Review: Captain’s Fury, by Jim Butcher

This is the fourth book in Butcher’s epic fantasy Fury series. Here we follow Tavi and others as they repel the Canim invasion and battle against a rebellious High Lord. There are a fair number of dark deeds done because the alternative was worse, but in the end, good prevails, of a sort.

As for Tavi’s personal journey, he… hmm, this gets hard without getting into spoiler territory. He picks up some new skills and learns some more about his personal history. He continues to kick butt in various ways and inspires a surprising collection of supporters to kick butt for him. And as always, he shows that in a world of dark sorcery and elemental furies, the best weapon is still calm intelligence.

I did enjoy this one quite a bit, though I have to say I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as the previous book Cursor’s Fury. The writing was superb, of course, and the characters were compelling. I suspect that this time, however, the plot was not as gripping as the previous one. There was simply too much time spent getting from point A to point B, sometimes plotwise and other times geographically. Thus, when the various plots reached their climax, I felt they were about 100 pages overdue.

Not that this is going to stop me from going after the last two. I’m definitely seeing this one through to the end.

Review: Side Jobs, by Jim Butcher

This is a collection of short stories from the Dresden Files:

I’m going to start off with two opposing disclaimers. First, I don’t really read that much short fiction anymore. I used to, but somewhere along the way, it lost its appeal. Second, the Harry Dresden series is one of the best things I’ve read in my life, so I’m predisposed to like this… except, of course, for the short form.

These stories occur between the various novels, and there’s a little forward for each one saying when it occurs and how he came to write it. Often these stories were requested for anthologies, so the story behind the anthology was a little interesting as well. Anyway, the stories started from perhaps halfway through the series so far (i.e. maybe as early as book 5 or 6), all the way to one story that occurred between Changes and Ghost Story.

By and large, these were good stories, and I enjoyed them. Perhaps my biggest complaint was the short form, but I already said I’m biased against that. That stripped the tales of a lot of the wonderful character and world building that they’re known for, and then just as the story really started ramping up, it was over. But what else are you going to do in 8,000 words?

Two stories in particular stood out from the rest, largely because they were not written from Harry Dresden’s point of view. Now, I love Dresden’s first person narrative voice, but the tales done from Thomas’s and Murphy’s points of view were fabulous.

Thomas’s tale dealt with a subject that, by its very nature, Harry was never going to be able to narrate. It was about an effort to intentionally obscure and hide things, which tends to be the very opposite of Harry’s modus operandi. Thomas, however, is well-versed in keeping secrets, and it was great to get his view of the magical world.

Murphy’s tale takes place between Changes and Ghost Story. It’s a time when Harry Dresden is, shall we say, indisposed. Given what the magical side of Chicago looks like at the start of Ghost Story, this story provides a powerful glimpse at the desperate resolve of his friends picking up the fight in his absence.

So, if you’re a fan of Harry Dresden, definitely check this out. If you haven’t read them yet, though, go pick up Storm Front and start reading.

Harsh on Beginnings

Lately, I have become a very harsh judge on the opening pages of a novel – for that matter, on the opening line. If it doesn’t grab me early, I’m out of there.

I blame some of this on the Kindle. I’m more than willing to check out a new author or novel on the Kindle simply by downloading the free sample. However, there is a fair amount of crap out there, and I can usually tell within the first few pages. Maybe that’s unfair of me, but I’m not alone. Another author once said, “It rarely takes more than a page to recognize that you’re in the presence of someone who can write, but it only takes a sentence to know you’re dealing with someone who can’t.”

So if that opening doesn’t grab me, and the rest of the first page doesn’t do much to pull me in either, then I’m probably skimming by the second page. And if I’m still skimming by page 5, that’s it. I almost never press on to the end of the sample in that case. I already know. If your opening has turned me off, it’s not worth sticking around to hope you’re going to turn it around by chapter 2.

The other thing I blame it on is Jim Butcher. Okay, that’s an oversimplification, but it’s close. In the last five or ten years, I’ve been exposed to some absolutely fabulous openings, and a number of them were written by Mr. Butcher. Others include Lilith Saintcrow, O.M. Grey, and J.C. Hutchins. There have been others of course, but those are the ones springing to mind right now.

Just to tease you, here are some of the openings from their novels. They may not be exact, because I’m quoting them from memory. (That in itself should be a sign of how good they were.)

My working relationship with Lucifer began on a rainy Wednesday afternoon.

I was to be King.

The building was on fire, but this time it wasn’t my fault.

The president of the United States is dead. He was murdered in the morning sunlight by a four-year-old boy.

These grab my attention. They immediately pull me in and also leave a lot of questions unanswered. Your “working relationship”? Why were you not the King? Ok, whose fault is it? And what kind of four-year-old are we dealing with? I want to keep going to find out what’s going on, and by then these authors have hooked me even more deeply. Forget about skimming to page five. I’ve lost track of time by page five.

So now books without strong openings leave me flat, and if it’s a new author – even one who is good in all things but openings – I often don’t give them a chance. And I feel bad about that. I know that strong openings are something of a niche skill, and it’s a style that has only recently become more common. I look back at the SF/F books from the 70’s and 80’s, and many of them began with long expositions describing the world around us, or heaven forbid… prologues! Any many of them were really good books, but their openings sucked by comparison to some of the eye-grabby stuff we see now.

And the other reason I feel bad about it is that I recognize that my openings probably aren’t up to my own standards. Yes, I’ve tried to use my snap-judgment criteria to pump it up, but I don’t think they’re in the same league as Jim Butcher. (As an aside, Jim Butcher is great for readers… but terrible for writers’ egos. He’s just that much better than the rest of us.) So while I want to give others the same slack I’m hoping for, I’m just not willing to waste my limited reading time on someone who doesn’t grab me by the eyeball and suck me in.

Still, I think there’s hope for me. My openings are getting stronger, and the fact that I am such a harsh judge of openings means that I’m less likely to plop out a turd and hope for the best.

“It was a dark and swirly…” Nope. Gonna stop right there.

What are some of your favorite openings?