The Heist from Hell – Review of Jim Butcher’s “Skin Game”

Jim Butcher’s “Skin Game”, available on Amazon

By this point in The Dresden Files, Harry Dresden has been through more kinds of hell than most people see in their entire lifetimes. And that’s to be expected for a fictional character who is inhabiting an epic fantasy world like the Dresdenverse. But then you get to Skin Game, the fifteenth novel in the series, and I am reminded why I enjoy this series so much. Stepping the action down from potentially world-ending threats like the last novel, Cold Days, Skin Game puts Harry back into a perilous situation with his most nefarious enemy. Except this time, they’re technically on the same side. Some spoilers ahead, so you’ve been warned.

The events of this novel take place roughly one year after the events of Cold Days. In that time, Harry has been living on Demonreach Island, the supernatural prison island in the middle of Lake Michigan, where he serves as the Warden of the various nasty creatures imprisoned there. The time on the island has given him a chance to craft a new staff, as well as become more acquainted with the defensive measures and inhabitants of the island, including the genius loci spirit that he affectionately calls Alfred. He also has some kind of parasite growing in his head that is going to kill him soon, so there’s that bit of drama that has to be dealt with.

And then Mab shows up to have him pay off a debt she owes. To Nicodemus Archleone, the leader of the Knights of the Blackened Denarius. As Harry would say, the hits just keep on coming.

Art Print of Nicodemus Archleone, Queen Mab, and Harry Dresden meeting. Source

For those that have read my previous reviews of Death Masks and Small Favor, Nicodemus is bar-none one of my favorite villains in the series. The Denarians are humans who have accepted a silver coin, rumored to be one of the 30 pieces of silver given to Judas Iscariot to betray Christ. Attached to the silver coin is the essence of one of the Fallen Angels, demons who were too troublesome for Lucifer to deal with, so he bound them to the coins. Nicodemus has been their leader for centuries and in his previous encounters with Dresden has proven to be both capable and cunning in equal measure. In this novel, Nicodemus is requiring the use of the Winter Knight to pull off a heist: break into Hades’ (yes, that Hades) Vault and steal the Holy Grail (yes, that Holy Grail).

Since becoming the Winter Knight in Changes, one of the abiding fears that Butcher has explored with Harry is whether or not he is becoming one of the monsters. By putting him in a crew of thieves, cutthroats, a homicidal Bigfoot (which are a part of the Dresdenverse), and a couple of demonic hosts, Butcher puts Harry in a situation where he has to obey the wishes of his master while also trying to foil whatever plot Nicodemus has in mind. The tension throughout the novel and Harry’s interactions with Nicodemus’ crew is well-handled by Butcher, with his usual methods of sarcasm, pop-culture references, and badass moments.

Queen Mab and her Winter Knight, from the official “Skin Game” book trailer. Source

For all the supernatural shenanigans of the main A-Plot, the running thread throughout the story is Harry’s relationships with his chosen family and his daughter, Maggie. Up to this point, Maggie has only been a periphery character, first seen at the end of Changes and then again at the end of Ghost Story. In Skin Game, we finally get a chance to meet little Maggie at Michael Carpenter’s house. The initial scene of Harry meeting his daughter is heart-breaking and heart-warming at the same time. Often times authors are at a loss for how to write children. Maggie’s characterization in this novel is pitch perfect: she’s a frightened little girl who has seen some truly horrific things and yet, she’s sweet, kind, and just wants to be with her daddy. For Harry, this is the moment he’s been dreading since Changes but it goes better than he had ever hoped. He’s able to connect with his daughter and begin the process of becoming her dad. It’s not resolved by the end of the book but it’s a good start.

The other MVPs of the novel are Michael Carpenter, Karrin Murphy, and Waldo Butters. Murphy serves as Harry’s back-up for the first half of the story, someone to watch his back while dealing with Nicodemus’ crew. It was interesting to read how Murphy is handling no longer being a police officer and now finding herself among criminals. The scene near the mid-point where she takes on Nicodemus was written exceptionally well, as were the consequences she faced for that confrontation. While I’ve enjoyed Murphy as a character, one quibble I’ve always had is that she’s been punching above her weight class for several books now without much in the way of physical consequences. Butcher made sure to correct that in this book. Which leads to the return of Michael Carpenter, Knight of the Cross.

Michael was crippled at the end of Small Favor and that was the best-case scenario for his life as a literal Paladin for the Christian God (most Knights are retired in more permanent ways). With the help of the archangel Uriel, Michael is able to temporarily re-enter the fight and the scene where he does show is one of fist-pumping joy. More importantly, though, is that Michael continues to serve as Harry’s best friend and counselor, providing the often morose and conflicted wizard with a clear view of who Harry really is under all the power he’s managed to accumulate. If there were more Christians in this world who act like Michael Carpenter does in this series, the world would be a much better place.

Which leaves me to Waldo Butters, the erstwhile hero. Since he was introduced in Death Masks, Waldo has become a staple of the series, even serving as Dresden’s sidekick in Dead Beat. Over the course of the series, Butters has become more and more involved with the supernatural community (in more ways than one considering his relationship with Andi, one of the werewolves called the Alphas). Initially written as a cowering neophyte to the supernatural world, Skin Game finds Waldo has upgraded to a low-key Batman, with the assistance of Bob the Skull, Harry’s former lab assistant and spirit of intellect. I won’t spoil the ending of the book but suffice it to say, it was one of my favorite moments in this series (which is saying something considering the track record Butcher has compiled).

If you’ve managed to get through the previous fourteen books in this series, Skin Game is not the game changer book the previous three were for the story. Instead, what you get is Harry at this best: neck-deep in monsters and just trying to get through the day alive. I highly recommend picking it up if you’re a fan of the series. If you haven’t read the previous books in the series, this one isn’t something I’d recommend starting with. Better to go back and read some of the books mentioned in the review above to get at least some of the background for who the major players are and how they fit into the story. I can promise, you won’t be disappointed by Skin Game, though.

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