Chicago: Total War: a Review of Jim Butcher’s Battle Ground

Battle Ground (2020) by Jim Butcher

I seized the tentacle that had me by the head and pulled hard enough to get enough counterpressure to keep it from snapping my neck—and it left me suspended uncomfortably, stretched out between the overwhelming opposing forces, just trying to hang on.

Story of my freaking life.

Harry Dresden, professional wizard. I’m a little busy or I’d shake hands.

After the disappointing nonstarter that was Peace Talks, I finally got my mitts on Battle Ground and man, what a book. WHAT A BOOK. But just to recap how Peace Talks concluded,

  • Thomas (Harry’s incubus/sex vampire brother) suddenly attempted to assassinate the king of the Svartalves and we don’t know why.
  • Thomas was put into suspended animation indefinitely on Demonreach (Harry’s prison for cosmic horrors) to save him from his Hunger.
  • The 9-foot-tall Celtic goddess/Titan Ethniu appeared out of no where with a weapon of mass destruction promising to wipe out Chicago in the next book.

First, let’s just rip the strip wax off: Battle Ground only answers 2 of the 3 hanging threads from the previous book. I shan’t say which. The book does however live up to its name though—it is almost cover-to-cover total war between Ethniu, her Fomor allies, and assorted monsters versus the signatories to the Unseelie Accords that includes both Faerie Courts, Odin,the White Council of Wizards, the White Court of vampires, Sasquatch, at least one dragon, a Chicago mobster, and others. It’s what Harry calls a “little-A apocalypse”.

Some fans have compared Battle Ground to the universally loved Changes (book 12) and I can see why, even if I don’t exactly share that sentiment. I think Mr Butcher has a knack in writing engaging action scenes and he brought his not inconsiderable talent to bear here but even so, I felt it is too much of a good thing. After the first couple of battles, I felt fatigue setting in and I only managed to plough through the entire book in one sitting because I wanted resolutions to the cliffhangers Peace Talks left me with. That being said, there are some truly outstanding moments that raised my heart rate, like when Harry encounters Vlad Dracul (yes, that one—Dracula’s daddy), when Murphy takes on a Jotun, and that awesome moment that came with a soundtrack. Hands up if you actually played that song to go with that kick-ass scene. Yes, it does feel like an extended Marvel Cinematic Universe battle scene at times down to the combined might and sarcasm of the good guys being pitted against yet another nigh invulnerable entity with a god complex, but I am a man with simple tastes. If you’ve been waiting for the combined weight of Dresden-verse’s wild assortment of players and heavyhitters to cut loose, you finally got it 17 books in.

What I also found refreshing and praiseworthy is that Battle Ground is almost devoid of the persistent male gaze that have come to characterise the series. Even when I recommend these books, I always have to give the caveat that Harry practically molests every woman he meets with his eyes (including a close friend’s daughter, whom he knew as a child). Sure, he never does anything unforgivable and I’ll concede that men do think disgusting things in the privacy of their craniums but do we really need Harry to tell us about every female character’s body parts every other page? Even worse than the pervy-ness of it all is how repetitive and boring it is. I honestly welcome this holiday from Harry’s tiresome libido in Battle Ground and I hope this change is permanent. I can’t say my hopes are high though, given what was set up at the end of the book.

Also apparently, Tiger Balm is an “excellent ointment against fae glamour, if you can keep your eyes open”. It’s funny to see such a popular household object here in my part of the world being shouted out in The Dresden Files and funnier still when I imagined Harry rubbing the goop in his eyes before I realise he was probably referring to the potent vapours that Tiger Balm emits. Applying it directly to one’s eyes probably results in one not having eyes anymore.

There is a short story titled Christmas Eve that’s tacked at the end of the book that is incredibly delightful, particularly involving the bits with Mab, the Faerie Queen of Air and Darkness, interacting with children’s popular culture. It is also moving too, in that sweet and sappy way that Mr Butcher is well-practiced at. I almost forgive the splitting of Peace Talks and Battle Ground into two books too after reading it. Almost. After reading Battle Ground, I thought I would understand better why this story needed to be bisected, but having examined both gave me the opposite feeling. As expertly paced as it was, Battle Ground does feel bloated at times and the multiple engagements with uninteresting inconsequential evil mooks are not all that fun to read (I’ve already forgotten the name of those bad bois that hunt in packs and get stronger as more members in the pack are killed). The heist plot in Peace Talks felt pretty rote too. Surely, it was possible to shrink both the heist and battles sufficiently to make them one volume? This way, readers won’t be left with all the aforementioned unanswered questions, particularly the reveal of Thomas’ motive, and Harry’s weird incuriousness towards it in the preceding book. A major character’s death would be placed nearer to the end of the book as well, and hopefully, won’t be followed by so much casual quipping from Harry, making him appear strangely flippant. Speaking of which…

Now, I can’t continue discussing this book without going into SPOILERS, so consider yourself warned from this point onward. Karrin Murphy is one of my favourite characters in this series, and she’s been with us since book 1. And in both Peace Talks and the first half of Battle Ground, she had been throwing up strong indications that she is about to bite it (since kept insisting on putting herself in danger in spite of being crippled, and she is one of the people Harry is afraid to lose). When I started seeing early reviews comparing Battle Ground to Changes, I thought it was all but confirmed. Did I tear up at her death? Yes, but that is only because I care about her. That is Mr Butcher’s strength—he is incredible at crafting great characters who lives and breathes in between the pages, in our heads, and in our hearts. I did think that for such an important character, he did not do her death justice. Sure, Harry went ultra-violent with grief for a few pages but he managed to pack it all away quickly enough. And before long, he is back in the fray, slinging one-liners and cracking wise. And on a more metatextual level, how many women had been fridged now to feed the furnace of Harry’s pathos? Susan, Lash, and now Murphy. I mean at some point, we have to stop returning to that well, right? However, as much as I loathe to admit it, Murphy repeatedly putting herself in harm’s way to help (in spite of her limitations post-Skin Game) is perfectly in-character for her, though that did not stop me from wanting to shout at the book every time Murphy does it.

Still, there is that “escape clause” at the end about how Murphy died fighting so she would live on as an Einherjar and would only return after everyone had forgotten her. I don’t know about you but it sounded to me like we have not seen the last of her (maybe involving magical amnesia or perhaps Ragnarok will kick off, forcing her to come back because that’s an Einherjar’s raison d’être). I did think it is incredibly odd how someone like Murphy who identifies with her Catholic faith has an afterlife in service of Odin, no matter how foreshadowed it was and I wonder how Mr Butcher is going to explain that. And since the 17th 18th Dresden Files book Mirror Mirror is about how Harry gets summoned by into a parallel timeline by an evil version of himself, I imagine we will see Murphy there too (and all the tragic implications that would come with Harry seeing an alternate version of his dead girlfriend alive and walking around).

“Everyone,” she said, “thinks that hate and love are somehow opposite forces. They are not. They are the same force, facing opposite direction.” She glanced aside at me. “Love is a fire, my Knight. Love turned the wrong way has killed as many as hate. Reason, young wizard, is the opposite of hate, not love…”

I have mixed feelings about how Marcone is handled in this book as well. I think there is this subset of fantasy characters that readers love—that one normal dude that is badass and smart enough to go toe to toe with beings significantly more powerful than him. While it made sense, it does significantly mitigate his cool factor for me. And SPOILER for Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard series: I didn’t much care for it when Locke Lamora was revealed to be an amnesiac and de-aged Bondsmage either (so much so that it killed most of my interest for the series and character).

The whole Peace Talks and Battle Ground two-parter leaves Harry in a more isolated and darker headspace than he had ever been before, and part of the charm of this series for me had always been Harry’s roach-like ability to crawl out of the shittiest of shitholes he gets put into, so I am eager to see where he goes from here. This series had always been pro-cop, which never quite sat well with me seeing as Chicago had been suffering from decades of corruption and lack of accountability, and it does feel weird for the Chicago PD is be seen in a heroic light in this book post-George Floyd and the 2020 BLM Protests (while also showcasing an officer of Internal Affairs as a secondary villain, because people keeping cops accountable are always the bad guys, am I right?). I’m not American but I can’t say I have a good opinion of law enforcement in my own country either. Like Harry’s male gaze, it’s just something I’ve grown to tolerate, but the paucity of Harry’s horniness in Battle Ground really spoiled me. Can we keep T&A’s on Harry’s brain down to a minimum going forward, Mr Butcher? Pretty please?

P.S. I did not realise that Listen and Listens-to-Wind are two different characters for most of the book, so yeah.

Rating: 3.75/5 Naga Pearls

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Published by A Naga of the Nusantara

A Naga is a divine dragon from Eastern Hindu-Buddhist tradition. The Nusantara is made up of nusa (island) and antara (between) and describes the Southeast Asian archipelago that includes Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea. This particular Naga is Malaysian, born and bred. He loves reading and hoarding books, and enjoys bothering humans with what he thinks of them.

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