The War at Home – Review of Jim Butcher’s “Battle Ground”

When you look at Peace Talks and Battle Ground, they really aren’t two separate novels. Instead, they are a duology; two parts of the same story. Battle Groundpicks up immediately after the end of Peace Talks and it rarely stops from beginning to end. If the previous novel was not what you were expecting from an entry in The Dresden Files, this book more than makes up for it.

Spoilers ahead, so don’t read this if you haven’t read Battle Ground yet. Seriously, don’t read this review because I’m going to be discussing major plot points.

Still with me? Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

This book is the culmination of everything Jim Butcher has been building toward since the end of Changes: Harry Dresden being neck deep in the epic fantasy world that Butcher has spent twenty years building. At the end of Peace Talks, Ethniu the Mad Titan laid down a challenge to the assembled members of the Unseelie Accords and demanded they either join her in destroying Chicago or be destroyed along with the humans. To make sure her point was made abundantly clear, Ethniu slapped Queen Mab through several stone walls in a modern-day castle and took out all the electricity in Chicago using the Eye of Balor, a mystical superweapon. The groups who had come together to discuss a peaceful resolution with the Fomor (the nation Ethniu is in control of) now have to band together to defend the city of Chicago. And Harry Dresden, the only professional wizard in the city is right in the middle of it.

The first chapter kicks things off by having Harry and company tangle with a kraken. Yes, as in Clash of the Titans or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It doesn’t stop there, though. There are Fire Giants (Jotuns) from Muspelheim, Black Court Vampires (I’ll get to that in a moment), monstrosities from under the sea, Fomor abominations, and Ethniu, who is by far the most powerful supernatural creature introduced in the series up to this point. There is very little rest between major moments throughout this book but when they do happen, they are memorable as well. To put it bluntly, this is a book that is made of awesome and heart-pumping (as well as heart-breaking) moments from beginning to end.

Because this is a war story, though, there are casualties as well.

Let’s get the big stuff out of the way first. Butcher’s main talent as a writer is understanding the emotional cost of his characters’ actions and displaying them in gut-wrenching detail, pulling at the readers’ heartstrings one moment and then giving them a fist-pumping scene dripping with awesomeness the next. In Battle Ground, though, there are moments of absolute tragedy as we see characters we’ve come to know over the years fall as Chicago burns around them.

The biggest example of this is Karrin Murphy. I love Murphy as a character, particularly after she transitioned away from being a minor antagonist in Summer Knightand moved toward being Harry’s closest ally and friend. But the timer has been ticking on Murphy’s role in the series for a long time now. Sooner or later, an average mortal like Karrin was going to end up on the wrong side of a fight. But that isn’t how Butcher writes her death. Instead, her death is an accident, caused by one of the most cowardly characters introduced in the series, Jerome Rudolph. Karrin’s death comes after arguably her most badass moment in the series: taking down a Jotun with a bazooka. Yes, that actually happens in the book and it is so cool. But her death comes about because one person can’t practice good trigger discipline with a loaded weapon. It is a gut-punch with a tire iron and for anyone who has read the series from the beginning, it hurts so much more because we’ve seen Harry and Karrin finally get close and begin a relationship.

Tragedy strikes with regularity in this entry in the series, particularly once the Black Court Vampires make an appearance. Mavra, a malevolent vampire that hasn’t been seen since the ending of Dead Beat, reappears and she brings with her Drakul. Not Dracula, mind you. Dracula in the Dresden Files is the son of Drakul. Drakul is a something other than a normal vampire. The fight between the Wardens of the White Council (Harry, Ramirez, Wild Bill, and Yoshimo) along with River Shoulders (a Bigfoot) and Joe Listens-To-Wind (a powerful wizard known as the best shapeshifter on the White Council) would normally be the ending fight to a novel in this series. And this fight happens near the beginning of the book. That should tell you something about how massive the stakes are in this novel.

Butcher does a solid job introducing new elements to the story, particularly the origins and meaning of Starborn characters (like Harry, Drakul, and Listen, an agent of the Fomor serving Ethniu) but he doesn’t dwell on these since they aren’t relevant to the story he’s telling. These are seeds being planted for the next set of adventures in the series. We get to see Harry and his allies lay down some series magic throughout the story. And there’s the Battle of the Bean, the climactic fight between the Fomor and the assembled nations of the Unseelie Accords, which takes up several chapters and is filled with more combat than I’ve seen in any of the previous books. For reference, this would would include the Battle of Chichen Itza in Changes and the Battle of Demonreach in Cold Days.

But the best scenes are the small quiet ones that occur in the aftermath of Karrin’s death and after the battle is over. Harry is pushed to his absolute breaking point as the novel progresses, coming dangerously close to giving in to his darkest nature and losing his soul. It’s his closest allies, namely Sanya, Waldo Butters, and Michael Carpenter, that bring him back from the edge. As Harry grapples with who he is becoming, the one constant that he holds to is his burgeoning relationship with Maggie, his daughter. The moments at the end where Harry and Maggie are able to be father and daughter are some of Butcher’s best writing in the entire series (and that’s saying something).

If you’re a fan of The Dresden Files, I cannot recommend this book enough. It has everything we as fans of the series have come to love, including the parts that make us want to throw the book in a corner and cry. And ultimately, that’s the hallmark of a good story. If you don’t feel anything when reading the story, it’s not doing its job properly. In the case of Battle Ground, it absolutely succeeds in that endeavor.

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