Collateral Damage: A Review of Battle Ground, by Jim Butcher

Battle Ground is the seventeenth novel in Jim Butcher’s long running series, The Dresden Files.  The previous novel, Peace Talks, only came out this past July, leaving only a two-month gap between novels.  Before that, book number 15, Skin Game, was released in May of 2014.  As one might imagine, it can prove difficult to keep an ongoing series like this interesting and fresh, especially when each novel is exclusively told in the first-person point-of-view of the main character, Harry Dresden.  At a certain point, the likelihood of burnout increases, until the author can find a way to reinvent the franchise and allow it to change.  What is interesting about The Dresden Files is that Battle Ground is actually the second such reinvention, an inevitably for something so massive.  And, depending on how far Butcher is willing to go, this may not even be the last time he makes some changes to the formula.

Attempting to summarize sixteen novels worth of plot and character development is a herculean task in most situations, but if you have decided to pick up Battle Ground, you are not a newcomer to this series.  Picking up immediately after the events of Peace Talks, the newest Dresden book follows Harry Dresden, the only professional wizard in Chicago.  He is even in the phone book.  Over the course of this series, Harry has faced off against countless evils, while working his day job as a private investigator.  He has fought wars against vampires, shepherded young wizards as they learned to control their powers, pushed back against elder evils intent on destroying our world, and consorted with fallen angels and faerie courts.  His life has been anything but boring.  After a series of tragedies and traumas, and watching the so-called law keepers of the magical world stand by, Dresden decided to take matters into his own hands, destroying the vast majority of vampires in the world.  In doing so, he made a deal with Mab, queen of the winter faerie court, to serve as her knight in exchange for new powers.  This is where we find him at the beginning of this new chapter.  Both a wizard and faerie enforcer.  Amongst these changes in his life, the Fomor, an undersea kingdom from ancient Irish folklore, has declared war on the rest of the world.  Their first target: Chicago, Harry’s home.

While The Dresden Files has featured countless battles against all manner of supernatural foes, the scale of destruction has never been close to what occurs in this newest book.  Everything could be explained by industrial accidents, serial killers, or other more mundane excuses.  No matter the heroes or villains, they take great care to never expose the existence of magic to the mortal world.  Unlike many works of fantasy, a key feature of The Dresden Files is that it takes place in the modern-day real-world.  Harry lives in Chicago, which is also occupied by many supernatural creatures, but the millions of normal people have no idea what lives in the dark.  And with good reason.  The magical world is terrified of alerting humanity to their presence.  There are over seven billion humans on planet Earth.  They have access to armies, firearms, and nuclear weaponry.  The Fomor, led by their goddess Ethniu, do not share this fear.  Ethniu arrives in Chicago with the equivalent of a magical superweapon, ready to conquer the world and uncaring about angering humanity.

As evidenced by the title, Battle Ground is about war.  The finale of Peace Talks, the previous novel, featured Ethniu and her army making their appearance and declaring war on Chicago.  This novel is essentially one extended action scene, from chapter one to the denouement.  Butcher does include breathing room, both for the readers and the characters, between each skirmish with the forces of darkness.  Butcher’s macabre creative mind is also on full display, and all manner of nightmarish creatures are dredged up by the villains to do battle.  From octo-kongs (octopus gorilla hybrids), to frog-like spellcasters, the Fomor nearly bring Chicago to its knees.  While this approach would normally run the risk of feeling stale, the book is the perfect companion piece to what came before.  Peace Talks is mostly intrigue and mystery, playing into the detective style that launched the series.  Paired together, especially with their tight release windows, it is easy to see the novels as two chapters of the same story.  Of course, the conflict in Chicago is not without consequence.  This is a city of over two million average people who become caught in this magical crossfire.  A lot of people die, some in terrible ways.  There are also a few cringe-inducing paragraphs of police hero-worship mixed in with the scenes of normal people showing their strength, although it is likely that Butcher wrote these sections before the extrajudicial murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. 

If you have arrived at this point in the review and have not yet read Battle Ground, I encourage you to either pause here until you are done, or skip to the next paragraph.  This is full spoiler territory.  You have been warned.  As a book about war, it can be expected that characters will die.  Even major characters.  Some may die heroic deaths, while some may perish in ways meant to showcase how pointless war and conflict really are.  Battle Ground does have its fair share of character death, although they are mostly relegated to villains or minor characters.  The expendable ones.  The ones who do not necessarily remain in the series to keep moving it forward.  All except one.  One character, who is killed less roughly halfway through the novel, a character who is just as much a main character as Harry Dresden.  Karrin Murphy, who has been in the series since book one, whose relationship with Dresden has defined the entire series, dies in this novel.  She dies by the bullet shot by a panicked police officer, losing his mind in denial over the monsters attacking his city.  One of the most realistic portrayals of a police officer as he fires his gun without thinking and murders a woman who used to be a detective herself.  However, her death really only serves to affect Harry’s character.  It does not feel earned for the series, especially as one of the few well-rounded female characters, of which there are not many.  Her death is sure to be controversial among long-time fans, and is a black mark against an otherwise good book.

While Butcher makes some bold moves with Battle Ground, the most intriguing thing he does is open up the world he has created.  There is no way to hide the existence of magic, although the ending does mention a potential cover up already occurring, with the military swiftly taking control and the government editing the narrative.  The events of Battle Ground only occur during one night, not long enough for the damage to spread outside Chicago.  However, a character does mention a potential new player in the form of the Library of Congress, an institution whose yearning for knowledge knows no bounds.  Butcher also takes the time to set up, or hint at, the future threats our heroes may have to face.  A cabal of vampires led by Drakul, father to Vlad Tepes himself.  The Black Council, the council of evil wizards hiding in the shadows attempting to manipulate events to their liking.  The fallen angels, now joined by “Gentleman” Johnny Marcone, a former gangster and mortal representative of Chicago.  The Fomor, now without their goddess, but still a threat.  And, most importantly, the Outsiders.  An alien evil from outside of universe intent on destroying everything in their path.  Butcher does have an end goal in sight for his series, however, you can be sure it will not happen anytime soon.

Battle Ground is a novel that absolutely lives up to its title.  Butcher turns his fictional Chicago into a battleground between the forces of destruction and all those that would stand against them, good and evil alike.  But this is more than one battle.  The book features and all-out war, complete with multiple battles and skirmishes in different parts of the city.  While there are the occasional missteps, and one controversial character death, on the part of Butcher, overall, Battle Ground is an excellent addition to The Dresden Files.  More importantly, Butcher leaves the series in a more interesting place than before.  Whatever he writes next is certain to be exciting and unprecedented for Harry Dresden.

Battle Ground can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold

Total Read Time: 6 days

Next on the List: A Deadly Education, by Naomi Novik

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