2012 Reading: Caliban’s War by James S. A. Corey

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Pew-pew! Woosh! Zoom! Pew-pew! Kaboom!

Pardon me. Let’s begin again:

Caliban’s War is the second novel in James S. A. Corey’s space opera series The Expanse. (Corey is a combined pseudonym for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck). The Expanse novels take place across the colonized solar system, from Earth, to Mars, to the fabricated habitats of the asteroid belt and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. They follow square-jawed, morally-upright Captain James Holden and his crew, as well as a cast of soldiers and diplomats and civilians that shifts and expands in each novel, as they negotiate interplanetary politics and the growing certainty that a privately-owned biotechnology company operating throughout the solar system has been doing something exceptionally shady. Lots of shooting ensues, and also flying, and also exploding, some of the most entertaining of each I’ve read in a long time, bolstered and made meaningful by frequently funny and sometimes pointed and powerful interactions between enjoyable characters.

Caliban’s War trades in the shadings of noire and space horror the first book, Leviathan Wakes, lathered over its space opera substratum in favour of political thriller and military elements, as the central mystery surrounding the activities of the biotech company solved in the first novel has broader political and military implications for the balance of power in the solar system. However, this second book keeps the feel of a continuing series going with effortless ease despite this shift in tone. Comparisons are an oversimplifying trap to fall into, but it’s kind of like the new Star Trek movies — the new J.J. Abrams ones very specifically — if the plots made sense and didn’t assume you were a goldfish, like an actioned-up, flashier take on the teeming space habitats and cramped shipboard freedom of C. J. Cherryh’s wonderful Merchanter novels, with the fun-filled zest for life of a version of Starwars set in our solar system and minus the force in which the intelligence behind the narrative doesn’t feel the need to pause the story every five minutes to worship Joseph Campbell’s corpse. These novels are what’s sometimes called by the ridiculous name “hard science fiction” insofar as they make some attempt to imagine how long distance future space travel and life in space might work, so there’re lots of claustrophobic ship corridors and rotating artificial gravity drums and stuff like that, but the coauthors are really careful to apply the speculative science such that it furthers the plot and enriches the characters’ world and no farther, creating a space opera universe that feels grounded, but still very focused on story.

Though the book and series bring good action throughout and that’s where the focus lies, characters are very well-balanced, including those whose outlooks and life skills aren’t those of people you’d expect to see in an action flick. So while we have one awesome space marine character who’s thoroughly military, and several others who are varying degrees of cheerfully violence-ready, the book also contains one of the best, most well-rounded explicitly pacifist characters I’ve ever encountered in a story like this. Prax, the space botanist dude who gets a major arc in Caliban’s War, is slightly less well-served in terms of the sheer enjoyability of his sections and exploration of his character, possibly because he spends most of the book in a state of advanced psychic distress and feels much more out of his depth than the rest of the cast. For the most part, however, Corey keeps Caliban’s War as fun and as tense when we’re in a politician’s office as when we’re flyin’ in space, and is equally interested in the personalities that populate both scenarios. Also one of the new major characters in this one is this cranky old United Nations administrator who basically just swears at people nonstop for the entire book and she’s pretty great.

In mentioning the shift in tone and subject matter between Leviathan Wakes and Caliban’s War I’ve already hinted at the way this series structures itself, namely as a sequence of individual units of story that absolutely build on each other to produce something bigger, but remain very distinct. Part of this is focus: Leviathan Wakes is horror-tinged space noire. Caliban’s War is political thriller / military science fiction. Abaddon’s Gate, the third novel, is accessible psychological thriller fiction with a bit of exploration thrown in. The overall tone is the same across the series, but the concerns of each book are slightly different. The other part of this series structure that keeps each book a well-defined unit is that, while each novel builds on the previous one and you couldn’t, say, read them out of order, each completes clearly-defined arcs for its characters and closes major plot points. While Captain Holden’s adventures continue beyond Caliban’s War – well beyond, apparently –, this novel sees him and his crew through a clear stage in their evolution as defenders of justice and the freedom of information. Each of the other point of view characters, meanwhile, have arcs that feel complete enough that they could well never appear again, though I hope a couple of them do. While the novel’s epilogue leaves the story with a last-second development and a major open question, this feels more like an acknowledgement that the story has a next phase, rather than a cheap trick meant to gloss over a failure to close out this one.

There’s a generalization that floats around some corners of science fiction fandom that they in some way or other don’t make ‘em like they used to anymore. I’ve run into various versions of this narrative and I think they’re all stupid [beyond straightforward assertions like, say, the rarity of sf tv shows set in space these days, which is just fact], but I almost used one myself here. I was going to say that it seems like the focus in much successful science fiction, or at least the sf that I’ve personally been getting the most out of, has retreated from the stars in recent years. Instead, a lot of the best stuff’s been focusing on the problems of a series of overpopulated, overindustrialized, often quite distopic and shithole-esque imagined future Earths with a trend toward narrative with a bitter, confrontational “welcome to the future we’re making, bitches” undertone. For works emblematic of this trend see Margaret Atwood, Paolo Bacigalupi, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents a bit further back in the 1990s, and a whole crapload of young adult dystopias – including Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games – that honestly are probably what makes this feel like a marked tendency to me, rather than just the decline in public interest in space exploration working itself out in the science fiction of this economically strapped and restricted age as is only reasonable. In fact this is just warped perception and a reflection, perhaps, of which works in the genre have felt most relevant to me. Space fiction has, of course, continued to be published, and some of it’s been great. Caliban’s War and the other Expanse books feel like a step forward to me, though, despite their old-fashioned focus on people colonizing the solar system, because they commit absolutely to mixing a small degree of the rigour and attention to detail found in the sf stories that put the “science” first and often read like fictionalized tech manuals with the drama and excitement of unabashed storytelling, demonstrating that the presence of the one does not necessarily preclude the presence of the other – though admittedly the fact that the “science!” is used as a seasoning rather than as the main dish does probably help.

The Expanse is one of the most enjoyable, accessible, plot and character-driven works in a subset of recent sf that sets out to imagine the next couple centuries with a focus on space, insisting that humanity might still reach the stars en masse in some form, and envisioning a far from utopic but still broadly optimistic version of future society. This trend also includes works by authors like Kim Stanley Robinson and Alastair Reynolds. While Robinson in particular writes some individual scenes that I find stunningly beautiful and full of cosmic wonder, I think Corey’s Expanse books are my favourites in this niche, because they mix can-do human optimism with compelling what-happens-next plot so well, and ask questions about how moving away from Earth out into the vast mysterious dark of space might effect people’s outlooks socially, politically, and – in the third book, which introduces a pastor whose one of my favourite major characters in the series – spiritually, in ways that stay very grounded in the individual characters they apply to, rather than feeling as though the author is trying to ninja a textbook past us by grafting on a little plot engine to justify the social commentary and techno-wankery extrapolation. [M. J. Locke’s novel Up Against It, about the working inhabitants and administrators of an asteroid, is another recent novel that works really well in this optimistic, pro-space mode but hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention as the Expanse books. I know if I’d read Up Against It and the Expanse novels at the age of sixteen I’d have wanted to get me to space, and, crucially, that if I were a scientifically-minded teenager who could do math and stuff I’d wanna work to surmount the technical hurtles the book’s characters live on the other side of.]

Recommended: For everyone with a pulse, basically. Especially if you like stuff like the new Battlestar Galactica, the non-jedi bits of Star Wars, novels by John Scalzi and/or Lois McMaster Bujold.

Avoid: If you haven’t got a pulse this probably won’t do much for you. Also if you just don’t give a shit about spaceships, I guess. There is relatively little in the way of technobabble here, with the focus kept firmly on the action and the characters and their interaction with their evolving, politically-unstable world, but there is an attempt to extrapolate what I guess in my ignorance feels like it’s meant to be semi-rigorous future spaceflight and this spaceflight and how it works does get talked about, so if you just don’t like the aesthetics of spaceship stories it might be best to give the Expanse a pass, as it’s definitely playing squarely to those of us who do like spaceships and the exploration of hypothetical life in space. This whole spaceships and spacestations gig and stories about wizards and kings and lost magic are basically my two pigs-in-shit reading scenarios so honestly I really can’t relate.

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2013 Reading: The City by Stella Gemmell

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I’m going to keep on talking about the novels published in 2012 I’ve read in alphabetical order when I’ve got time / inclination. However, I’m starting to realize that, if I wait until I actually get through reading all the novels from 2013 I’m interested in discussing, I’ll be starting to write posts about them like two years from now. So I’m going to start talking about some of my 2013 reading, in no order, when I have time and the mood strikes me. First up is Stella Gemmell’s first solo fantasy novel [she completed her husband David Gemmell’s final book], The City. I enjoyed this a lot, though definitely not unreservedly, and this combination seems to mean that there’s a lot I feel compelled to say about it. Onwards to incessant blithering:

Shuskara, the City’s greatest general, has been declared a traitor and fled into the cavernous sewer system that has built up beneath the City over generations, layer upon layer. There he meets two orphaned children, Elija and Emly, and becomes their protector for a short time until the plot happens and then he’s just Emly’s protector because the plot requires Elija elsewhere. Indaro, the daughter of one of the City’s great families, fights with the armies to hold back the besieging forces of the City’s legions of enemies. She serves under Fell Aron Lee, one of the only respected commanding officers in the army and a Man With A Past (you know how those go.) When the besiegers launch a surprise attack Fell and Indaro’s unit find themselves behind enemy lines and abandoned to their fate. All of these people, as well as many others that the book happily accumulates and slots together like little towers of lego blocks all throughout its length, will be drawn into an elaborate plot to overthrow the Emperor Araeon, who presides over this long war and cares only for victory, disregarding the massive loss of life and the crumbling of his City’s infrastructure.

This little blurb only scratches the surface of the whirlwind of characters and factions Stella Gemmell throws into the bubbling stew of The City’s plot. However, this long catalogue of characters and elements ends up combining well, rather than being confusing, at least for the most part. The story’s told in shifting third person, but the list of characters through whose eyes we see is not restricted, giving us a myriad of angles on the evolving plots against the Emperor, their counterplots, and the slow deterioration of the City. Some characters get more attention, certainly, but this is a novel of what I’d venture to call a slightly old-fashioned kind in which plot, rather than character, is God. If the plot doesn’t have anything for a character to do for months on end, we won’t see them. And, conversely, if the plot requires that an important event be dramatized while none of the major characters is present, then up a new character will pop. This can give the book a slightly unbalanced feeling at first. “Why are we kicking around on this battlefield for sixty pages?”, I asked myself at one point. “Shouldn’t we be getting back to Elija on the boat with the City’s enemies?” What I hadn’t yet recognized was that The City is playing a very broad narrative game, depicting the shifts and pressures that will determine the fate of the entire City rather than any small group of people, and it will get back to individual characters when it is good and ready and they have something to contribute and not before.

If there is a focus, though, it is on the little people. Or at least the littler people. The City is concerned with the doings of those its namesake sees as cogs in the great machine, with orphaned children and foot soldiers and palace servants. We spend a lot of time getting the perspective of a couple military commanders, but don’t go much higher than that, except for brief moments. The City’s masters are crucial to the narrative, but we don’t get their perspective much. Partly this is because they’d give things away — the amnesia Gemmell slaps the former general Shuskara with to keep him from remembering relevant things from his time among the powerful when the book doesn’t want him to is already one of the plot’s creakier elements. The City’s top people are also meant to be a little bit alien (they’re one of the novel’s main fantastical elements, most of which are applied with a light brush), and letting us into their heads might well damage this. I think, though, that most of this focus on the little people is attributable to this being one of the most blatantly class-conscious stories I’ve ever read in the genre of epic fantasy.

Let’s explore this class-consciousness at some length: Some of it is manifested in the writing, which every now and then flips detached bureaucracies and aristocracies the bird in a fairly straightforward way. For instance, as the City begins crumbling faster — literally, as the sewers and lower levels flood — and winter sets in we are told that, as “the population of the City diminished further, … the demand on supplies slackened, and the administrators dealing with food distribution congratulated themselves on their skillful allocation of resources” (355). It’s a very clear ribbing of a bloated, resource-hungry state that buries its problems rather than working to fix them, very on point at its moment of publication in a genre, epic kings-and-castles fantasy, often assumed to be politically facile at best and actively nostalgic for absolutist hierarchy at worst. The portrayal of the City’s rulers as detached and self-absorbed to a truly awe-inspiring degree further reinforces the alienating power of class. We get some sense of this from the Emperor, but the book mostly keeps him off stage as a bit of a plot device, so the City’s First Lord Marcellus Vincerus, the book’s resident sympathetic monster and one of its most interesting characters, and to a lesser degree the mysterious woman Archange, provide us most of our window on this self-absorbtion.

The effects of class on the narrative aren’t confined to who gets focused on, though. Class also informs our experience of the City as readers, limiting us based on whose perspective we’re reading from. Given the grandeur of the City and epic fantasy’s love of big things that are, well, epic, you’d think Gemmell might be drawn towards being all cinematic and including lots of long descriptions of her setting’s epic epicness. She does a bit, but not too much, and I think there’s a really good reason for this. The City exists on an awe-inspiring scale, sure, and there are a couple effective sweeping descriptions of its hulking fortresses and pinnacles outlined against the sky when the characters are in positions to look around and upward and get a broader visual perspective on the immensity that surrounds them, but these “wide shots” are pretty restricted by characters’ individual fields of actual and metaphorical vision. We spend a lot of time with characters dwelling homeless in the sewers underneath the City initially, and then with characters fighting to expand the City’s territory, with the City itself a looming idea at their backs and retreated to for breathless moments rather than a thing seeable in full. Even when the story turns to characters living in the midst of the City, the reader gets the sense that their perspectives are bounded by the littleness of their lives within its vastness, and this is indicated by how little of it they can apprehend at a time — delivering a glassblowing commission half-way across the City becomes a stressful full-day outing for Emly and Shuskara, for instance. Despite his eventual move into the upper middle class Shuskara has a painfully small sphere of influence, pressed in on all sides by the sheer crushing weight of this fantasy metropolis, and cannot see very far in either the literal or figurative sense. Nobody really knows what anybody else is doing or planning much beyond the short term or what the hell is going on, and in several cases this allows for the righteous anger and plotting of all the little characters we follow closely to be channeled and managed by those privileged few who do have a wider sphere of influence, recalling occasions in actual history when societal shifts have been coopted to serve the needs of a powerful individual or group. Gemmell’s vision of a secondary fantasy world isn’t a pre-industrial haven to be explored and wondered at, it’s a meat-grinder, somewhere that wears people down.

So the book’s interested in class, and in mapping out the different reasons a whole range of people might choose to oppose or support a massively powerful oppressive regime. However, there are some norms of fantasy literature it is less aware of. I am usually fairly complacent on the subject of disability in narrative, but there’s a sequence in The City that poked me a little bit in regard to disability’s portrayal: Emly has a gentleman admirer, you see, a shy young lad who can’t walk without a crutch, and, spoiler, he dies in a doomed attempt to defend her from assassins. That he dies is not the trouble. He actually does pretty well before he gets ganked, considering he’s fighting three fully-armed guys with a stick. The trouble is the immediate introduction of a dashing, able-bodied dude who helps haul Emly and her father to safety, and the book’s emphasis on the “we are going to be a thing” eye contact that happens almost immediately. I found the introduction of this character ill-timed, because it repositions the tragic death of an (admittedly flat) disabled character, transforming it into the convenient disposal of a figure presented as by definition not up to standard, as an actor in the physical world in general or as a suitor in specific, in order that he might be replaced with a more satisfactory specimen of physicality and ability. The book ultimately goes somewhere quite hard-nosed with this story arc that defuses the charges of insipid soppyness I’d been preparing to fling at it. I still think, though, that the standards the scene and Emly’s responses to the two characters reinforce might constitute a bit of a bummer for some. Epic fantasy has a broad teenage readership, and if I was a disabled teen reader, unsure of how I was going to be valued in the eyes of others, I think I’d be hard-pressed not to find this sequence a little bit disheartening. The passage is just kinda depressing in its narrative positioning, presenting the disabled character’s dreams of being a suitable partner for Emly and loving attempts to help as nice thoughts but inherently doomed, and then immediately producing a shining example of able-bodied competence to act in his place, positioning the disabled character in the role of someone who gets points for effort but is inevitably not quite good enough when measured against those deemed fully able. Hardly a big deal in the grand scheme of the book, but it stuck out, and I usually don’t notice these things.

Let’s get back to focusing on the mechanics of the storytelling, since even though the book’s approach to social issues, conscious or unconscious, is worth highlighting, The City’s overall success and occasional stumbles in the realm of written narrative specifically is the note I’d like to end on: I’ve already mentioned the broadness of the cast and the complexity of the plot, and this does occasionally get the book in trouble. The sheer proliferation of people and factions means that some of them inevitably get short shrift, and end up feeling like they’re present to accomplish their necessary little piece of the plot without really adding anything beyond this mechanical function. Some of the nations and leaders opposed to the City in particular never evolve much beyond fantasy-looking names slapped on the page. Since it introduces characters and information only when they’re relevant, the book is still merrily giving us people’s backstories with thirty pages to go, and at one point has to stop the flow of events just as the climax is getting going to explain the history of the City’s sewer system at some length, because it’s need to know information that makes the plot work. This willingness to drop lumps of character and world-building information in whenever could contribute to a sense of The City as a novel that’s just artlessly piling things on top of other things and hoping it all stays up, but I think if you can accept that this is a novel that puts plot first it becomes an efficient structure rather than an artless one, shuttling back and forth across a large imagined chessboard with skill and some grace. The climax is the execution of the multi-pronged conspiracy against the City’s hierarchy, an interlocking series of parallel plots that builds slowly but relentlessly into a bout of fun reversals of fortune and dramatic action scenes that mow down named characters and rely on weird quirks of fate in a way that feels messy enough to almost simulate reality, and deserves special praise. It has to bring a dizzying number of pieces and forces together and then juggle them over a sustained, hundred-and-fifty page stretch, and it mostly works admirably. Some balls do get dropped, though, or slipped up the narrative’s sleeves to make things easier. For instance, one group of characters moves from one location to another in order to take part in the final showdown way, way too easily. Another bunch, a military unit, must, in order for the plot to work at a crucial moment, decide to risk being branded as traitors in order to rescue their commanding officer, and this they do despite his marked and well-established shitbaggery, which the book has gone out of its way to emphasize multiple times. These major stumbles are quite rare, though.

The need to drop characters when they’re not important to the thousand-piece jigsaw of the plot does admittedly sometimes result in character arcs feeling poorly paced or non-existent. Several of the major military conspirator dudes blend together a bit, tough to distinguish from one another beyond shallow tags like “oh, he’s the one who doesn’t like to explain things, and he’s the one who’s a bit of a dickhead, and he’s the one who just showed up half-way through and is suddenly important and is apparently descended from some supercool tribe even though this is never important in the slightest”. Indaro and Fell’s changes of heart about the City feel a bit abrupt, but the book’s choice to spend a lot of time with them right before they make these decisions helps mitigate the problem. Speaking of Indaro and Fell, their separation, without any means of communicating, through much of the middle and the climax makes their attraction to one another a little hard to sell, especially since Fell’s internal monologues about Indaro sometimes come off vaguely creepy; beyond making Fell’s thoughts on gender politics somewhat backward-looking I have no idea how the narrative voice does this, because their thing is mutual even though neither of them knows this, but bless it it manages. A combination of inner monologues, good old-fashioned yearning, and making the most of the few scenes they do share through the middle by staring like they’re trying to incinerate one another with their minds brings the thing stumbling into believable territory, just about, but it’s close. Elija and Emly get hit hard by this issue of character pacing, though. Elija is barely a character: he is a nice boy who wants to protect his sister, and later a nice young man who wants to find his sister, and he is in the plot so the book can make sure particular things get done and that’s about it. Emly has some problems defining herself as a character too, partly because she’s very reactive throughout the first half. I think much of this can be blamed on the book going for an admirably honest portrayal of an overwhelmed, frightened child character and coming up with a bit of a flat cipher instead. By the end, however, Gemmell’s fashioned Emly into a very convincing teenager, a character very capable of taking decisive action in the moment when she has specific goals, like protecting her father and finding her brother, but willing to be led much more passively when people are planning out her long-term future, because she doesn’t have a lot of points of reference for what’s going on or how it effects her beyond the next few days. None of the characters really stand out from among fantasy’s crowded rank and file, for me, at least on a first reading, but many of them manage to overcome somewhat abruptly paced character arcs to become very interestingly motivated, sometimes intricate threads in the novel’s grand tapestry.

I suspect there are those who would judge this novel fairly harshly. I suspect they’d look at its profusion of threads and characters and dismiss it as baggy and self-indulgent. I suspect they’d look at its occasional tendency to vomit info and fictional history, and its tendency to include clunky little phrases like “deeper depths” and “longer length” when it gets all involved in describing some cool old subterranean tunnel, and conclude that it’s not written with a lot of care. However, much as it may look like a book with these problems, I think The City is a lot smarter than such critics would give it credit for, and that it’s constructed with a lot of thought given to what each piece brings to the overall picture of a fantasy society at a moment of crisis. From its focus on the setting’s down-trodden characters and horrific grace notes that emphasize the plight of peasants in wartime, to its identification of the harmful narratives of femininity that prompt the City’s military men to place their “virtuous mothers and cherished, virginal, sisters” on pedestals while simultaneously abusing women captured in war [221], and all the other small acknowledgements of complexity in its exploration of the machinery of oppression and hope, The City is just too aware not to be valued as a thoughtful contribution to the fantasy field. Gemmell’s novel isn’t the best epic fantasy I’ve read this year and I still haven’t gotten to a couple of the big ones, but it’s one of the most interesting, and lands with a lot of heft. I don’t know why this hasn’t gotten more attention in the fantasy-reading community at a time when several other works by first time authors (mostly men, funny how that goes) seem to be being read widely, because it’s very solid. It tells rather than shows sometimes, and takes big infodumps in the middle of the flowing narrative stream now and then, and throws in a couple more characters and backstories than might be totally necessary, but what is all of this between friends? The City takes an unfamiliar, useful tack on epic fantasy in enough places that, for me, it definitely comes out on the right side of these problems. Refreshingly in a genre in which a book by a talented new author is so often advertized as “Book 1 in the nine-part Bloodsword of the Dragonshadow Wizard Throne Saga” or whatever, The City is at least ostensibly a standalone, and it does tell a satisfying standalone story. Based on how the novel ends, I’d guess chances of a sequel are actually pretty good, and I think such a sequel could be quite successful and worthwhile, but the book does tell a complete tale.

Recommended: If you like fantasy (or possibly historical fiction, as the fantasy elements here are important but quite minimal) that tackles a wide range of topics with a profusion of characters, but with an emphasis on the military. If you like very plot-heavy novels.

Avoid: If you prefer more tightly-focused, character-driven stories.

So This Show Homeland Is, Um, Not That Perceptive: Post 9/11 Surveillance Culture and American Vulnerability on TV, Part 3

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As I began to explore in the previous two posts, Homeland strives to set itself up as something more ambitious and ambiguous than a fun espionage brainteaser and a celebration of America’s general fabness. Alongside the mysterious meetings, tense interrogation scenes, and twisty spy plots, the show casts what can sometimes be a very skeptical eye over both the acts performed abroad in America’s name in pursuit of the war on terror and the extraordinary violations of the Brody family’s privacy that Carrie embarks on in her crusading zeal. However, its insistence that the actions Carrie and her colleagues undertake are at bottom useful and necessary tends to narrow its examinations of American tactics to criticisms of individual fictional characters or actions, rather than of broader political or cultural narratives about America’s role in the world.

For example, there’s one instance in which a plan is being devised to take out a major terrorist thought to be hiding in a school, and one character plays a half-hearted “think of the children!” card, to which another character replies: “Don’t cloud the issue”. Thuddingly unsubtle or not, this scene casts the show’s patriotism, its portrayal of its CIA agents as flawed but dedicated people determined to do what it takes to defend ‘Merica, in a decidedly jaundiced light, particularly given the escalation of the US’ drone attacks under the Obama administration. It is, however, a scene that presents this atrocity as the work of specific assholes in a room, rather than of the broader apparatus of the righteous war on terror.

The scenes following Carrie’s crusade against Brody, which stands at the heart of the narrative, are perhaps even more frightening, illustrating as they do her penetration and observation of every element of his family’s private lives. At one moment after she’s been bugging the Brody home for several weeks, for instance, Carrie is sitting watching her camera feeds, scarfing down snacks while Brody gets changed in his bathroom, having a one-sided conversation with him, telling him that no no, you left that hanging on the back of the door. She’s nonconsensually familiar with him and his personal sphere in a way we assume, wrongly, no one can be. His life has become a kind of tv show she watches. It is, needless to say, not a moment that makes Carrie — or, crucially, her profession — look very good. And, of course, it has an extra little kick of nightmarish possibility in the wake of the recent revelations about the NSA’s “Prism” practices. But, close to the bone as the show sometimes cuts, it’s just unavoidable that Carrie is ultimately right to violate Brody’s privacy, and to suspect most of the people she suspects, because the show constructs an America that is as embattled as a war on terror apologist’s most paranoid fantasies would have us believe it is.

The show has two faces, and both are Carrie’s face: It has the face that knows, as Carrie shouts in desperation, “this is a fucked up business”, that many compromises are made in the name of America’s safety. And on the other hand it has the face that needs to believe that America should and still does come first, must come first, and that the sacrifices and ethical compromises necessary to achieve this, while they can be acknowledged as terrible, are still ultimately justified and essential. That there are tasks the accomplishment of which is worth the sacrifice of civil liberties and of life. This second face is, I would argue, the controlling intelligence behind the show much of the time. It’s this controlling intelligence that, while it often paints individual Muslim characters as sympathetic, sometimes plays freaky disorienting I-am-culturally-alienated-right-now space invaders music when muslims appear and runs prayers in arabic through creepy deep audio filters that make them sound very ominous and such like, and gives the CIA characters rare but dazzlingly stupid pieces of dialogue about how terrorist cells operate based on the culture of their “nomadic” ancestors. And it is, perhaps, also this controlling intelligence that ensures the show does not have any notable terrorist characters to set alongside the three leads whose intricacies I waxed lyrical about last time — there’s a terrorist leader, and he’s somewhat dynamic, but no terrorist in Homeland is focused on as a recognizably complex human subject the way the protagonists are. It’s very interesting to watch these two impulses come into conflict, and the first of them feels like it’s genuinely striving to approach the show’s subject matter from a mature, considered angle, but I’d argue it’s ultimately the second that’s driving.

The anxieties that Homeland cannot suppress — that America really is in danger, that we really can catch the bad men if we do the unthinkable and give up our privacy, and it sucks but it has to be done — feel like they might be born out of the moment of the show’s production. I don’t mean just out of the moment of the war on terror, because no duh, but more generally out of a moment in which America remains mighty but is Goliath no longer. The passing away of America’s air of untouchable supremacy in favour of a sense of precarity is something a show like Homeland cannot contemplate in an academic, detached kind of way. As critical as it is of many of America’s policies, Homeland’s just not sure how it feels about telling a story about national and personal vulnerability in a land in which, post 9/11 fear culture constantly reminds us, the idea of such national vulnerability is no longer wholly academic.

For me, the show’s portrayal of Carrie’s methods and the lengths to which she is willing to go, if it presented itself as wanting to be taken seriously as a discussion of patriotic espionage and national security intelligence work, would raise some very substantial questions about whether this work and the attitudes it breeds are justified. But Homeland only wants to toy with those questions. Homeland isn’t really in the questioning business. Because, while it is more than willing to make its CIA operatives complex and not always admirable personalities, Homeland starts from the basic assumption that the work they do is pretty much inevitably right and good, even if it goes wrong in some specific instances, and this baseline assumption is not open for discussion. Because of this, I can’t ultimately recommend the show. As problematic as the pursuit of the endless whirl of shady muslim villains and the sympathetic parade of muslim patsies who do their work unwillingly is the show has pace and style and dramatic power. Several of the digs at the war on terror do stick, not enough, but some. The characters are fascinating, and almost worth the price of admission by themselves. Saul is a treasure, and it’s almost worth watching just to listen to him speak to people. The good stuff is present. But there’s often a lot of the Catch-The-Dangerous-Muslims Hour to wade through before you get to that good stuff, and while I’m personally glad I watched the show I think I have to come down on the side of it not being quite worth the time, and have no particular plans to watch season 2.

I started this discussion with a quote from another, far more brute force and satirical exploration of American power, Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Team America: World Police, and I think it’s appropriate to end where we began, because of symetry and stuff. Parker and Stone are ripping the stuffing out of Bush-era nationalism and action films in a very blunt way when their script shouts “America”, and follows up with its heartfelt “FUCK YEAH!” Homeland approaches America as a central concern as well, of course; America is on the show’s mind just as it is on Parker and Stone’s, just in a more considered, but, I would argue, ultimately maybe less perceptive way. The show isn’t so oblivious as to wholeheartedly embrace the macho nationalistic exceptionalism Parker and Stone are pissing on so energetically in Team America. It’s cry of “America” isn’t a full-throated roar, but kind of querulous. It comes with question mark attached. “America?”, Homeland asks. And it pauses, and it thinks, it’s very capable of thinking. But, because of the format it chooses and the moment of its telling, for Homeland there can only really be one answer. Muted, qualified, not shouted out in the verbal all caps Parker and Stone are parodying, but one answer all the same:

“America?”

“Fuck yeah.”

So This Show Homeland Is, Um, Not That Perceptive: Post 9/11 Surveillance Culture and American Vulnerability on TV, Part 2

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Okay, so in this post we’re going to work our way back to exploring the problems I introduced last time surrounding the difficulty Homeland has in launching meaningful critiques of surveillance and the American “war on terror”. However, I think it’s only fair to work our way around to them via an acknowledgement of what Homeland gets very right, which is its characters. Admittedly, not all the points I’m preparing to make here are directly related to my critique of the show’s approach to the “war on terror”, but this is a blog post and I can frolic in the fields of digression when I want, and I have enough rotten vegetables to fling at Homeland that I think it’s important to acknowledge that there are areas in which it is good, even exceptional.

So good stuff first: Even without being able to see I can tell there’s some top shelf acting in this puppy, really strong and nuanced character work. Brody, the US marine and former prisoner of war Carrie Mathison’s so suspicious of, is an intriguingly complex man played with a large dose of subtlety by actor Damian Lewis. To all appearances he’s the stuff of a conservative American’s most comfortable dreams: a strong, God-loving young man who married his high school sweetheart, had two kids, bought a nice house, served his country with distinction in the armed forces overseas. And he is all these things. But Brody has been out into the world and seen some of the work that America does there, and these experiences have not left him unchanged. His portrayal throughout the season, sensationalist though some of the “PLOT TWIST!” revelations about his time as a prisoner are, delicately maps out the uncertain path taken by a deeply conflicted soul who loves his family and his life in the land of the free and the home of the brave, loves America’s history and people and laws, but is not one-hundred percent comfortable with how America’s legacy is being carried forward. It’s top shit, and only grows more fascinating as the motivations behind the character’s initially murky, somewhat aggravating behaviour grow clearer near the end of the season and he is forced into making big choices about his world view and what he values most.

Carrie’s CIA mentor Saul Berenson is also fascinating, and as the season went on I found I was paying more and more attention to him and his reactions to other characters. This is partly because he’s played by a man named Mandy Patinkin who has a flat out amazing voice. Nobody can deal out clipped and self-controlled like this man; nobody can lay truth down like this man; his weathered cynicism and dry humour razors through the bullshit that surrounds him, punctures illusions even as he creates more of them — he is, after all, a spy. While Carrie and Brody careen around more and more frantically he stays still, always watching. I began looking to him more and more as the show’s guidepost, as an indicator of how I was supposed to feel about what was going on, a sort of laconic one-man Greek chorus who says little, but whose words and silences have weight. Was a particular plot point meant as a critique of a character or a world view or an institution? What was Saul saying about it? He’s hardly an unproblematic guide, though. Nor is he, the self-made American, raised Jewish, any more of a posterchild for the same kind of success made in the US of A that Brody, one of the country’s most favoured sons, finds so difficult to live with. For all that I’m shortly going to start criticizing its inability to stay the course of its complexity Homeland’s never that simple. Saul is a first class spy and a good person, but he is also a man with a barren wasteland where a personal life normally goes, a man who, as an immigrant geographically and culturally, has thrown his lot in with America and received very little in return for his willingness to jump into the melting pot. He’s one of the most knowledgeable, committed, and dedicated members of the American counterterrorism project as the show imagines it, but, we come to understand, his constant activity on behalf of the intelligence machine is a form of frantic dancing above the gaping abyss of a life that might turn out, if he had time to pause and take a look at it — and he makes certain he does not –, to not have a great deal of meaning.

This leaves Carrie, played with intensity by Claire Danes, a character who is simultaneously one of the show’s greatest assets and one of the most convenient windows on its ultimate inability to keep its thematic shit together. Carrie is a brilliant CIA analyst and field agent who has, in a credulity-popping stretch, worked for the gubmint for something like a decade without any of her superiors knowing she has a bipolar disorder, which she self-medicates using pills her psychiatrist sister gets for her on the down-low. (Her sister Maggie is, understandably, one of the most perpetually worried characters I have encountered on recent tv; being worried is pretty much her thing.) There’s not a lot I can say about whether Carrie is in any way an accurate or productive portrayal of a bipolar person, but what I really like about her characterization is that her mood swings are not glamorized — as is, for instance, the cold boredom and analytical disdain for people that comes along with Sherlock Holmes’ voracious intelligence in the BBC’s Sherlock. She’s definitely portrayed as being something of a manic genius, but her condition is positioned as a massive obstacle around which she must work, rather than being romanticized as something that somehow allows her to be a better spy. Her mental health, while it has a massive impact on her life and is central to her role in the show, is also hardly the only thing that defines her, as it shades seamlessly into a driven, intensely work and crisis-focused personality in complex ways that make it impossible to state reductively that certain parts of Carrie’s behaviour are influenced by her disorder while others are not. Carrie’s a talented woman bounce/falling from crisis to crisis like a pinball that has attitude problems and shouts “fuck!” all the time (this pinball can speak, apparently), always on the edge of collapse and/or extreme transgression. She is a chronic line-crosser and rule-breaker, constantly alienating friends and allies and stretching her mandate to pursue the leads she’s convinced will bear conspiratorial fruit.

And now we’re working our way back around to the stuff what, in my mind, doesn’t quite work. As Carrie makes clear when she justifies herself early on by saying “I’m just making sure we don’t get hit again!”, all this line-crossing and rule-breaking is done in the name of desperately working to fend off another 9/11-style attack. Carrie is haunted by the vulnerability of America, by the penetrability that 9-11 represents. This nebulous threat is, for Carrie, fearsome enough to justify any action, any infringement on the rights of individuals, and the discovery of specific plots is almost a relief, because it eases — just for a moment, always just for a moment — that sense that, in this brave new world, America’s vulnerable underbelly is perpetually exposed. Carrie often comes off as desperately needing people, Brody in particular but also just people, to be connected to massive conspiracies with attack on America as their goal. Part of this need is certainly the desperation of the career risk-taker one screwup away from some very serious heat from her organization’s top people, and the show definitely casts a lingering eye over this kind of bureaucratic, self-serving sharktank culture that emphasizes career building over the protection of the country and turns security into politics. (One subplot brings Carrie into conflict with an FBI supervisor defending two of his agents who opened fire in a mosque, for example.) But another and larger part of Carrie’s need for conspiracy seems to me like a need for the validation of personal narrative: Carrie needs America’s monsters to be real, and therefore stoppable, in order to make her life livable. This motivation is made billboard explicit in a hurtfully maudlin after school special kind of scene in one of the middle episodes in which she reassures her sister Maggie’s kids that the mean terrorist monsters won’t get them while Aunt Carrie’s on duty, in the process rediscovering her heart for the good fight after nearly quitting. [Yes, Homeland pulls the innocent-child-helps-adult-find-clarity-and-purpose-and-the-true-meaning-of-Christmas trick, one of several little accidents the narrative has when its attempts to make complex mature storytelling hold hands with mass audience-pleasing thrilltimes go tragically nuclear.] It is essential for the day-by-day validation of her world view that America be in danger, that there be bad guys to catch. As I hope I’ve made clear, Carrie’s a fascinating figure, and this exploration of paranoia as a way of life is perhaps her character’s most fascinating element, but this is also where things get weird. Because the show can’t really dissect this attitude, this fear culture in which Carrie stews, because she’s right. There is a grand conspiracy. And so the show ends up feeling like it’s invested in America’s vulnerability right along with Carrie. It’s a shame. It ensures that the show stops short of delivering the final stroke of a potential critique. While Homeland questions the contract that the western world has made with its authorities, that if we place our civil liberties upon the altar of sacrifice these authorities will shield us from all the scary bad men with the turbins and the machine guns, it does ultimately reflect this version of reality, because, in Homeland’s vision of ‘Merica, there really are supersecret cells of jihadists to be afraid of, and people really should be worried. And because Homeland stands divided against itself in this way, no matter how many individual breath-takingly well-crafted scenes there may be, the show as a whole has trouble being about much of anything, has trouble constructing a coherent thematic argument or critique.

So This Show Homeland Is, Um, Not That Perceptive: Post 9/11 Surveillance Culture and American Vulnerability on TV, Part 1

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“America, FUCK YEAH!
Comin’ again, to save the motherfuckin’ day yeah.
America, FUCK YEAH!
Freedom is the only way yeah.
Terrorist, your game is through,
cuz now you have to answer to,
America, FUCK YEAH!”

— Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Team America: World Police

I’ve got a surprising love for fiction about institutions I find, in many contexts, varying degrees of worrying in real life. Spy stories and political thrillers are two such story types. So when I heard about Homeland, a new (well, two years old, I’m slow) spy drama focusing on surveillance in the United States and the conduct of the “war on terror” both on American soil and abroad I was pretty stoked. Watching the show’s first season turned out to be a fascinating experience, though often an unexpectedly frustrating one. In my first crack at this opening paragraph what I put here was something like “It felt weird to go into Homeland with such expectations and feel myself disconnect in realtime as it became increasingly clear the show was considerably stupider than I’d assumed it would be”, but that’s not really fair. Better, maybe, to say that by the final couple hours of the first season’s twelve episode run I was suffering the conceptual whiplash of discovering that the show I was watching was not the show I thought it was, the whiplash of my personal conception of the show and the reading I found the actual content of the show most readily supported coming into conflict. I personally was trying to watch a show about the moral compromises that try and often fail to keep a nation secure and the decline of the impenetrable American empire. But I’m not sure that’s the show Homeland thinks it is, the show its creators are making.

Before I explain what I mean by this, we need some background on the show. Homeland’s premise goes like this: CIA agent Carrie Mathison is in Iraq, running around being worried and making intense faces at people and generally doing spy stuff, when she is told by a contact with moments to live that an American prisoner of war has been turned by Al-Qaeda. Less than a year later, a raid on a terrorist camp turns up a United States marine, Sergeant Nicholas Brody, taken prisoner in Afghanistan over half a decade ago and presumed long dead. Carrie is convinced this is the prisoner her contact was referring to. Counter Terrorism Centre director David Estes, Carrie’s boss, is convinced both Carrie and her contact are full of shit. His perspective is clouded by Carrie’s recent failures in the field, an affair Estes and Carrie had that finished Estes’ marriage (this is the first hint we’re getting here that Homeland is, well, very much tv), and, perhaps most tellingly, the fact that many in Washington would really rather the triumphal rescue of all-American hero Sergeant Brody remain a bright spot in the mind of the electorate unmarred by his turning out to be a terrorist out for American blood in the home country. Saul Berenson, Carrie’s mentor at the CIA, is convinced of nothing, but is receptive to Carrie’s concerns, urging her to proceed with caution. Carrie Mathison considers caution to be for other people, so she sets out to bug Brody’s house illegally and follow him every-fucking-where.

Meanwhile, Brody’s wife and children haven’t seen him in eight years. Jessica, his wife, is in a new relationship, with Brody’s old best manfriend from the army, in fact, but cannot bring herself to reveal this to Brody in the first rush of joy at his return (more tv!) His two kids can’t really remember their father very well. Twelve-year-old Chris is shy. Fifteen-year-old Dana is very teenage and resentful and yeah whatever about the whole situation but secretly has daddy issues. Brody himself finds that he’s reacting to his return to America in a complex way, overjoyed to be back with his family but profoundly dislocated, often haunted by traumatic dreams that explain his backstory in convenient sequential fragments and subject to occasional violent outbursts. And he gets strange phone calls. And goes to visit strange people, without telling his family. In short, he has secrets! Because tv!

It’s hard to say much of use about Homeland’s approach to the war on terror without traipsing into major spoilers, particularly whether there is indeed a conspiracy to launch a major terrorist attack on American soil, and whether Carrie is right about Brody’s status as a double agent. Still, at risk of some cynicism, I’m gonna justify some light spoilers based on the genre of the show: This is a spy show. Ergo its main characters need some shit to spy upon. It’s a conspiracy thriller. So there needs to be some sort of actual conspiracy at some point. It’s kind of a requirement, you know? Based on these assumptions, we can probably all divine that, whether Carrie is right about everything or not, something nefarious is indeed going down, and that her hyper-paranoid suspicions about Brody are in some way instrumental in bringing this something to light. The show needs something to fuel its engine, and having chosen international terrorist conspiracy it inevitably has to gas up and drink deep eventually, otherwise it’s not entertaining. And so, having started the show focused on Carrie’s alarming invasion of Brody’s privacy, we end up with manhunts for sneaky terrorist infiltrators from Saudi Arabia cunningly masquerading as professors at good ‘Merican universities, daring attempts by brave American civilians who work for oil sheiks with terrorist connections to pass information back to the CIA at great personal risk, and tense interrogations of crooked foreign diplomats from Muslim countries. This is the fundamental contradiction in which Homeland finds itself caught: It is a show purporting to examine surveillance culture and the effects of American patriotism and exceptionalism on the world stage, but one in which these things are always inherently justifiable and right, because there is indeed something to be frightened of and America really is under threat. In launching this criticism and exploring it over the next couple posts I’m not trying to deny that there are in fact terrorists, that some terrorists are motivated by what they claim to be interpretations of the tenets of Islam, and that Al’Qaeda is a real organization that does very tangible harm. However, Homeland’s entertaining approach to these grave realities feels to me very much like knee-jerk fear rather than analysis.

There’s a part of me that can’t really blame Homeland for this. I mean, come on. It’s a thriller. It must thrill. It was Iron Man 3, and some of my friends’ reactions to the third act twist in that film, that most recently reminded me that often people really do want a narrative to deliver more or less what it says on the box it’s gonna do, and I think it’s important to remember this when considering the context in which Homeland is putting on its show. Conspiracy stories in which there really is no grand conspiracy, conspiracy stories that act as a reflection on the fruitlessness and paranoia and moral equivalency inherent in the violation of the rights of other citizens, of the nation and of the world, so routine in the prosecution of an unethical enterprise like the war on terror, don’t catch and keep millions of eyeballs on Sunday nights. I don’t wanna imply that millions of eyeballs on Sunday nights are dumb or undiscerning; that’s stupid and elitist. But millions of eyeballs on Sunday nights don’t just wanna sit there and stroke their eyeball chins and think thoughts about the futility of the war on terror and America’s increasing precarity. Millions of eyeballs on Sunday nights are open to complexity, sure, to long drawn-out strategies and emotional tangles, especially if they involve photogenic people, and they’re open to a certain muddying of the ethical waters, too, but they like it when questions have answers and strategies and entanglements come with dramatic payoff. Millions of eyeballs on Sunday nights don’t turn on Homeland the post 9/11 conspiracy thriller to have American fear culture probed and deflated, they turn on Homeland because they wanna watch the CIA catch some fuckin’ bad guys. And Homeland wants millions of eyeballs on Sunday nights.

But I think Homeland’s impulse toward predictably sinister jihadist conspiracies might be a little more than just pandering to its audience. Specifically, in this moment of American precarity, I think the show might find it kind of tough to surrender the assumption that the war on terror is basically a good thing. I’ll talk about how I see this reluctance manifested in the show over the next two posts.

2012 Reading: Wide Open by Deborah Coates

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Coates’ first novel is a much quieter take on contemporary fantasy than Butcher’s Cold Days, which I talked about last time. Wide Open’s a story of ghosts and elemental magic set on the South Dakota prairie. Sgt. Hallie Michaels is home on compassionate leave because her sister just died in a car crash, but she’s still seeing the ghosts that began to haunt her during her tour of duty in Afghanistan, only now there is an additional ghostly presence because the car crash that supposedly killed her sister was totally not a car crash.

Hallie pursues her investigation of her sister Dell’s death with an understated determination, very unshowy but very single-minded, that makes her an enjoyable character, and there’s a lot to recommend the novel just in general. The evocation of the South Dakota prairie setting, of the wide fields and the ranch and the big sky, is very atmospheric, as is the addition of magic to this milieux, with thunder and fire rolling over the plain taking on an electric tingle of rural gothic power that communicates the already significant force of the weather in the lives of the characters rather than fabricating magic unrelated to the prairie. The writing comes in short sentences. Sharp and choppy, like a person with rough edges. Sometimes without nouns or subjects, because fuck those. This is raw, expressive writing, not overly concerned with grammar.

All that acknowledged, I was not quite feeling it. The villain, for one thing, is distinctly weaksauce, I think; there’s an interesting undercurrent about big business in the small town that comes along with this villain, but his or her presence and story arc as an individual doesn’t have a lot of force to it, at least not for me. The book also isn’t the greatest at building action, at the slow accumulation of tension; it’s not that it can’t do it, it’s that it sometimes does it too well, as the story kind of trundles along very gradually picking up components until suddenly it’s like holy shit the show’s almost over we must expand the implications of the mythology and dump all the information and things now before it’s too late and oh wow now it’s climax time and where did all that nice slow buildup go?!

There is also a young deputy sheriff in the novel; his name is Boyd, and he’s a problem. He’s a problem because the growing attraction between Hallie and Boyd feels a little bit superfluous, almost like it’s obligatory, like something that’s there because there’s always a romance in these things and well I guess since it’s worked before and there’s a girl in the story and there’s a boy in the story and everybody’s here anyway why not just give in to narrative gravity and the hell with it? Let me be clear: I don’t actually object to a certain amount of “romance” in things that I read, necessarily, beyond the obligatory grumbling done to support my image as somebody with no soul whatsoever, just to the wrote predictability of a romance subplot that feels like it’s included because someone thinks there’s supposed to be one rather than because it is good for the story. The incipient relationship itself isn’t necessarily bad all the time; it fills in some details of Hallie’s character intriguingly. It just doesn’t feel like it’s a part of the story with a particular spark or a reason to be.

And hey, you know, I think that might sum up my overall problem: The emotional arcs of the characters, Hallie’s in particular but also Boyd’s to the extent that he’s got one in this first book, don’t feel like they quite hook in to the unspooling progress of the plot. Narrative and character feel like they’re working at different speeds, to different ends. A book with much to recommend it, stylistically, in its setting, and in its lead character, but with a number of problems that for me personally held the excellent elements back quite a bit. There will apparently be two more Hallie novels; the second one, Deep Down, is out already, and the third, Strange Country, is forthcoming sooner than later. Wide Open stands well alone.

Recommended: If you like supernatural tales or ghost stories set in atmospheric rural environments you should at least try this.

Avoid: See, this is where I run into trouble, because it’s tough to say precisely what doesn’t quite work for me. I suppose it’s a good example of how some unidentifiable thing about an author’s style considered as a whole sometimes just doesn’t click with a particular reader, even if that reader likes some of the individual elements a lot. There is that deliberate stylistic choppiness, which might bug you if you don’t like very pronounced techniques to create atmosphere in prose — it’s a very laconic, less-is-more kinda technique, as opposed to an elaborate showy technique, but it’s still a very visible technique.

2012 Reading: Cold Days by Jim Butcher

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Behold and rejoice, oh ye nerd faithful, for here be the fourteenth — yes, fourteenth — book in Butcher’s long-running Dresden Files urban fantasy series about Harry Dresden, Chicago’s only practicing wizard and defender against vampires, demons, dickish werewolves (there are also nice werewolves), malicious faeries, and other supernatural uglies. I know Butcher’s popularity is such that if you give a shit it is exceedingly likely you have read Cold Days already, but it seems I still have a scary amount to say about it, or at least my personal, slightly disturbed reaction to it as someone who’s liked The Dresden Files for quite a while and would like to continue to do so, but is starting to get worried by where the train is going.

This installment concludes a sort of unofficial trilogy, picking up close on the heels of Book Thirteen, Ghost Story, and closing with a barrage of big events that feel as though they establish a new status quo for the series, at least in the short term. This means I can’t say much useful about the plot that doesn’t sound something like this: “Harry finds himself imprisoned by Spoiler and forced to begin learning to act on Spoiler’s behalf as the spoiler, as a result of the pact he made earlier in the series in order to rescue his spoiler from the spoilers, but his first mission in this capacity requires that he return to Chicago where he gets caught up in the efforts to defend against an attack on the spoiler, and in the increasingly beset and chaotic lives of his friends who have worked to hold the line during his enforced absence due to his spoiler.” So that’s, you know, not that helpful.

My approach to the Dresden Files has long been to treat them like literary pizza pops: Looked at from certain snobbish angles there might not be that much to them. They’re fantasy action flicks that rely on an ever-accelerating pace, digestible prose, barrages of quippy humour, and a series of lovingly-described fight scenes that inevitably culminate in a big magical clobberfest at the end. They’re kind of formulaic. But I don’t care, because if I’m in the right mood wow damn do they taste good, and the weight of familiarity with this “taste”, with the characters and what’s come before, makes reading a new one profoundly comfortable even as the series’ overarching storyline grows increasingly grim. Cold Days is no exception, and in fact I’d say it delivers on Dresden fans’ expectations more effectively than the previous novel, Ghost Story. The book’s a heaping helping of snark and plot bombshells and magical kickass for fans of the series, and though the bloom is definitely off the rose a bit at this point I’d still count myself as one of those in a qualified way, but I think it does have some issues:

The first of these issues is structural, and is not really that big a deal. In some ways Cold Days feels a little flabby, in that it doesn’t race to the target with the punch and focus of earlier Dresden novels; instead, there’s so much going on that plot arcs keep interrupting each other. In the moment this feels mostly good, because more subplots means more of the characters series readers have gotten attached to during previous installments doing more cool things, but it also means that some things which are really kind of important get tossed to the side for long stretches, because the book can’t move with the single-minded rush of a thriller when it has so much ground to cover. In particular, major revelations about the overarching series plot in the middle of the book, while plenty interesting for series fans, feel like they move the focus away from the crisis being dealt with in this individual book. The reader can only invest in so many cosmic threats to life itself before overload sets in, you know. It’s like the book has so many balls in the air it has no choice but to periodically forget about some of them. More of a value-neutral adjustment than a negative, reflecting the more epic direction in which the series is heading; it just feels like Butcher hasn’t quite got the pacing for this more broad-canvas, sweeping version of a Dresden novel down yet.

More troublesome is Harry Dresden’s characterization in this latest book, and its implications outside of the narrative. Due to plot magics Harry finds himself struggling with his amped up primal urges throughout this novel, as a malevolent force attempts to subordinate his identity, and the result feels like a really horny version of Wolverine who becomes both unnerving and tiring to read about. The Dresden Files has long had an odd relationship with its female characters, on the one hand always striving to portray the numerous women with major roles in the story as competent and powerful individuals, while on the other nursing two simultaneous major hangups in regard to these same figures. The first of said hangups is, well, about physical appearance; Harry’s first person narration is usually pretty detailed about describing most important characters thoroughly regardless of how many X chromosomes they’ve got, but many of the women get what we might call “special attention”. The second hangup is in regards to how and when sexuality is deployed: there are a lot of villains in this series whose villainy manifests itself via attempts to influence Harry sexually, and they’re all women; it’s become kind of a thing [there are some male villains who theoretically operate in this way in the shape of the White Court of lust vampires, but they’re rarely deployed against the protagonists]. On an individual basis I’ve often found that the series treats most of its women very respectfully and makes them awesome and pivotal parts of the story. However, viewed as a trend these dual preoccupations give the series’ overall attitude a leering, cave-mannish bent that undeniably attaches a particular sexualized emphasis to being female that does not have any kind of counterpart among the male characters, and might best be summed up as “sex bad, but girl so preeeeeeeeetty”, which describes a broader line of twisted pretzelthink that is relatively common in the sort of genre literature directed foremost at young men.

This time around, Harry’s state of mind exaggerates these tendencies from worrying but ignorable quirks into unavoidable problems, transforming the book’s otherwise wonderfully action-packed plot into a soup of hypersexualization and mine-is-bigger posturing. Harry stomps his way through the narrative like a bull elephant in heat, the desire to smash and kill and “sex bad, but girl so preeeetty” exploding over the page at every turn in massive gouts of total bullshit. [This being said, some of Harry’s struggles to keep his inner Conan the Barbarian on the chain are quite funny if you’re willing to read against the book a little bit.] This gives the story’s popcorn entertainment value a distinctly unpleasant undercurrent and this may in a sense be what Butcher is going for: Harry is not a mentally well person in Cold Days, and the narration’s icky undertones mirror his huge discomfort in his own skin, the skin that — for reasons to do with spoilerage — is no longer fully his. That this imbalance in Harry’s narration is intentional and present to a narrative purpose doesn’t, unfortunately, alleviate the problems or make it fun to read – unless you’re reading it for unintentional machismo humour, like an unselfconscious version of an Old Spice commercial. To Butcher’s credit, the book makes Harry’s mental state the specific focus of several effective scenes with his closest friends that help the book engage with his state of mind at least a little bit beyond the growly posturing and unnerving lustful internal struggles it often falls back on.

One of Butcher’s greatest strengths as a writer, for me, is his ability to invest very pulpy archetypes with just enough individuality and a lot of positive meaning, so that they bear weight in the reader’s mind when the story asks it of them: Murphy, the tiny cop lady who’s tougher than she looks. Harry, shaggy, beardy, with his wizard’s staff and leather duster blending a younger, taller version of Ye-Wise-Old-Wizard with the hard-bitten, grizzled man of noire, his blundering kindness and sense of justice persistent throughout his internal battle for his soul. Mollie, the super-good-looking [she’s a Dresden Files character; it’s almost a requirement] dangerous young woman with great destructive potential but great power to do good as well. John Marcone, the cold-eyed psychopathic gangster who just can’t forgive himself for that one thing. Etc. These types are thoroughly trope-dependent, but Butcher is very good at colouring the tropes in with positive association and nuance, at making the story about these unique if pulpy individuals rather than something that can be taken as more emblematic, ameliorating the book’s uncomfortable vibes. But only ameliorating, and, after some thought, it is not enough for me. It is not enough in the world in which we live, in which foregrounding a character like this ‘roided-up sex-crazed version of Harry Dresden, a near-iconic figure in popular fantasy at this point, in order to explore his own discomfort with the thing he is becoming inevitably makes the story first and foremost about him, rather than those [mostly women, but men too] threatened by him and those like him.

These major — apparently very major; I didn’t know I had quite such an issue until I started writing — complaints aside, you know what? this book gave me much that I was looking for: It gave me a lot of time with characters I’ve grown very comfortable with, and there was badassery with a firm and reassuring moral compass, and there were explosions and world-ending magics and a motorbike that flew. Plus there’s a twist, and I think it’s a good twist, the best kind in fact: significant for the dynamics between the characters and with big plot implications for future books. An improvement on Ghost Story, and a great — though notably more problematic than usual, stylistically and sociopolitically — installment of the series for fans. I got a lot out of Cold Days on a purely narrative level, and that’s important, that’s not to be sneezed at, that’s the book’s primary purpose. But I didn’t always feel very comfortable or happy about what was coming packaged with this narrative. It’s like an intrusive extra topping you can’t opt out of that seeps into everything else on an otherwise delicious sandwich, except it’s machismo and hypersexualization instead of horse raddish. Problem is, once you’ve noticed that flavour’s in there, colouring your experience of the narrative sandwich, it ain’t never coming out again.

Recommended: Well, I’d recommend the book to established Butcher fans, of course; that’s a no-brainer, so much of a no-brainer as to be borderline useless, since they’ve all read it already. Who would I recommend the book, and the series, to other than established fans? Good question. I once read an interview with Butcher in which he said that his goal as a writer is pretty specifically to be “the Popcorn King”, and Cold Days, along with the other Dresden Files novels, makes a good argument for his skills in this field: The prose is digestible and undemanding, but fluid and often full of snark, and if I’m in the right mood it basically reads itself. There’s a motorbike that flies; there’s a skull that talks and is a pervert; Harry has a gang of tiny, tiny pixies who serve him as long as he regularly gives them Pizza and call themselves “The Za Lord’s Guard”; a Norse god runs a security company and Mab the Queen of Air and Darkness psychologically harasses the protagonist all the time. Does that all sound cool? If so, then you might like these. It’s tough to recommend Cold Days in and of itself as a reason to start the series, just because of the gender politics problem I had with it, since even though it’s just the one problem it’s a bit of a show-stopper. However, earlier installments, though they start out somewhat clunky, grow into increasingly fun popcorn reads set in a broad world drawn from fantasy’s character and creature trope toybox but stitched together in an entertaining and cohesive way, and if you can mentally skip around the problems Cold Days does continue in this fine tradition. Starting the Dresden Files somewhere other than book 1 is fine (I started with either the second one or book 7, I can’t even remember), but these most recent few have definitely asked for more knowledge of the overarching series plot. Start with book 1, Storm Front, or with anything up until about book 8, Proven Guilty. They get better as they go, I found; book 1 was a little bit meh, but by book 4 or 5 the series was hitting its stride as fantasy-inflected action films in novel form. Book 7, Dead Beat, might be a good spot if you want an immediate impression of whether the series is for you, since it shows the adventurous elements at their best and has a zombie T-rex in it.

Avoid: Well, again, if you haven’t read the previous books I’d say start at the beginning, or at least much earlier, if you’re interested. Also avoid if you prefer a less adrenaline-focused and more intellectual approach to fantasy set in the modern world, like Charles De Lint or Neil Gaiman or Pamela Dean. And if you don’t like huge burping machismo volcanoes getting all up in the books you read this might not be a great use of time. Oh, and it’s worth noting that the Dresden Files are often sold as fantasy meets detective fiction. This is indeed the vibe, particularly early in the series, but I’d advise against reading them as mystery novels. My experience with mysteries is admittedly minuscule, but I find that Butcher’s novels are best viewed as fantasies with fun detective story trappings, and don’t work very satisfyingly as straight who-dun-its due to their reliance on magic.