Calm Before the Storm: A Review of Peace Talks, by Jim Butcher

            No discussion of urban fantasy is complete without The Dresden Files, the long-running series by Jim Butcher following the wizard Harry Dresden in modern-day Chicago.  In many ways a counterpoint to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, in more than just he titular character’s name, The Dresden Files made a name for itself in the early 2000’s as mixing noir and fantasy to create relatively realistic mysteries, working inside a set of magical rules Butcher created and stuck to.  Harry Dresden operated as a professional wizard and private investigator in a modern-day Chicago that does not believe in magic.  While may other authors wrote urban fantasy and fantasy detective fiction prior to Butcher, he popularized the mix and brought it the mainstream.

            Peace Talks the sixteenth book in the The Dresden Files, marks Jim Butcher’s triumphant return to his most famous work after a five-year hiatus.  The previous novel, Skin Game was released in 2015, following a nearly one book a year release schedule.  While the previous few books worked to set up a new status quo within the series, wanting to take a break from a single work is understandable.  In many ways, the release of Peace Talks operates as a launching-off point for a new storyline in the series.  However, this cannot be called a soft-reboot as the novel still expects its reader to be familiar with the story, the characters, the settings, and previous events.  While there are brief explanations to help catch us up with the goings on, this not a book for new readers to the series.  Peace Talks also represents a return to form in many ways, brining back elements of the original books in the series, while also showcasing how much Butcher has improved as a writer in the past several years.

            By the time Peace Talks begins, the life of Harry Dresden is at its most complicated.  Several novels prior, in Changes, Dresden ended a massive and long-running war between the White Council of wizards and the Red Court of vampires.  Fittingly for the name of the novel, many changes were wrought by his actions.  The entire Red Court of vampires was wiped out, the lives of allies were lost, his home was destroyed, and his life nearly lost.  The novel served as the culmination of nearly a dozen novels worth of build-up.  While he began his professional career, and literary life, as a private investigator first, the war plotline moved him more towards combat.  He has struggled to maintain his friendships as his power grows monstrously and he sacrifices parts of his humanity to keep the world safe.  In Peace Talks, this is all compounded by upcoming peace talks between the magical world and the Fomor, and undersea kingdom, in order to prevent skirmishes from escalating into a new war.  On top of it all, Dresden now has a young daughter to take care of, a relationship with his longtime friend and love, and personal bonds in danger of breaking.

            All novels in The Dresden Files series are told from the first-person point-of-view of Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, and we get to witness his growth over the course of sixteen novels and counting.  Even before the series, Dresden had lived a hard life.  Orphaned and taken advantage of by his mentor, he was nearly killed by the White Council of wizards before he could learn to use his abilities.  Since then, he broke the mold and decided to live openly with his magical talents, knowing that the vast majority of people would dismiss him as either crazy or a stage magician.  He cares about people, especially those unconnected to the magical world.  He can be equal parts cruel and kind, oftentimes showing no remorse at striking down his enemies, especially when they are unrepentant.  In many ways, he could be called an old-school romantic, but the novels have shown to learn how to be pragmatic on top of that.  He also has a temper, forming a plot point throughout multiple novels, and sometimes leading him to rash decision.  Dresden knows how to exude confidence while panicking internally, feign stupidity while formulating strategy, and, above all, crack jokes while riling up his opponents.  Harry Dresden is an endlessly fascinating and entertaining hero.

            While The Dresden Files is a singular series, that does not mean all of its novels fall within the exact same parameters.  There are really two types of main Dresden Files novels: detective stories and action stories.  The first few novels in the series kept action to a minimum, avoiding magical fights for tense standoffs and hardboiled mysteries.  A greater focus was placed of Dresden’s prowess as an investigator, and he usually used his magic to gather intelligence.  The early novels did show his proficiency with loud, destructive magic occasionally, leading opponents to call him a thug more than once, but the battles were never the main focus.  After a few novels, action became more and more the focus of the series as the mysteries became less complicated or less involved.  While the trend did result in some very cool scenes, such as turning a tyrannosaurus skeleton from the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago into a zombie, it could be an exercise in style over substance.  This all culminated in Changes, which pointed the focus squarely towards war.  With Peace Talks, Butcher seems to strike a fine balance between the action and the mystery, featuring some very fun fights and a new, multiple novel spanning mystery.

            Unlike previous novels in this series, Peace Talks does not provide an answer to its central mystery, instead setting up the pieces for likely the next few novels.  The novel opens by establishing the series’ new status quo, and introduces what we expect to be the main plot.  The Fomor, a long-forgotten undersea kingdom, have been skirmishing with the surface world.  As the conflict has not broken out into full war, peace talks have been arranged to bring the Fomor into the magical equivalent of the United Nations.  However, things quickly go off the rails as an unlikely assailant attempts to assassinate one of the leaders before the peace talks can begin.  The central mystery, finding out why they attempted the assassination, consumes Dresden’s focus as he also tries to prevent their execution.  It is easy to assume that the Fomor will not play a large part in the plot after setting up the mystery as they are a relatively new threat in the series and have not been a major feature as of yet.  However, they erupt back on the scene just as the tension reaches its highest point, setting up the next book.

            Luckily, after a long-five year wait, it will not be much longer until our Dresden Files itch is scratched again.  The follow-up to Peace Talks, Battle Ground, is schedule for release in September of this year.  Next month.  After the mystery focused Peace Talks, Battle Ground is likely to be a more action-oriented story, given the name and the set-up.  However, I am confident that the new mystery established in Peace Talks will continue to twist and turn, confounding Harry Dresden and entertaining us readers.

Peace Talks can be found online, in store, or wherever books are found

Total Read Time: 5 days

Next on the List: Harrow the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir

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