So I finally, finally finished the latest Dresden Files novel, Ghost Story. I think I am the last one on my flist to do so. Some folks gave it enthusiastic reviews, others were less than impressed. I have to admit to slogging through some tedium at times, which is part of the reason I took so long to finish it. The other part is, I only read non-interweb stuff for a short while before bed each night.
But see, there is a reason this book wasn’t the Best!DresdenFilesNovel!Ever! It was a bridge story. And bridge stories are traditionally kind of mediocre. A bridge story is a chapter in a book, a book/film in a series, or an episode in a TV series that transitions between two plot heavyweights. Writers use bridge stories for a lot of reasons: because the second heavyweight needs more set-up that would slow down the pace of the second heavyweight were the set-up placed within it, or to give viewers/readers (and themselves!) an emotional break before plunging them into more rising action. The second of those reasons is why bridge stories are often a little silly.
Examples of bridge stories? I’ll borrow from the Buffyverse: Bad Eggs. Go Fish. The Girl in Question. Among other things, Bad Eggs sets up Surprise/Innocence by dealing in a light, silly way with the topic of the consequences of sexual activity, and pours on the Buffy/Angel UST so you are not in the least surprised when they end up crossing the line one episode later. Go Fish allows the writers to feature a Snyder-Buffy showdown that makes it more believable when he expels her from school in Becoming. And The Girl in Question is how the writers deal with the one piece of baggage both Spike and Angel need to resolve before heading into the alley in Not Fade Away: their lingering belief that each of them will somehow end up with Buffy some day.
I became aware of the value of bridge stories when I was writing my virtual series, The Destroyer. You’re thinking, “Okay, I have 22 episodes here and I want to get to point B in the character journey, but not in next episode, that’s too soon. How do I stretch it out a little without the readers forgetting the basic conflict and themes I’m building?”
Ghost Story is the bridge story between Harry accepting the offer to becoming the Winter Knight and Harry actually becoming the Winter Knight. Among the things it sets up for us is the reassurance that his willingness to make a deal like that with Mab was not what it seemed: Harry never intended to go through with it, and his plan for avoiding it was to commit suicide-by-assassin.
But of course we know after how many odd novels in the series that Butcher isn’t going spare Harry that fate. And it seems pretty likely to plunge Harry into Darkness, given how much he was willing to compromise his principles to save his daughter in Changes, a darkness that would be unpalatable to his avid fans (us)*.
So Ghost!Harry is a story bridge plot device to rinse the gray out Harry before he winds up literally in Mab’s clutches**. Which may seem like a bit of a cop-out to those of us weened on the Buffyverse. We’ve gotten used to sitting on the edge of our seats, wondering if our hero really has gone too far to the Dark Side, and then being kind of skeptical when in the end, they emerge all shiny and pure (think of white-washed Angel or Willow, especially).
And maybe it is a bit of a dodge on Butcher’s part. I’ll reserve judgement on whether Butcher’s bridge story did Harry’s journey more harm than good after I read the next book. I’m not entirely convinced the resolution of Ghost Story was all it appears to be, either.
* There is, of course, a viewpoint that argues the ends justify the means, and those with good ends do not corrupt themselves by merely stooping to any means necessary to achieve those ends. Reminds me of an old ATPOer named Max who used to use the OS Star Trek episode “The Savage Curtain” as an argument why Season 2 Angel was justified in his choice of making “Total War” against Wolfram and Hart. Jim Butcher doesn’t seem to hold this view.
** One that reminds me a bit of AtS’ Awakening, a classic exemplar of an effective bridge story.