Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Changes by Jim Butcher

Wow. Just…wow. WOW.

That would conclude the short, nonspoilery version of my review of Jim Butcher's Changes, because wow.

(Below the cut is less a review than a meditation on the book; very spoilery)

I feel like the words "game-changing" are ridiculously overused as the trendy buzz-words of the year, but I'm also at a loss for what other words to use for what just happened there. And I'm not sure where to start with all of what happened, so this may be a little (or a lot!) less combobulated than when I otherwise talk about books.

Susan. I think Susan has been a gun on the table for a long time. And, at the same time, given Susan's circumstances—and the fact that, at the end of the day, it's the Harry Dresden Show—there isn't a lot of leeway to do a lot with her character. Susan's struggle would have been an interesting story in its own right, but as part of Harry Dresden's story, she was only ever going to be so useful a plot device. On the other hand, you don't want to just fridge a character because she's in the way. So, from a writing standpoint, I understand why Butcher shelved her character for such a long time and why she had to die here—for many reasons, from writerly to in-story.

Killing Susan discharges the gun and puts closure on an outstanding storyline—which is clearly necessary, given the new playing field of any future books. As well, it closes another door in Harry's personal story line, one in a really startling list of painful but potentially necessary losses (I think I have more to say on that later). And, of course, we can't forget the emotional wages of Susan's death on Harry…because by now, we should all know that Butcher won't. Susan's death—and the other choices that Harry made in the course of the book, including that to become Winter's Knight—are all blows to Harry's foundation morality…and they're hardly the first, but I feel like they are some of the most devastating we've seen to date.

(And here I feel like I want to insert a conversation I've had ongoing in my head about how important it is to know what genre of media you're partaking in; it would be useful to me, as a consumer, to know whether Dresden's overall arc is a tragedy, or action-adventure, or noir, etc., if only to arrange my inevitable expectations accordingly. There are few things worse than thinking you're ingesting one genre of media and then to realize—too late—that it's another kind entirely. But that is, I think, a conversation for another time.)

Which brings me back to a half-formed thought about loss and anchors. There are certain things that hold us to the world, hold us to the person we are at the present time. Let's call them anchors, because that's really what they do, they moor us into a certain personality and a certain persona and help prevent drift. An anchor can be material, like a home, or immaterial, like the relationships with friends and loved ones. Or like a job, a persona which, like it or not, we invest part of our identity.

The loss of any one of these anchors can produce radical change in our persona and personality. The loss of a beloved home, the loss of a job, the death of a loved one… If you've been through any of those things, you know from personal experience how different the person you are now is from the person you were then. A ton of our media is built on that very notion (as is the mental health industry, btw), from "villains" like the angry, fuddled killer in the movie Falling Down to more "noble" protagonists like Luke Skywalker, whose entire adventure begins on the tombstones of his caretakers/surrogate parents. Loss can either cripple us or catalyze us, but either way, it makes us change. Drastically.

The loss of all or most of your anchors, particularly all at once…even as a catalyst, it can't help but being catastrophic. In the course of Changes, Harry loses his office, his car, his home. Arguably, he loses his job—and you can take your pick of factors here, from the loss of his office, to the continuing schism between himself and the Council, radically deepened here, to his acceptance of the Knighthood of Winter Court.

While we haven't seen Susan in some time, it's textually obvious that, like Murphy, Susan has been a cherished (and to some extent, idealized) icon-memory in Harry's mind, a love that he's nurtured (as a self-anchor) over time. By Susan's death—and by the fact that he's instrumental in it—Harry loses both Susan-in-flesh and the cherishing of Susan, his memories of her forever tainted by his guilt and recrimination. In fan speak, he loses that as a happy place.

As well, Harry's identity as father, parent, is one that's crushingly brief, gained and lost practically in the same breath, but it's no less devastating for that. In fact, as the assumption of that identity is the predicating catalyst for nearly everything that comes after it, its inevitable loss is just that little bit keener. Harry turned his entire world upside down and lost almost everything to save his little girl's life. And he didn't even get to tell her who he was. Potentially (yeah, right), he'll never see her again.

And, though our self-identity is formed and held in-place by our anchors, self-identity is, in and of itself, a kind of anchor, a core illusion upon which all the rest is built. Though Harry would probably be loathe to self-describe himself as a hero out loud, I do think that Harry's self-identity is predicated on the idea that he's "basically one of the good guys". He casts himself as gray—and I don't argue with that—but at the end of the day, he's on the side of the White and the Light, like any good noir protagonist. And, to be truthful, for ME, nothing in Changes redacts that identity…but I also don't think Harry feels—or will feel—quite the same about it. There are choices that Harry has held in reserve as dim, desperate possibilities, like accepting the Knighthood, but that also clearly were held in his mind as points of no return; moral lines that he couldn't take back at a whim and that would fundamentally change him afterward—for the worse. By the end of Changes, Harry isn't just saying goodbye to the things he's already lost, he's saying goodbye to everything that still remains, under the expectations of what his choice(s) will cost him. At a fundamental level, Harry is—or expects to be—no longer Harry. So, on top of his other losses, Harry has lost that most important anchor—his sense of self.

And…here's the thing about that. While Harry's choices will definitely have consequences and Harry has indeed both changed and set himself on a course that will lead to further change, the loss of his self-identity, the assumption that he is no longer the Harry he thought he was makes seem inevitable and fait-accompli what is really only a potentiality. Or, put another way: it's easier to be a monster if you already think you're a monster. The assumption that his choices will or have made Harry a monster makes it that much easier for Harry to be or become the monster he believes himself to be. And that's both terrifying, given Harry's power, and incredibly sad.

In far less thinky thoughts, did anyone else feel like there was a spark of something with Molly and Thomas? I don't know if it delights me or horrifies me, because Molly's desire to fix everything combined with Thomas's EPIC MANPAIN (or is that vamp pain?) sounds like a teenage trainwreck waiting to happen, but on the other hand, if the crazy kids COULD find a way to make it work, I would love to see Thomas, in particular, find just a little happiness in his life.

HOW EPICALLY AWESOME IS MOUSE? I'm not even a dog person and I adore Mouse. And don't even get me started on how glad I am that Mister is okay, okay? *sniffles*

And, while I know this is the Harry Dresden show, is there anyone else out there who really, REALLY would love the story of Margaret LeFay? So much of Harry's story (and Thomas's, for that matter) comes as a consequence and a price of hers and, like John Winchester, there's so much conflicting anecdotal information about her and so little actual. She fascinates me so much and I'd really like to see her more or less apart from her children, as a whole and realized being.

THAT ENDING. THAT FUCKING ENDING! OMG. And I knew it, or something like it, was going to happen because it was too peaceful an epilogue for Harry fucking Dresden, but WHAT THE HELL, MAN? WHAT THE HELL?

What did you guys think? I know you're dying to tell me! I'm dying to hear!

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