Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, Chicago’s only professional wizard, has been a lot of things in his life: friend, enemy, apprentice, teacher, guardian, avenger, victim, and lover; not to mention shot, stabbed, bruised, and beaten. But dead? That’s a new one in his book.
When an unknown killer puts a bullet through Harry’s chest and leaves him to die in the cold waters of Lake Michigan, Harry thinks it’s all over. But even dead, he can’t seem to catch a break. Without a body, his powers, or any way to interact with anyone, Harry is sent back to the mortal world to solve his own murder. And if he fails, three of his friends will experience unbelievable agony and torment. It’s a literal race of life and death, and Harry’s not the only specter in Chicago. There are those who remember his habit for knocking off the bad guys and who are itching for some payback. It’s a game for keeps, and Harry has to pull off the ultimate trick—without magic. If he can’t… he will face eternity as just another lost soul.
Pushes the limits of Harry’s worlds
Ghost Story pushes and expands the boundaries of The Dresden Files, especially in the worldbuilding. The novel takes Harry to a new place—a place where he cannot use magic to simply smash or burn his way through his problems. While not technically a new physical location, the metaphysical and magical rules have changed—for the rules of being a ghost are largely dependent upon the ghost itself. Where before the reader saw what happens to spiritual constructs when they go up against the mortal world from the mortal side of things, now they get to see the flip side: what happens when you cannot physically interact with the world without running the risk of oblivion. It’s a definite shift in the setting of the series—and it only gets more twisty and mind-blowing from there.
A longtime reader of Butcher’s, I have come to expect the labyrinth of plot twists which he throws into his books. However, even though I was expecting the idea of plot twists, the specifics of most of them proceeded to blow my mind. Butcher is one of those authors who will plant a small but crucial detail in the second book of a series, but said detail won’t become relevant until book eleven. The twists in Ghost Story definitely reflect this mindset, and even though the story is ultimately about Harry’s experiences, the overall plot of the series gets thrown for some loops, too.
Secondary characters with primary problems
Due largely in part to the protagonist’s inability to affect most of the world, much of the novel revolves around the secondary characters. While the previous novel (Changes) was, in Butcher’s words, “building up the model city of Tokyo and then finally [getting] to strap on the Godzilla suit and knock it all down,”[Source] Ghost Story is the true game changer of the series. In the time between Changes and Ghost Story, secondary characters had to step up to the plate, and in Ghost Story, many of the true changes in character are revealed. Some characters have taken turns into despair while others have found their element and come into their own. Yet others have lost themselves, making deals and doing deeds they never would have contemplated before. All of these come together in the novel, with some truly awe-inspiring character development.
A gorgeously flawed protagonist
Harry Dresden, until recently, has been seen as somewhat of a proverbial white knight. Sure, he has his taints of darkness, but they pale in comparison to his more idealistic traits. In Ghost Story, however, Harry has the time to spend on reflection and realizes that he may have become what he had always fought against. And yet, if given the chance to go back and redo his choices, Harry realizes that he would make the exact same decisions—and to hell with the consequences. (Incidentally, that’s sort of what happened because of his choices, but that’s neither here nor there.) This mule-headed stubbornness to stick by his own decisions—even when he knows that they were morally wrong and largely unjustifiable—makes for a beautifully flawed protagonist, something I love to see in any book.
Heart-wrenching and tear-jerking
While reviews are personal reactions by their very nature, they are often more detached and objective in delivery—at least, that’s what I attempt to do in my reviews. But I wouldn’t be doing this novel justice if I didn’t throw in my personal reactions. At any rate, Ghost Story is the most emotionally wrenching novel I have read to date. The cliffhanger at the end of Changes left me a gibbering idiot for hours after I finished it, but the sheer emotional weight of Ghost Story makes Changes pale in comparison. Butcher’s writing truly made me feel for the characters, for what they were going through, and, in total, I spent probably about a third of the book in tears. Some of the twists left me gaping at the pages in stunned horror, but always turning the page to find out what happened next. The climactic sequence at the end of the novel had me crying, sitting in stunned silence, and ready to throw the book at the wall in anger, all in equal measures. The plights of the characters, these characters who I’ve grown up with since I was thirteen, truly grabbed at my heartstrings, and yanked on them a number of times. Some novels have been able to leave me staring at the page, but none of them have ever pulled so much of an emotional reaction from me. And that ability to draw such reactions from a reader is, in my opinion, the definition of truly great writing.
So, why should you read this book?
For newcomers to the series: you can read this book… But, you won’t understand a lot of it. Even with the previous novel, a newcomer to the series could read it and not be totally lost. But there has been so much backstory and worldbuilding over the first twelve books in the series which comes into play in Ghost Story that a new reader would probably be overwhelmed. Butcher himself said that Ghost Story is “the LEAST stand-aloney book of the series” and that “skipping ahead to it will get [a new reader] a lot of stuff that is inexplicable.”[Source] So, as with any series, I recommend you begin with book one. In this case, Storm Front. This series has been in the works for over ten years, and Butcher’s writing style has greatly improved since he began. I also urge readers to make it to book four (Summer Knight) before deciding to continue with the series or to drop it, as things really begin to pick up speed there.
Now, for those who have read along since the beginning and made it through to the end of Changes? I’m probably preaching to the choir. Because in my mind, how can you not read Ghost Story after that cliffhanger? That being said, if you have stuck with the series but haven’t yet picked up Ghost Story, I strongly urge you to do so. The tone and setting are completely different from the rest of the series, and the worldbuilding and character developments are simply breathtaking. Harry’s world is put through its paces, and I personally cannot wait to see where book fourteen, Cold Days, leads us.