Category: Best Novel
When starting this project, I had to decide what to do about nominees that are part of a long-running series—do I catch up first? I ended up approaching that question on a case-by-case basis, depending on my interest and the feasibility. For Skin Game, catching up was definitely out of the question on the latter grounds: it’s the fifteenth installment in the Dresden Files. I worried that I would be lost in a sea of pre-established lore, but happily it turned out to be very friendly to new readers. If I’m a loyal reader of a series like this, the recapping of the major elements of the series in each volume gets old very quickly (I have this problem with Charles Stross’ Laundry Files novels) but as a new reader I really do appreciate it.
The book itself is a heist novel in which Harry Dresden is recruited to help steal a supernatural artifact from the Underworld (Hades’ underworld—this is an All Myths Are True setting). The team of thieves is led by one Nicodemus Archleone, apparently a recurring villain whose main power is escaping from Harry to appear in the next book. (I’m only half-joking about that.)
Even before the heist gets into gear the book provides action scenes at regular intervals, during each of which Dresden is grievously injured until by the end he’s basically held together by a combination of supernatural duct tape and actual duct tape. Most of these scenes suffer from a fatal flaw (apart from that Dresden, as the protagonist of a fifteen-book series, isn’t going to be killed off halfway through), where there is an obvious ally nearby who can and does step in to save Harry at the last minute. To its credit, the scene in the vault at the climax doesn’t suffer from this, in that the ally that steps in isn’t obvious at all unless the reader has been paying very close attention. Other than that, I found that the action was predictable enough to sap most of the dramatic tension.
Interspersed between action scenes are Character Moments in which various characters have long conversations with Harry in which they explain exactly what they are thinking and feeling. At one point Harry actually holds a conversation with his own id. This book is not subtle, is what I’m saying.
The book’s biggest sin, though, is in the one-liners. The series draws from hard-boiled detective fiction, which means we expect some clever turns of phrase from our hero at key moments. But Harry Dresden doesn’t have any of those; instead he substitutes… pop-culture references. Incredibly overused ones. As in, he actually quotes the “Game over, man” line from Aliens in this book. If this is his approach to repartee I’m just shocked he hasn’t already used that one in the preceding fourteen books. I’ll readily admit that reference humor is just a personal pet peeve of mine—lots of other people seem to enjoy it. But it strikes me as lazy, and every time a climactic moment was punctuated with a line from Terminator or Star Wars or Monty Python my eyes rolled so hard they almost fell out of my head.
After all this it probably sounds like I hated this book, but I didn’t really. It’s just not in the same league as the previous two books I read. After the literary feast that was The Goblin Emperor, reading Skin Game was like eating at McDonald’s. Sometimes you do just want McDonalds, but it shouldn’t win any culinary awards.