When you’ve taken the titanic leap of killing your main character off at the end of your previous novel, what more can you do? If you’re Jim Butcher, you have the wizard detective try to solve his own death as a ghost. Perhaps the strangest of the novels in The Dresden Files series, Ghost Story moves the series forward in an interesting and bold direction that doesn’t quite hit all of its intended targets.
As it should be obvious by now, there are spoilers ahead. Don’t read this if you haven’t read the book.
When Butcher ended the novel Changes with Harry getting shot and falling over into the cold waters of Lake Michigan, the obvious question was how Jim would write himself out of this particular corner. Would he bring Dresden back from the dead immediately? Would the series shift to a different point-of-view character? The answer was no to both of those questions. Harry finds himself on the other side of life, tasked with finding out how he died and prevent something terrible from happening to his loved ones that were left behind.
“I may have had good reasons. I may have had the best of intentions.
But intentions aren’t enough, no matter how good they are. Intentions can lead you to a place where you’re able to make a choice.
It’s the choice that counts.”Jim Butcher, “Ghost Story”
But when Harry returns to the land of the living as a spirit, months have passed since his death and things have gone decidedly to hell in his absence. The core events of the story deal less with impending doom and more with addressing the massive shadow Harry Dresden cast upon the city of Chicago. One of the strengths that Butcher wrote in to Dresden was not Harry’s connection to magic but his ability to connect and uplift those around him. From Murphy to Molly to the Alphas, Harry had an impact on everyone that he encountered, and he brought them up to his level, making them better people in the long run. But he also stood as a bastion against the malevolent forces of the supernatural world, keeping them away from the city lest those creatures incur the wrath of Chicago’s resident private detective/wizard.
“It was never too late to learn something. The past is unalterable in any event. The future is the only thing we can change. Learning the lessons of the past is the only way to shape the present and the future.”Jim Butcher, “Ghost Story”
Quite a few characters that we haven’t seen in a number of books make an appearance in this novel. The standouts are Mortimer Lindquist, an ectomancer that was more prominently seen in the earlier novels but disappeared from the narrative. The other prominent figure to return is The Corpsetaker, one of the necromancers from the novel Dead Beat, who has become a disembodied specter commanding a legion of spirits. Due to Harry’s new nature as a ghost, Butcher is able to explore and explain how the spiritual side of the Dresdenverse works, something that’s only been hinted at prior to this point in the series.
Harry’s death is a major point in this story, particularly for Karrin Murphy and Molly Carpenter, the two women who love Dresden. Butcher wisely avoided the love triangle tropes by firmly stamping down any chance of Molly and Harry getting together (which is wise given they’ve known each other since Molly was a child). Molly appears throughout the novel as trying to live up to her mentor’s example, becoming a frail but fierce wizard that is quickly earning a reputation as a deadly force in the city’s supernatural community. But there are consequences for those actions, and Butcher keeps fidelity to those, showing the trauma Molly is dealing with (unsuccessfully, I might add). Murphy, on the other hand, has been in denial, refusing to accept Harry’s death until his ghost literally shows up in her house and Mister (Harry’s old cat) runs headlong into Harry’s ghostly shins. How each of these two women deal with their grief, channel their feelings of helplessness and anger, is both touching and tragic (particularly given what Molly in particular is dealing with).
Ghost Story is a throwback to the earlier stories in The Dresden Files with some added supernatural flourishes that help expand the universe. The overriding theme of this novel is grief and how it changes everyone it touches. From Molly to Murphy to Thomas, each of the cast of characters is dealing with the loss of someone they loved deeply and not always in the best way for them in the long-term. I did feel that there are passages in the book that are longer than they need to be but overall, Ghost Story is an excellent and necessary addition to The Dresden Files.