people in tears as he mused on the Shakespearean origins of Connie Willis’ daughter's name; Cordelia, from King Lear. He then went on to say that if he had a son (fortunately I don’t think he has children) he would also give the child a Shakespearean name. That would be: Titus Andronicus Henry The Fifth Iago Silverberg. They should have a new award for best speech at the Hugos, it should be called the Silverberg. Unfortunately I don’t think anyone other than Bob himself would ever win it until he stops giving speeches at the awards.

Silverberg is a hard act to follow and to his credit GoH Tim Powers did not try, simply giving the Hugo for Best Novel to Connie Willis for her epic time travel WW II book Blackout/All Clear. This was Willis’ 11th Hugo and there’s been quite the discussion about it’s worthiness and eligibility on the interwebs. The worthiness is a ridiculous accusation which I am not even going to discuss. The majority of voters nominated it and then voted for it and it won, it is that simple. The eligibility is interesting. The award is meant to be awarded to one book and technically Blackout/All Clear is two books. However it is one story that due to it’s length had to be split into two and published separately. All the votes were given on the understanding that both volumes were being voted for as one complete story. Having read them both I don’t understand how you could prefer one to the other, the first one doesn’t make sense without the second and vice versa.

For the record the placing of the Best Novels went this way:
1) Blackout/All ClearConnie Willis
2) FeedMira Grant
3) The Dervish HouseIan McDonald
4) CryoburnLois McMaster Bujold
5) The Hundred Thousand KingdomsN.K Jemisin.

Following a fittingly amusing acceptance speech where she mentioned Iago Silverberg, Connie Willis took her award and exited the stage, Jay and Ken closed the awards with Ken singing a rousing and altered version of American Pie. It was a fun night and I think everyone there had a great time. Talking points were Chris Garcia’s reaction to his win and Robert Silverberg’s highly amusing speech. The controversy stuff broke out later when the bloggers got hold of the results and analysed them.

That’s how I saw the awards ceremony itself. This bit is going to cover the contenders for Best Novel, how I saw and rated them and some of the negativity that seems to have sprung up about the event and the winner. I’ll talk about the last one first, because I am perverse that way.

This seems to happen every year, someone always has an issue with how the event was judged or who won it, even who was nominated. It’s largely unavoidable. When people’s favourite thing doesn’t win they seem to feel personally slighted. It’s not unique to the Hugos, it happens with every major award from the Nobel to the Oscars. One big difference between the Hugos and other awards is that it is largely a popularity contest, being voted on by the attendees of Worldcon and associate members, and not a panel of ‘experts’.

One prominent blogger angrily declared that the Hugos had got it ‘wrong’ by awarding the rocket ship to Connie Willis for Blackout/All Clear (actually he said they’d gotten it wrong again, indicating that in his opinion the voters for the award are pretty stupid and regularly vote for books he didn’t like). It wasn’t immediately clear to me why he thought they had erred. If he’s talking about the voters electing Blackout/All Clear as the best book they’d read for the year, then that’s just insulting to those who did vote, and sour grapes because his horse didn’t win. If he’s talking about the work being ineligible on a technicality then he may have a point. Blackout/All Clear is actually two books and this is where it gets confusing. It is the one story, but for reasons of it’s unwieldy length (something that a more ruthless editor could have possibly fixed, but that’s a whole other can of worms that I’m not going to open here) was split into two books and published separately, but in the same year; Blackout came out first, followed by All Clear a few months later. It appeared on the ballot as one book, so it was totally clear to voters that they were voting for both parts as the one work. It’s a highly technical point to make, and I still don’t accept as valid the contention that the Hugos got it ‘wrong’.

When trying to point out in the comments of another well read blog that Connie Willis and her work was a worthy winner and her popularity had a lot to do with it I was imperiously informed that an author’s popularity didn’t guarantee a good work (no! Really? I never would have known, thank you so much for taking the time to teach poorly educated little me that vital lesson), he then went on to say that he had heard Blackout/All Clear wasn’t very good from what he had heard (hasn’t actually read the book/s, mind you) and snarkily finish it off by saying that it was two books anyway. As I said above, yes technically it was, but if you had bothered to read it you may have realised it was one story in two volumes.

If you were able to vote (an associate membership is around $50, and for that I believe you get the complete voting pack which contains electronic versions of ALL the nominated works, including the short stories, novellas and novels. If this is not the case I do apologize, but if it is, it’s pretty good value for money) then you had the right to nominate works and to vote for the 5 that made the ballot. If you had this right and didn’t exercise it, then I find it hard to accept any complaint about the outcome as valid.

Now to the works and how I saw and rated them.
I’ll go from 5 up to 1 (this is how I voted, not how they actually finished up, although with one exception I was on the money).

5) The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K Jemisin.
Although it’s only a slim volume I struggled with this. A lot of people have liked it and that’s how it got on the ballot. Aside from it’s rather unusual, lyrical, poetic, tense changing narrative I couldn’t find much to recommend it. The plot was trite and contained nothing original, the world building was shallow and not one of the highly unlikeable characters had any depth.

4) Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold
Bujold herself is a giant in the field. Her 4 Hugo Best Novel awards have her equal with Heinlein. Cryoburn is the most recent entry in her long running Miles Vorkosigan saga. I’ve read a couple of Vorkosigans and have never really been able to see what the fuss was about. As an SF novel Cryoburn is competent and tight, but nothing special and that’s probably why not even the hard core fans could get this one over the line at the Hugos.

3) The Dervish House by Ian McDonald
I have to admit to enjoying this book. It started off very slow and was confusing for the first 200 or so pages, but drew me in from that point on. I would have rated it higher if it had been tighter and maybe excluded one unnecessary major character that I did not see the point of.

2) Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis
This is the 3rd of Connie Willis time travel novels featuring the time hopping historians of Oxford University circa 2060. Most of the book is set in WW II as 3 of Willis’ heroes desperately try to get back to their own time, while at the same time trying to ensure that they don’t get killed or inadvertently alter the course of WW II. Where this shines is in the characterisation. Willis writes highly likeable and accessible characters in tough situations that make her readers care about them. I have heard criticism that her research for this one contained some inaccuracies, but I’m yet to find out what they were. The book deserved plaudits purely and simply for the inclusion of the Hodbins, the best pair of juvenile delinquents in literature since Mark Twain’s immortal team of Finn and Sawyer.

1) Feed by Mira Grant
Feed is the first book of the Newsflesh trilogy by Mira Grant (pen name of Urban Fantasy author Seanan McGuire). It’s largely self contained and could be read without needing to read the next two volumes, although if you like Feed you’ll want to read on. Feed grabbed me by the throat around page 1 and held on until the end, letting go of a thoroughly shaken and emotionally shattered reader. The thing about Feed that surprised me and others I’ve spoken to is that it is a novel about the zombie apocalypse and despite none of us being fans of that particular growing sub genre we were all taken in by this book. It’s also that rarest of commodities these days; a tightly written and edited book with very little excess fat on it’s bones.

Now having said all that I think that the field was a little weak this year. There were a couple of big releases that never eventuated in 2010 and this helped. Connie Willis, as a former winner with a big following and a monster of an epic, had the strongest claim and these are other reasons why she won. In stronger years I doubt Feed or The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms would have made the cut, although I still would have nominated Feed as even now it’s stronger than anything I’ve read this year with the exception of Cat Valente’s masterpiece The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making.

No matter who is nominated and no matter who wins I see the Hugos as a celebration of the genre and those who follow it, for those reasons alone we should be looking to increase it’s profile and find ways to improve it and make it more inclusive, not tear it down because our personal taste has not been validated.

To quote that great football philosopher and fisherman Rex Hunt: 'That is all.'

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making (damn, that's a long title! I'll just call it The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland from now in in the interests of not giving myself RSI) by Catherynne M. Valente started life as an online project, and in fact won the Culture Geek Best Web Fiction of the Decade award. The book has already picked up the Andre Norton award. I first heard about it at the 2010 Worldcon where the author spoke about it in a conversation with friend and fellow author Seanan McGuire (it was a public conversation, I was not eavesdropping). It's also referenced in the book Palimpsest, and that may have been where it was conceived.

As a book The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland is beautifully presented. Feiwel and Friends (an imprint of MacMillan) have outdone themselves here. There's a perfect marriage between Cat Valente's words and the whimsical drawings of Ana Juan that adorn the front and back covers as well as the opening of each chapter.

I knew I'd like it before even opening it, because I don't think Cat Valente is capable of writing a bad book. This woman's facility with language is stunning. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland is one of those rare volumes that can be read across generations and ages, and everyone will find something in it. Adults will be swept away by the words and the imagery and children will find wonderment in the creation of Ms Valente's imagination.

The story is quite simple. 12 year old September is taken by the Green Wind; a Harsh Air, on his steed; the Leopard of Small Breezes away from her boring life and deposited in Fairyland, where she meets a vast array of all sorts and with the help of a frinedly Wyverary (kind of like a Wyvern, but much better read); A-Through-L (September calls him Ell for convenience) and a young Marid; Saturday, she saves Fairyland from the evil Marquess.

I was blown away by this book. It is a stunning tour de force from beginning to end. The style is rather reminiscent of a bygone age where key events from the chapter are presented at the beginning in italics. There are elements from classics such as The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland, but it is still remarkably original and complusively readable.

Seanan McGuire informed me at Worldcon that a sequel is in the works, so that's something to look forward to. As for now The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland is the best thing I've read this year, or for the last 2 for that matter. I'll be pushing for it to get a Hugo at next years Worldcon.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Mermaid's Madness

I threatened to do this and now I've followed through. After enjoying Jim C. Hine's first Princess book The Stepsister Scheme I decided to read the next in the series; The Mermaid's Madness.

The cover is more fun from Scott Fischer, this time he's gone with a Pirates of the Carribean theme, which makes sense considering the subject material. Hines used the Hans Christian Andersen story of The Little Mermaid as his back drop for this instalment. I have to say that Snow White makes a very fetching pirate, too.

Queen Bea is attacked by a faction of undines or mermaids led by Lirea, the mad mermaid princess, and lies close to death. It's up to Cinders, Beauty and Snow to come to the rescue again. The author has continued to call the girls by the lesser known names of Danielle (Cinderella), Talia (Sleeping Beauty) and Snow (Snow White, although her real name is Ermillia). Again it's Talia and Snow that share most of the heavy lifting with Danielle getting in the way a lot of the time, unless they need assistance from sharks or kelpies. As in the first book the other two could have left Danielle at home with her new baby Jakob, and still gotten the job done.

I know these are all about girl power, but it would be nice to see at least one male character that isn't either useless or incompetently evil. I had hopes for Varisto, but he turned out to be as largely inconsequential as every other male character in the first book and this one.

Having said that I liked the feisty dryad ship's captain Hephyra and he also kept me guessing for a lot of the book as to who was the real villain of the piece: Lirea or her grandmother Morveren. The juvenile undine queen Lannadae was great for a cuteness factor, too.

I preferred The Stepsister Scheme, but that could be due to unfamiliarity with the story that The Mermaid's Madness is based on. I also struggle with stories set largely at sea. They just don't float my boat (pun intended) as such.

The brewing love triangle between Talia and Snow and the fact that Snow simply isn't wired that way is also interesting and will be fun to see where Hines takes that in Red Hood's Revenge. Yeah, I'm hooked.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Ghost Story

Ghost Story is the 13th book of Jim Butcher’s long running and successful Dresden Files. In it’s predecessor; Changes, Butcher finished the book on a cliff hanger (he does say in his introduction that it wasn’t really a cliff hanger, entering spoiler land here, Jim, you killed your title character, if that doesn’t qualify as a cliff hanger I don’t know what does!) with Harry’s death. However Dresden isn’t going to let a little thing like death get in his way.

Harry finds himself ‘in-between’ (a sort of never never land somewhere between true death and life) and is given the opportunity of passing on, in which case he accepts that he is truly dead and can never come back or going back to the world of the living and finding out who murdered him. Although it’s phrased as a ‘choice’, the alternative is allowing great harm to come to some of those Harry holds nearest and dearest, there really isn’t much of a choice in it.

The title kind of gives away what Harry will return as; a ghost. He soon finds out being a spook isn’t much fun at all. He can’t be seen or heard by most people, including some of his best friends and allies, he has no magic and he cannot influence the living world in any physical way. He can however still be killed by some of the things that inhabit the spirit world.

Harry’s guide to his new state of being is one of Butcher’s new characters; Sir Stuart Winchester, Captain in the Colonial Marines, he’s about one of the oldest ghosts Harry encounters, but also one of the most powerful. Harry’s bridge and the best way of communicating to those who are not sensitive to ghosts is the ectomancer Mortimer Lindquist. Mort has featured in three previous adventures, but Ghost Story is by far his biggest role and gives the character some genuine depth.

Ghost Story saw a far more reflective and passive Harry, bound as he was by the limitations that had been imposed upon him. Harry had to think his way through a lot more and use his mind and past experiences without his physical size, strength and magic to fall back on. Despite the lack of action, relative to some of the other books, Ghost Story doesn’t really flag at any point. I did find a couple of chapters in the middle a little heavy on the magic explanation and these could have been shortened, by that’s really a minor quibble and other readers may find them quite interesting.

I’ve seen a bit of talk around various forums wondering exactly what it is about Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files that makes it so popular (most of the books reach the higher spots in the Times best seller list), and it’s something I’ve asked myself. There’s nothing truly remarkable about the books, they’re not epic, although they are involving and they’re certainly not life changing, nor do they pose any controversial questions. What they are is: FUN. Butcher knows his audience and he writes for them and to them. As always the pop culture references abound (my personal favourite from Ghost Story is a hilarious Star Trek spoof featuring a USS Enterprise full of Molly Carpenters). Given how many of the references hit my pop culture nerve I get the impression that Jim Butcher, Harry and I, and I suspect a good portion of his audience, are roughly the same age.

Possibly due to the fact that his cast of thousands was getting a little out of hand in Changes, the cast has been pared back a bit for Ghost Story. Aside from Mort and Sir Stuart (who is a new character, I unfortunately don’t think we’ll see him again), readers get plenty of Karrin Murphy, Waldo Butters, Molly Carpenter, Father Forthill, the Leanan Sidhe (she has grown on me so much, I think next to Harry and Murphy she’s my favourite character now) and Bob the talking skull. The villain’s role is taken by the evil spirit Corpsetaker (shades of Glen Cook’s Black Company books there with that name) with help from Bob’s evil aspect (it’s complicated and requires reading Dead Beat). There are also cameos from some of Billy Borden’s wolf pack, another member of the large Carpenter family and Harry’s pet cat Mister and dog Mouse.

While I found the mystery of who killed Harry totally shocking and unexpected, not to mention fairly satisfying, and the second last chapter was a total heartbreaker, I thought the ending was a bit deus ex machina, although not enough to spoil my enjoyment of the book as a whole. Jim Butcher has delivered another solid, enjoyable, readable and gripping entry in the Dresden Files and I’ll be strapping in for number 14; Cold Days, probably about this time next year.

A small note here: while it is not necessary to have read the short story collection Side Jobs to understand Ghost Story there are a couple of references to entries in the collection in Ghost Story. I’d recommend you read Side Jobs in any case as it’s a good read.