In Harry Dresden’s world, the good guys usually win. Winning doesn’t always entail victory, though. Over the course of the previous seven books it can be said that Dresden has only had 4 clean victories by the end of a given novel. The other three are arguably pyrrhic victories, where more was lost than gained. The best example is Grave Peril, which changed the tone and scope of the series going forward. In Proven Guilty, Jim Butcher advances Dresden in significant new directions, proving that after 8 books, there are plenty of new discoveries to be made.
I’ve always known that Jim Butcher is a big geek. Proven Guilty provides all the evidence one would ever really need. A story involving fear spirits who take the form of movie monsters is a sufficiently terrifying concept all on its own. The execution is handled well, mixing the more horrific elements with Dresden’s snark and ham-fisted one-liners seamlessly. The build-up in the novel was not so much mishandled as it was slow at times. The previous books in the series were relatively quick reads. This novel had moments of alacrity and moments of languid pacing. It’s a minor nitpick but I felt that Butcher had some chapters that were longer than necessary.
“Rule number one of the wizarding business. Never let them see you sweat. People expect us to know things. It can be a big advantage. Don’t screw it up by looking like you’re as confused as everyone else. Bad for the image.”Jim Butcher, “Proven Guilty”
Dresden as a character has begun to show the wear and tear of his recent trials. His actions in Dead Beat involving killing two of the villains have left their mark, making Dresden question his assumptions about his own nature and if he’s still a good man. The angst never becomes overbearing or too maudlin, which is a trap many authors fall into. Butcher treats Dresden’s moral decline with grave seriousness. Harry’s journey has been a classic example of breaking the hero. How many evil and unfortunate things can be thrown at the hero before he turns evil or becomes insane?
The erstwhile relationship of Karrin and Harry reached another plateau. Butcher drag out the “will they/won’t they” dance well, managing to come up with character-based reasons rather than contrived reasons to keep the two of them apart. Karrin Murphy has been a mainstay of the series and I’ve enjoyed her progression up to this point. When I initially started writing reviews of this series I was not enjoying her character. She has grown into a necessary second to Harry and a suitable audience surrogate in the stories she plays a part of. Another cop character, Rawlins (introduced in Proven Guilty), makes the comment that no good deed goes unpunished. Both Harry and Karrin learn that lesson the hard way by the end of the novel.
Being the good, honorable person sucks sometimes. Often such a person is saddled with responsibilities and humiliations that are undeserved. For a character like Karrin, commanding the police unit Dresden often works with is a badge of pride for the character. For Harry, his dissatisfaction with the hidebound, uncompromising nature of the White Council keeps him from being entirely civil. As I’ve mentioned in a previous review of this series, Butcher is devoted to the concept of consequences in the best way. Every decision the characters make has a reaction, sometimes positive, sometimes negative. He makes sure that his main characters live Rawlin’s adage “no good deed goes unpunished”.
“A bolt of warmth, fierce with joy and pride and gratitude, flashed through me like sudden lightning. I don’t care about whose DNA has recombined with whose. When everything goes to hell, the people who stand by you without flinching—they are your family. And they were my heroes.”Jim Butcher, “Proven Guilty”
On the topic of villains and locals, Proven Guilty works on quite a few levels. The idea of spirits who take on the form of fearful movie monsters isn’t a new concept but execution matters just as much as originality. The monsters are frightening less for what form they take and more for the fact that they takes shapes we’ve invented to scare ourselves. As a culture, we like being safely sacred through a film screen or TV screen. It reminds us of certain evolutionary impulses planted so deep in our psyche they may never disappear. The heart of the Winter Sidhe, Arctis Tor, is a snow-covered plain, reminiscent of what lays north of the Wall in Westeros. Butcher created a breathtakingly beautiful and terrifying landscape which Mab, the Queen of Air and Darkness, has her fortress.
Proven Guilty is not full of world-shattering surprises (unless the reader hasn’t been paying attention). Looking back, Butcher has laid the groundwork for the revelations of Proven Guilty as early as Grave Peril. The envelope for violence continues to be pushed with villains becoming more bloodthirsty and capricious. Butcher is also setting the stage for a massive, violent closure to the War between the White Council and the Vampire Courts. A mean streak is being layered onto Dresden, leaving the impression for the reader that the man who fights the monsters might become the worst monster of all.