Tuesday, June 23, 2015

An unapologetic fantasy blockbuster: Jim Butcher's Skin Game

I kicked off my reading of the 2015 Hugo nominees with the biggest but also potentially the most pleasurable job - the novels. See here for some thoughts on an overall approach to reviewing the Hugo's in light of this year's controversy.

Jim Butcher's Skin Game is the unapologetic urban fantasy blockbuster on the best novel shortlist. And it has precious little to apologise for.

Now, I dimly remember reading and enjoying one of the early novels in the Harry Dresden series, of which Skin Game is the fifteenth.

That's fifteenth, people. Yipes.

Fortunately the first-person narration makes it fairly easy to catch up with regular readers.It also helped that I'd played a game set in the Dresden universe earlier this year.

The basic set-up hasn't changed a great deal in the intervening years, because it was a darn good elevator pitch to begin with: Harry's a modern-day wizard in Chicago, he investigates supernatural crime. 

What has happened since the early days is that he and his friends have leveled up - but so too have his foes. Harry finds himself bound to the magical world, vassal to a fairy queen and increasingly concerned for his humanity. Skin Game explores these themes around the central plot device of a magical bank job in which Harry - much against his better judgement - is forced to take part.

Butcher may be a long way into the series, but he's not slacking off. The blockbuster comparison is an apt one, with some of the action sequences being appropriately jaw dropping. Dresden is a compelling wiseacre of a narrator in line with pulp/noir traditions. And the bank job structure makes for an appropriately taut story-line.

I liked Skin Game. I positively devoured it. I would read more Dresden Files novels. 

And yet it had no after-effects, no life beyond itself.

It was highly enjoyable while it lasted, but left no lasting impression on me, intellectually or emotionally. And that's one of the key differences - for me at least - between good and very good to great fiction. 

This isn't an argument for literary or highbrow writing as such. Many of the most moving or most astounding works in fantasy and science-fiction have been written at speed and for the demands of the market. Terry Pratchett worked wonders within a single series  before the boom years. John Constantine - to name a character in Harry Dresden's ballpark - was created and blossomed in a similar environment. 

My point is simply that while this is a good book, there are other novels on the shortlist that have entertained me while leaving those echoes behind. So it will be one of those that gets my vote. 

One more thing, Columbo style: Skin Game may have got on the shortlist for Best Novel through its inclusion on the voting slates, but I've every confidence it could have gotten there on its own merits.

And as an exemplar of good, successful commercial fantasy fiction backed by a strong and fan base, I wonder whether a better (read: more effective, less confrontational) alternative would have been to run a signal boosting 'Hugo for Harry' campaign. At the very least, fandom would be having a more reasonable exchange than the bunfight currently prevailing.

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