When you’re Harry Dresden, life sometimes gets unnaturally ugly. And then there are times where it gets downright hostile. And then… there are times where everything that can go wrong does go wrong. Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series has been chugging along now for twenty years and 2020 marked the release of two novels in the series, Peace Talks and Battle Ground. I’ll be writing reviews for both because there is simply too much that happens for a single review.
Spoilers ahead, so don’t read if you haven’t read Peace Talks yet.
When Skin Game ended, I figured there would be a longer respite for Harry, particularly given that he was going to begin a relationship with Karrin Murphy (that has been danced around for about ten books now) and become a father to little Maggie Dresden (who Butcher writes as one of the most adorable children I’ve ever read in fiction). Peace Talks pick up relatively soon after the ending of Skin Game (only a handful of months). Maggie and Harry are living in the Svartelf compound apartment that Molly has owned since before the events of Cold Days. And a new spirit of intellect has joined them in the form of Bonea (Bonny, for short). Life seems to be pretty good until Dresden is asked to join the security detail for a peace conference between the major powers of the Unseelie Accords (the peace agreement hammered out by Queen Mab, the Sidhe Queen of the Winter Court).
To further complicate matters, Harry finds out through his maternal grandfather, Ebenezar Mccoy, that the White Council (the ruling body of wizards in the world) are going to bring a vote on whether or not Harry should remain a member of the organization. And if that doesn’t make things more difficult, Thomas Raith (Harry’s half-brother and a White Court Vampire) gets captured and brutally beaten after attempting to kill the Svartelf King Etri, casting doubt on whether Harry is really a friend to the Svartelves or not.
To borrow an old Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times.
For all of the good things about Peace Talks (which I’ll get to in a moment), I do want to say upfront that this is not one of the better Dresden novels out there. This is due in no small part to the publishing history of the book. One of the reasons for the long delay in publishing this book was that the length of it got away from Butcher and the publisher suggested splitting a massive doorstopper manuscript into two books. This required a significant amount of editing and reworking the plot, which left much of the major story elements and plot developments for the second part, Battle Ground.
This isn’t to say that Peace Talks isn’t a fun book to read but it does feel like a lot of set up and very little payoff by the end of the novel. The best parts of Peace Talks are the character moments, which are where Butcher’s craft as a writer shines the best. Harry’s fraught relationship with Ebenezar has been used in the past, most notably when Harry discovered that his grandfather was the White Council’s assassin known as the Blackstaff. Here, we see the two of them disagreeing vehemently when it comes to how Harry should raise Maggie. While Harry has always come across as the goofy, pop-culture spouting uber-nerd in the series, there are deep reservoirs of trauma behind that façade and we get to seem them on display in this book, particularly during the confrontations with Ebenezar.
Harry and Karrin’s relationship finally reach the point where they are able to admit how much they love each other and consummate their love, which as a fan of the series I’ve been waiting on since Dead Beat. Bringing back Rudolph, the corrupt Internal Affairs cop, to complicate matters is simply set up for the events that unfold in Battle Ground (which I’ll cover in that review). But the fun of Karrin and Harry is that they are polar opposites in so many ways except for the ones that count the most: their desire to protect those less powerful than themselves.
A large number of characters make an appearance in this book, many of whom would only be familiar to the reader if they had read the short story collections that have been published. For me, the return of Wardens Carlos Ramirez, Yoshimo, Wild Bill, and Chandler was a treat, since all of these characters have been featured prominently in other stories. The return of River Shoulders (a Bigfoot that Butcher put into a trilogy of short stories) as well as Ferrovax (a dragon that hasn’t been seen since the events of Grave Peril) were also welcome additions to the main series, particularly River Shoulders. There’s something about a Bigfoot in a tuxedo and wearing glasses that is instantly hilarious and heartwarming.
The biggest new addition to the cast is Ethniu, the Fomor Queen and main antagonist (even though she doesn’t show up until the final few chapters of the book). Ethniu is a Titan, one of the old deities of Irish mythology, and a powerful entity in a league above and beyond what we’ve seen so far in the series. Ethniu and the Fomor’s plan to wage war on humanity is both audacious and completely insane, which fits well with some of the bad-guy plots used over the course of the series. The peace conference referenced in the title never gets off the ground before Ethniu essentially pimp-slaps Queen Mab (arguably one of the most powerful entities shown in the series to this point) with ease and demands the other accorded nations either join her in destroying the mortal world or die defending the mortals.
But that isn’t the true ending of the book (just the set up for the following novel). As Butcher has done many times throughout The Dresden Files, the real finale is personal: Harry doing everything possible to save Thomas from certain death. This choice leads him into a fight with Ebenezar and we get to see just how powerful Harry has become but also how out of his league he still is against the heavy hitters of the White Council (and Ebenezar is considered the weakest member of the Senior Council). When Ebenezar learns that Harry is trying to save his brother (making Thomas Ebenezar’s other grandson), the old wizard flips out and tries to murder Thomas and everyone around him. In the boat ride away from that fight, Harry realizes that nothing will be the same between him and his grandfather now.
And that, at the end of the day, is the power of Jim Butcher’s writing. We care about these characters because he’s given us every reason to both hate and love them (sometimes in the same book). And ultimately, that’s the best any writer can hope for.