Let’s Read The Dresden Files: New Moon ch. 5-6

The_Dresden_Files_2007_Intertitle

Chapter 5

Harry Dresden is on the case!

I got out the lump of chalk I always keep in my duster pocket, and the circular plastic dome compass that rides a strip of velcro on my dashboard

The first time I read this sentence I had no idea what Butcher was getting at, until I realized that by “circular plastic dome compass” he just means “compass”.

Harry draws a magic circle with the chalk and uses it to magic at the blood-covered shard of glass he picked up last chapter.

So, let’s talk magic systems. I’ve stated before that detailed, complicated magic systems annoy me for the same reason that Rich Worldbuilding annoys me- usually it’s just pointless fluff that detracts from the story. On the other hand though, if your story deals with magic then you have to give some basic idea of how that magic works and what your characters are and are not capable of doing with it.

For example, the Harry Potter books often get flack from fantasy fans for not having a great magic system, and it’s true that (like the books’ world-building) it doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense if you stop and think about it for any length of time. For example, we never actually learn what exactly makes some people able to pull off a spell better than others apart from a vaguely-defined notion of magical power that seems to be part in-born ability and part practice. But that’s in theoretical terms- in terms of actually story mechanics I think it works quite well. 99% of the time magic is divided into discrete spells that always do the same thing regardless of who is casting them, so if our plucky mystery solving teens with their wacky comedy spells and a handful of vaguely combat-oriented techniques go up against adult wizards who know the instant death spell, you can tell at once that they don’t really stand a chance and have to rely on the combination of luck, plot contrivances and running away really fast that always saves the day in those books.

By contrast, in the first Dresden book I never got any sort of handle on how exactly Harry was doing anything, and when he got into trouble he always seemed to just pull out some new, hitherto unmentioned piece of magic to save the day. He has some artifacts and weapons, like his famous blasting rod, that theoretically have a limitation to how often he can use them but actually have infinite power until the precise moment that it would cause maximum drama for then not to.

Here, with the spell to locate the werewolf, we see that magic in Dresden-land is treated as an ambient “force” that floats through the air and is harnessed by wizards. I’ve always hated this sort of magic system because it’s incredibly prone to precisely the sort of thing I talked about above. Every scenario can be overcome by a character shouting “we’re gonna need more magic!” and just inhaling a stronger dose of the stuff. Often an attempt is made to alleviate this by saying that using too much magic can kill you/drive you insane/turn you into a demon or whatever, but just like with Harry’s blasting rod what this actually means is that characters are free to use as much magic as they want until it would crank up the tension if they’re not able to.

But anyway Harry uses magic and his dashboard circular plastic dome compass to find the location of whoever owns the blood from the glass shard.

The problem with this particular spell was that the compass needle would point unerringly at whomever the blood had come from until the sun rose the next morning and disrupted the simple magical energies I had used to make the spell

Okay. Why?

Like, I don’t actually need five pages of detailed mechanics on this, but why does the sun disrupt the magic? It feels like Butcher just needed to introduce some tension by giving the spell a time limit, but if we don’t know how any of this works it feels as if he’s just pulling things out of his ass as the plot demands.

Harry follows the circular plastic dome compass into the bad part of town, which in this universe plays host to trolls and vampires in addition to right-wing political talking points. The circular plastic dome compass leads him into a derelict department store and he creeps in, blasting rod in hand (if the first book is anything to go by, Harry’s one and only strategy for investigation is to burst into dangerous situations full of people who want to kill him).

For all I’ve criticized this book and will likely continue to criticize it in future I have to point out that we’re on chapter five and so far we’ve had a murder, a tense stand-off, a near gunfight and now a tense investigation. That’s a lot to happen right at the start of the book. Rothfuss.

I spun my blasting rod around in my fingers, grinned, and started forward

Grinning, Harry stepped forward grinning grinningly while grinning.

Harry sneaks into the department store, dodging tripwires and crude alarms on the way (I’m sure the giant duster coat helped with that).

I closed my eyes, and Listened, a skill that isn’t hard to pick up, but that most people don’t know how to do anymore

Harry put some stat points into perception so now he can use the Listening skill.

Gathered around an old Coleman lantern were several people, all young, of various shapes and sizes and both genders

So in other words there were several young people around a Coleman lantern.

These guys are werewolves, or wannabe werewolves, or are wolf-affiliated in some way, and so according to Urban Fantasy tradition they are scruffy and wear leather. And collars. Because dogs.

Harry listens in while the young humans of various physical descriptions and genders have a n expository conversation in which they for some reason address each other by name at least once during the conversation.

“I swear, Billy,” the blonde said. “You’re such a testosterone-laden idiot. If we were out there right now, they might catch on to us.”

“Use your head, Georgia,” Billy snapped back. “You think they haven’t figured it out by now? They could take all of us out right this minute if they hit us.”

The gist of the discussion is that the young humans (who call themselves “the Alphas”) are being directed by a mysterious woman toward some sort of purpose or goal that isn’t made clear.

Holy I-Was-a-Teenage-Werewolf, Batman

Holy terrible jokes, Harry.

The circular plastic dome compass is pointing at the lit room, but Harry can’t tell which of these ne’er-do-wells is the culprit. He decides to retreat and report back to Murphy, but just then a mystery woman comes in.

A dark-complected woman

The fuck? Is “complected” even a word?

Anyway, the dark-complected woman is the same person that Harry saw tailing him and Murphy earlier, and she knows that someone is now tracking her.

The needle swung back and forth as she walked, pointing solidly at her

DUN DUN DUUUUUN

The woman seems to spot Harry and snuffs out the lantern, and then WEREWOLF ATTACK.

Fear made my heart pound, and as always, anger followed hard on the heels of fear.

I’m having enough of the man-rage with Richard The Incredible Hulk, can we please not start that here as well?

Harry “focuses energy”, whatever that means, into the pentacle necklace he wears to create enough light to see by. He anger-walks his way out the back entrance and then MURPHY ATTACK.

Something hit me heavily from behind, driving me to the ground, gravel digging into my ribs through my shirt. My concentration vanished, and with it the light of my amulet. I felt something hard and metallic shoved against the back of my skull, a knee pressed into the small of my back, and a woman’s voice snarled, “Drop the gun, or I blow your head off.”

Kick his ass, Murph.

Chapter 6

Murphy is understandably pissed that Harry went off without her again.

There wasn’t time. It was hot and I couldn’t afford to wait or I might have lost it.”

Or you could have just told Murphy about the glass shard in the car and suggested going together. You know, having someone professionally trained in how to shoot things might have been helpful. Clearly I’d make a way better supernatural investigator than Harry.

Murphy is all gung ho about setting up an APB on the woman, but Harry tells her not to for stupid reasons.

Hold on, hold on. My spell didn’t tell me that the woman was the killer. Only that it was her blood at the scene.

I’m pretty sure that’s more than enough justification to at least suspect someone of murder.

Harry also doesn’t think that whatever attacked him in the dark (awfully convenient that we couldn’t actually see that, wasn’t it?) is responsible for the murders since it didn’t appear to be trying to kill him. I still think the safer assumption would be that it was trying to but failed, and just let Murphy put out the damn APB.

Murphy, it’s been nearly a hundred years since the wolf went extinct in most of the United States. You’ve got no idea, none at all, of how dangerous they can be. A wolf can run faster than you can drive a car through most of Chicago. His jaws can snap your thighbones with one jerk. A wolf can see the heat of your body in the complete dark, and can count the hairs on your head from a hundred yards off by starlight. He can hear your heart beating thirty or forty yards away.

Are there any wolf experts in the audience? Because this kind of sounds like bullshit.

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Although when you can make a face like that, who needs night-vision eyes?

Murphy eventually relents on the APB but tells Harry to have a book report on werewolves ready for her in the morning.

Murphy’s flashlight flickered and then went out as the filament burst with an audible pop. Murphy sighed in the darkness. “Nothing ever works right when you’re here.

cowmega_metaphor

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12 thoughts on “Let’s Read The Dresden Files: New Moon ch. 5-6

  1. BDG

    I enjoy this book simply because I’ve always enjoyed werewolves since I was a kid. They were just one of those things that held my imagination. And this book has many different ‘types’ so it’s fun in that way. Harry is a terrible person though, I’ve gotten into arguments about the morality of the character and people always argue ‘that’s what makes him interesting’ but for me he’s terrible in all the wrong ways. He’s self righteous and bloody certain he is almost always correct. His moments of a reflections come and go like rain in the desert. He reminds me in the worst ways of corrupted moral leaders…which seems to be the driving theme of so many of fantasy’s greatest heroes, they are all certain they are right and in that certainty make a distinction of superior and inferior instead of the more important one of indifference and compassion. And if not that at least understanding of some sort but they rarely do.

    Reply
  2. Signatus

    I happened to read an article somewhere about Supernatural (the series) and how Castiell is supposed to be a parody of John Constantine with his leather trench coat and upon reading about Constantine himself, he happens to be a demon killing sorcerer…

    Now where have I seen a sorcerer wearing a leather duster and killing demons?

    Reply
    1. welltemperedwriter

      John Constantine would eat Harry Dresden for lunch.

      …’scuse me while I entertain myself in contemplation of that for awhile.

      Reply
    2. BDG

      I think both Constantine and Dresden are but from the same pulpy cloth. Hard men making hard decisions while also looking like a P.I. in those old noir flicks. It’s an ascetic I enjoy but only if the characters live up to it, and it put’s aside the tried machismo of yesteryear (stoicism is fine as long as it isn’t essentialized to a gender). Dresden does not for the most part (and I say this a fan of the series…I enjoy many of the side characters but kind of hate Harry), he’s very much a bad comic book character in a prose series. Constantine on the other hand is pretty good at playing his part while also being far more interesting as person (though this depends on who’s writing him)…from his queer tendencies, terrible addictions, and legitimate flaws. He, for me at least, if what Dresden should be but Butcher can’t actually write a main character with that much subtlety apparently.

      Reply
  3. Reveen

    A consistent magic system should be doubly important here, because it’s ostensibly a detective story. Like, half the point of the genre is letting the audience piece together the mystery alongside the protagonist, and having understandable rules for magic would let us do that.

    Here the only thing we really know is that it’s going to boil down to “He used A LOT of magic.”

    Also, I wanna read a book that get’s it right and have the werewolf pack be a socially timid nuclear family hiding in the back country.

    Reply
    1. welltemperedwriter

      Well, and the thing is, there are tons of books out there that explain all sorts of real-world magical systems (real-world in the sense that occultists of various stripes have historically used them at various times; I’m making no assertions as to whether they actually produce real effects). These books are not hard to come by. I own several of them. Somebody could derive a very nice fictional system from them and have it work storytelling-wise, without even having to go into a huge amount of detail.

      One series of books that I really like for how it describes and uses magic is Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series. Among other things, she comes up with a plausible reason for why young apprentices are always ending up in dicey situations well beyond their skill level (basically, the older you get, the less raw power you have, and for really bad shit you need people with lots and lots of power). I like those books a lot.

      Reply
    2. Austin H. Williams

      It’s an interesting thing about how magic works in, umm, real life (for lack of a better term). Most of it revolves around ritualism where the power isn’t within you, but is held in some sort of divine/infernal being. Rituals are centred around entreating a divine being into action or defending oneself against their malevolence. Then there are your “miracle worker” types, i.e. something akin to the fireball-throwing sorcerers that we love from D&D, but even then the power rests primarily in devotion to some sort of deity that provides these powers (e.g. Elijah in the Hebrew Bible, witches and warlocks who would sell their souls to the Devil in the Middle Ages).

      Ironically, D&D’s magic system, at least in theory, still relies on the whole “the gods grant the powers” kind of thing. Not that any writer who takes their cues from D&D’s system is going to notice or care about that.

      I wonder if this sort of oversight about how magic works among actual magic practitioners is an example of authors trying to have their sacred meal and eat it, too. Jim ButcherHarry Dresden is known for going into bouts of flat-earth atheism and straw religion in the middle of these books (while nonetheless chastising scientists for trying to cover up the truth about magic? Weak sauce, bro), so I wonder how much ButcherDresden’s beliefs prevent him from letting magic be more… authentic?

      Reply
      1. welltemperedwriter

        That’s a good point. Even more recent (like, 20th century recent) texts are pretty specific that you’re asking forces outside yourself to do something for you. What I see pretty often in fiction and in some more modern instructional texts is the channeling or manipulation of some unformed power, basically like tapping into the magical equivalent of a power main. (This is more or less what Robert Jordan did, with the gender thing added in for reasons of theme. It’s even present in one of the potential costs of overstretching one’s abilities, as users of the One Power can metaphorically blow their own circuits.)

        If you look at older books and folkloric charms, though, there’s usually some named entity involved–gods, or God, or archangels, or demons, or something. (I’m looking at European and U.S. here generally, I’m not familiar with how this is supposed to work in other cultures.) I wonder if a lot of modern fantasy writers simply don’t want to deal with the quasi-religious aspect, or even like to treat magic as some sort of unpersonified natural force. (Pretty much what Star Wars did, nonsense regarding midichlorians notwithstanding.)

        Which is fine and all, but when I’m reading these stories, I want to see something that works by rules other than the convenience of the plot, even if those rules are made up. More interesting that way.

        Reply
  4. braak

    Well, “faster than you can drive a car through most of Chicago” is pretty misleading. The speed limit on most city streets is only about 15 miles an hour.

    Considering how much time you might spend at stoplights or in traffic, a person could probably run “faster than you can drive a car in most of Chicago.”

    Reply
  5. Signatus

    Yeah, that’s pretty much bullshit. Look, wolves are dangerous, persistent hunters, which are some pretty bad news for you if you’re a deer or elk (humans are actually the most resistant animals in the whole kingdom, they can literally track a prey for days without much exhaustion… just not untrained couch potatoes like me). But wolves, while they should be looked at with caution (they are predators after all), don’t have superpowers and are majorly NOT A THREAT to humans. Cattle attacks rarely, if ever, happen when the farmer is present, that should show you how much they actually fear us. A mother wolf will abandon her cubs if humans are near. Wolves have attacked humans in the past, but the chances you’ll die in wolf attack are insignificant compared to the chances you’ll be murdered by a human (which makes wolf alarmism completely stupid).

    As for the magic system, Magic The Ascension should give you a clearer idea of how Harry’s magic works, as Butcher has practically used their system in his book. Magic is an innate ability that is channeled through focuses (the rod, the pentacle, etc), and while there is vulgar magic (fireballs), it is mainly ritualistic and subtle.

    Reply

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