What do you do when you’ve come back from the dead in the cold embrace of the wicked Queen of the Winter Fae? Well, if you’re Harry Dresden, you get tasked with killing an immortal. But not just any immortal. You get tasked with killing Maeve, the Winter Lady, Mab’s own daughter. And then several other things start getting piled on, making everything way more complicated. It is a Dresden Files novel, after all.
Spoilers ahead, so here’s your warning.
The ending of Ghost Story revealed that Mab, the Queen of Air and Darkness, along with the spirit of Demonreach Island (the island Harry attached himself to in Turn Coat), were keeping his body alive while waiting for his spirit to return. Harry made a deal with Mab in Changes: Become the Winter Knight (the Queen’s mortal champion) in exchange for the power he needed to heal his broken body and save his daughter Maggie from the Red Court of vampires. And Mab is intent on making sure she collects on that promise.
“No one just starts giggling and wearing black and signs up to become a villainous monster. How the hell do you think it happens? It happens to people. Just people. They make questionable choices, for what might be very good reasons. They make choice after choice, and none of them is slaughtering roomfuls of saints, or murdering hundreds of baby seals, or rubber-room irrational. But it adds up. And then one day they look around and realized that they’re so far over the line that they can’t remember where it was.”Jim Butcher, “Cold Days”
There’s a lot going on in this book, far more than the previous novels (which is saying something considering the titanic shift that occurred in Changes). Now that Harry is actually back in his body, he finds himself in one of the worst places possible: the Winter Court, home to all manner of nasty fairies that make a habit of inflicting as much pain and suffering as they can on mortals and other fairies (when they’re not busy engaging in what is hinted at being deeply sadistic/masochistic sexual misadventures). Mab has always been an interesting character and this book more than any others previously in the series gives us more insight into who she is and what purpose she serves in the wider universe. She is a titan, for lack of a better descriptor, a force of nature that takes cunning and foresight to extreme levels. And the task given to her new Knight is nothing short of impossible. If this were any other character, the impossible would be just that.
“The impossible we do immediately. The unimaginable takes a little while.”Jim Butcher, “Cold Days”
But this is Harry Dresden, who somehow stumbles into completing the impossible without really trying to. Harry’s at his snarky best in this book, particularly during the early chapters when he’s neck-deep in fairy politics. The scene of Harry quoting Army of Darkness to the assembled lords and ladies of the Winter Court is priceless, particularly when Harry shows he means business by freezing and then shattering a boisterous Faerie. But it’s in the human moments with Thomas, Karrin, and Butters that Harry’s moral dilemmas stand out. The confrontation between Thomas and Harry onboard the Water Beetle after Harry returns to Chicago is heartbreaking to read, particularly due to the tenuous relationship Thomas has with his own monstrous nature.
“See, that’s the tragedy of the human condition. No one wants to be corrupted by power when they set out to get it. They have good, even noble reasons for doing whatever it is they do. They don’t want to misuse it, they don’t want to abuse it, and they don’t want to become vicious monsters. Good people, decent people, set out to take the high road, to pick up power without letting it change them or push them away from their ideals.
But it keeps happening anyway.
History is full of it. As a rule, people aren’t good at handling power. And the second you start to think you’re better at controlling your power than anyone else, you’ve already taken the first step.”Jim Butcher, “Cold Days”
The biggest developments in the story are not wrapped up in the politics of the Winter Court but instead focus on the fate of reality as we know it within the Dresdenverse. Butcher has been hinting at this for several books now, particularly when the Outsider He-Who-Walks-Behind made an appearance in Blood Rites and in Harry’s memories in Ghost Story. Now we find out what is truly at stake: the Winter Court is responsible for defending the Outer Gates, the barrier between our reality and the abominations known as Outsiders. Think Lovecraft with a sprinkling of King and Barker and you’ll get a good mental image (enjoy the nightmares!). Harry’s trip to the Outer Gates shows us as readers why Mab’s edict to kill Maeve is important: as the Winter Lady, Maeve is responsible for assisting Winter in defending the whole of reality. And the Summer Court, which up to this point have not played a large factor in the story, is responsible for making sure Winter doesn’t turn on humanity.
A further step, however, is in the reveal of a new adversary, named simply Nemesis. An insidious mental and spiritual infection that can find you if you mention its name, Nemesis is revealed to be responsible for many of Harry’s early cases, including the Hexenwolves from Fool Moon, Aurora’s madness in Summer Knight, and the Black Council, the wizards who have been shadowy figures moving in the background and working toward some still-unknown goal. Butcher cranks up the tension with the introduction of Nemesis, casting doubt in Harry’s mind on who can be trusted and if his mission is actually from Mab or from this adversary.
On top of all of the above, we also discover the reason Demonreach exists: it’s a prison for countless horrors that was apparently built by the original Merlin. Yes, as in King Arthur’s Merlin. The island is under assault, led by Maeve and Lily (the Summer Lady that has been in place since the events of Summer Knight). To say that the finale of this book is action-packed would be like saying falling from a great height is deadly. There is more going on in the final chapters of this book then most seasons of television can cram into twenty-two episodes. Which leads to the final act of the story and what a devastating blow this is for the future of the series.
Molly Carpenter has been through hell and back since she became a prominent figure in Proven Guilty. As her role has grown from being Harry’s apprentice, she has become a powerful wizard in her own right. But when Lily and Maeve are killed in the finale, the Mantles (the essence of each Lady that bestows upon them the power of their title), Molly is stuck with the Winter Lady mantle, a change that will cause further damage to her as time goes on. Butcher’s fond of saying that he tortures his characters so that he can torture his readers and this development is a gut-punch if there ever was one.
Cold Days rewrites the trajectory of the Dresden Files, pushing the story in a new direction and moving it further away from its roots as an urban fantasy/detective story. When I initially started reading the series, I figured it would be just another detective series, with crimes and criminals, just of a supernatural bent. Instead, by this point in the series, this is Epic Fantasy with a capital “E”. It is also a completion to the trilogy begun in Changes, where Harry’s status quo is completely upended and everything he knows is removed. Through pain, we experience change (both good and bad). Cold Days is the final part of Harry’s metamorphosis but it is not the last act in that change.