Note: Due to the pivotal nature of this book in relation to the prior events in The Dresden Files series, there will be unavoidable spoilers in this review.
A few years ago, the SciFi Channel began to air commercials for an intriguing new series about a modern-day wizard working as a private investigator out of Chicago. It was given the typical SciFi Channel B-Movie treatment (which means it was quirky and fun), but it failed to attract a lasting audience and wasn’t given a second season. I was unaware at the time that it was based on a series of novels.
When this information was brought to my attention, I went online and purchased the nine novels that were then released in omnibus editions. They constituted the entirety of that summer’s reading. Since then, I have been a rabid Jim Butcher and Harry Dresden fan, devouring the newly released novels as close to their release day as is humanly possible.
So when Changes was released, I was antsy to finally settle in with it. And when I did, I was far from disappointed.
First of all, let me say this: I wanted to buy Changes on my Kindle. And I was going to get it, too, but when release day came around, Penguin and Amazon were still having words—angry words—over the $9.99 price tag, which resulted in Amazon not having digital rights to the ebook. I do, however, think it’s funny that Amazon still has Changes for sale in hardcover for $9.99 as a way to stick it to the publisher. Stick it to ‘em, Amazon!
As for the book itself, the long and short of it is this: it’s awesome. Like really awesome. Changes does for The Dresden Files what Order of the Phoenix did for Harry Potter. What The Empire Strikes Back did for Star Wars. It serves as a textual fulcrum on which the entire universe pivots into a much darker atmosphere. And I like it!
The title of Changes is perfect because the book is full of them. By the last page of the novel, I can’t think of a single point in Harry Dresden’s life that has not been altered—sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes not really either. Through the course of the book, Harry’s house, car, pets, family, and job are impacted irreparably.
But for any series that runs this long (12 books with more on the way is quite a commitment for anyone, reader or writer), occasionally things need to shift. One of the worst things in the world is for a favorite franchise to be driven into obscurity by lack of innovation (New Jedi Order, anyone?). Butcher acknowledges this. Changes is different than any of the previous books, and what comes next will certainly be unlike any Dresden Files prose we’ve seen yet.
For all the good that’s in it, I will start with the one aspect of the book that I didn’t like. Harry has a daughter. And we’re introduced to her for the first time in twelve books in the first line of the novel:
I answered the phone, and Susan Rodriguez said, “They’ve taken our daughter.”
I sat there for a long five count, swallowed, and said, “Um. What?”
Like Harry, these lines are the reader’s first introduction to the character of Harry Dresden and Susan Rodriguez’s daughter, Maggie (named after Harry’s mother). Now, I’m all for bringing new characters into novels. Sometimes series grow larger than an author would have originally intended and need a particular character to help them grow. I get that. But Maggie’s introduction is awfully deus ex machina for me. Just when the series needs a new “WHAMMY!”, here we have a perfect reason for sucker-for-a-child-not-to-mention-women-or-his-family Harry Dresden to uproot everything he holds sacred.
It’s just trite. It’s too easy. And while I’m sure Maggie will play a more important role in the mythology much later on, I don’t see her doing a whole lot for the immediate future. She could have been far better introduced gradually so the readers could care about her instead of being expected to just because she’s Harry’s little girl.
His entire quest throughout Changes is to rescue Maggie from the Red Court, and while I love the book and how it works into the mythology of the series, I never felt that Maggie mattered, even a little. Because I didn’t know her. I guess the god from the machine just doesn’t have that much of a personality.
Other than that one gripe, I thought the novel was simply fantastic. When originally reading the series, I said that each novel got progressively better than the last, with Dead Beat being my favorite standalone storyline. Changes just might be the best yet, with the standalone storyline tying up loose ends that have existed for 8+ novels.
Even the title of Changes fits the theme: it’s the first Dresden Files novel to have a single-word title. Every other book has had two. But true to its intent, Changes is a different kind of Dresden, deserving of its different kind of title. I do hope that Butcher goes back to the double-word title with the next book, with this the only single-word in the series. I suggest it be called Winter Knight. That would be a fantastic literary parallel to Summer Knight that came early on and continue with the evolution of the series’ themes. Note: Butcher said at a recent Q&A at Bitten by Books that Book 13 will be titled Ghost Story, which proves that Changes is unique in its single-word title for the time being.
Changes gives us two truly magnificent scenes with until now underutilized characters: Mouse and Ebenezar McCoy.
In one scene, Harry and his fellowship (a name they give themselves, even pointing out who is who from The Lord of the Rings) are turned into dogs by Lea. Ironically, while they are in dog form, they can understand Mouse as though he were speaking English. He no longer “humphs” and “whoofs,” but instead has a cadence and tone very similar to Dresden himself.
I find this incredibly refreshing, honestly. It would have been easy for Butcher to give Mouse a voice (given that it’s a fantasy novel based around magic), but he didn’t. He waited until it made logical sense in the story, and then allowed us to finally put voice to the mannerisms through which he had communicated for so long. As much as a dog can be a character, Mouse finally became fully fleshed out. He had personality before, but when he told Lea that he would “rip [her] ass off. Literally rip it off,” I was sold on the idea that he had a voice for a limited time. I don’t think it would work for him to always talk like that given how adorable he is through his physical communication, but it did give Butcher a chance to let us know exactly what Harry and Mouse’s relationship really was.
Ebenezar McCoy. Blackstaff. Harry Dresden’s grandfather. Yeah, you read that right. Grandfather. Our orphan wizard protagonist no longer has any reason to cry about having no family. He has gone from no one to having a brother and now a daughter and grandfather, too. And while I felt that the daughter revelation was trite, I feel that Butcher’s inclusion of Ebenezar being Harry’s grandfather fits perfectly.
I’ve always loved Ebenezar. I don’t know if its the way he calls Harry “Hoss,” or if its the terse, sagely advice that sounds like its coming from a Southerner like I’ve always grown up around, but something makes me love McCoy. And I’ve always felt that he was underutilized in the series.
Not in Changes.
In Changes, McCoy plays an integral role and we finally see just why he is the White Council’s hitman, the Blackstaff. Ironically, it’s because he can summon a black staff that grants him extra power whenever he wants. He wipes out 200+ humans and vampires just by waving it around in a circle. For all the power that Harry Dresden has shown in the previous 11 books, his grandfather one-upped him in a single scene. It’s like watching Ganner in The New Jedi Order when he dies. Magnificent.
I expect McCoy to be a much larger part of the series from this point on, given the focus that Butcher naturally places on the familial theme of the novel. And I look quite forward to that.
Finally—FINALLY—there is an end to this stupid war with the Red Court. For a while, I was okay with it. I mean, as much as I dislike vampire narratives, Jim Butcher’s “court” system really worked for me. But by making the Red Court (traditional vampires) the main villain of the dominant narrative arc, I occasionally didn’t care. I thought it lasted too long. So when Harry all but singlehandedly destroyed every Red Court vampire and brought an end to that war, I did a little dance of joy (as much of one as can be done in a porch swing while sitting down, at least).
Now, the series is free to explore other villains and fantasy mythology. And while it did it on a standalone basis anyway, the overall behind-the-scenes narrative can finally revolve around something that isn’t vampires. I always felt that Jim Butcher was above the vampire fad anyway, and his ending the war proves that he can and will do more than flavor-of-the-week fantasy. The vampire market is saturated right now; I can’t wait to see what the next arc deals with.
As much as I love the darker tone that Changes brought to the series, I’m not so sure that I want it to stick around. The series starts off kind of goofy, almost cheesy with Storm Front; it’s hard to take serious. The next few novels find their balance and have a few more adult themes mixed in with the frivolity. Changes does away with much of that frivolity and throws chapter after chapter of some really serious stuff at the reader.
And not all of it fits.
For instance, I have always appreciated that the series doesn’t use a lot of profanity. In Changes, however, in order to portray its darker themes, every single character seems to drop the F-bomb on occasion. Normally, I don’t mind this, and it’s not overdone, but there are probably three occasions in the novel where it just doesn’t fit. Sometimes it does, like when Harry is confronting the Red King and doesn’t have time for supernatural political bullshit. But a lot of the rest of the time it’s as though the prose is screaming “Take me seriously! Please!” I could have done without it, honestly. It didn’t enhance the novel except in one or two spots.
The same goes for the sex. When Harry becomes Mab’s Winter Knight, he is initiated by sex (almost rape) that is broadcast across all of the Nevernever. And then Molly almost gets devoured by Thomas. And for The Dresden Files, these scenes are pretty graphic. Not vulgar, but graphic. I mean, one of the novels has Harry working in the pornography industry, and it didn’t feel out of place. These did. That speaks volumes.
If you’re a Dresden Files fan, then don’t wait to read Changes. It’s that good. If you’re not, or that you think the series is too simple and quirky based on the first novel (Gordon, I’m looking at you!), then I implore you to push into the series and find the real depth that is there.
Changes changes everything—everything!—about the series. Obviously book 12 isn’t a jumping-on point for new readers, but it sure as heck gives something to look forward to if you’re daunted by a 12 book series that is only going to get longer.