Summer Knight

Jim Butcher
Summer Knight Cover

Another great installment in the Dresden Files


Book 4 of The Dresden Files shows the aftermath of Dresden’s decisions from book 3.  The Red Court of the vampires is at war with the White Council, and the guilt-ridden Harry is caught in a self-destructive spiral as he tries to find a way to undo the harm done to someone close to him.  While he’s dodging assassination attempts by the vampires and attempting to keep the White Council from throwing him to said vampires to appease their lust for vengance, Dresden is made an offer that he can’t refuse.  Literally, he physically can’t refuse it.  The life-debt he owes to his evil fairy godmother, Lea, has been sold to the Winter Queen of the Fairy Court.  Of course, Butcher’s fairies aren’t all cute little Tinkerbell’s, but frighteningly powerful beings with unknowable agendas who play at the borders between the mortal and spirit realm.  These creatures are caught in an ancient and delicate balancing act between the cold, destructive forces of Winter and the insatiable growth of Summer.  Mab, the Winter Queen, has a proposal for Harry: complete three tasks for her and he will be freed of his life-debt.  The first task he is offered has him investigating the death of a seemingly-innocuous elderly man in Chicago.  Harry soon finds that this man’s death is integrally connected to the delicate balance between Summer and Winter, the upset of which could be catastrophic for the mortal world.  As his investigation becomes entangled with the Council’s war effort and the disappearance of a beautiful young woman, Harry’s options narrow in a starkly inverted proportion to his level of peril.

What Summer Knight Does Well

Summer Knight takes place two years after the events of the first book and, interestingly, it was published two years after Storm Front as well.  It is Butcher’s first book to be written and published after The Dresden Files appeared on the shelves, so I was interested in seeing if it took any different direction from the previous books now that the series was established and had garnered interest and response from readers.

The scale of our view into Dresden’s world opens up a lot more in Summer Knight.  We get a more direct view into the workings of the White Council, heretofore only described in passing by Dresden represented by it’s doggedly loyal warden, Morgan.  With this view comes a deeper understanding of the politics of the White Council and how the war Dresden started with the vampires has affected those politics.  We also learn more about Dresden’s past, particularly his betrayal by his uncle, Justin.  Butcher gives us a much more detailed understanding of how the faerie courts and the Nevernever intersect with the mortal world and of what beings in the Nevernever are like.  There are recurring characters from previous books like Billy and the Alphas from Fool Moon and, of course, Karen Murphy.  No Michael Carpenter,  sadly.  Still, overall Summer Knight delves much deeper into the worldbuilding Butcher has built and used up to that point, and the consistent organization of the magical system and the world-building means that there are solid and believable links to things, places, and events mentioned in previous books.

Butcher still continues his tried-and-true tradition of exploring a particular part of the magical world Dresden inhabits in deep detail in each book and making those elements intersect with plot and character development in meaningful ways.  If anything, Butcher does a good job of making faeries seem mean if not downright scary.  The balance between the opposing faerie courts of Winter and Summer seems like a cliche metaphor for the struggle of good vs. evil, but in having Dresden become an emissary for the Winter Queen (the evil half, if there is one), Butcher complicates that issue enough to keep me interested.  Seeing the supposed good guys from the bad guys point of view helps the reader understand the necessary balance between the two in this case.  Winter may kill everything if it had total dominance, but if it did not challenge Summer’s reign we would have unfettered, choking growth of everything from plants to deadly viruses.  It’s very yin and yang, and it keeps the plot and it’s underlying themes from being too simplistic.

Like Grave Peril, Summer Knight shows Harry having to learn to rely on friends and allies instead of just going it alone.  Billy and the Alphas return here not only to give Dresden some backup, but to help drag him out of his self-destructive spiral brought on by the events at the end of Grave Peril.  Murphy becomes a bit more three-dimensional in this book and steps out of the role of “determined cop,” if only for a little while.  Giving her a conflict beyond just trust/distrust Dresden and Must Bring In The Bad Guy made her much more enjoyable.  The beginning of the book reminded me of Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix for a bit in that we had a broody, angsty wizard named Harry who was feeling sorry for himself, but thankfully a major part of Summer Knight is Harry learning to deal with his trauma and to live again.

The fight scenes are pretty spectacular, particularly Harry and Murphy’s fight with an ogre, who is immune to Harry’s magic and must be defeated by other, more creative means.  The fights in the climax take the cake, of course.  Like in the previous books, Butcher again backs Harry into corners and forces him to rely on either brute strength, cleverness, or just sheer dumb luck to get out, but it still works and it still adds to the tension pretty well.

Overall, Summer Knight adds to and expands on the world-building Butcher has done so far and continues a larger story arc that was started towards the end of Grave Peril, which has got me chomping at the bit for the next book.  The book even improved on a few of the problems I had with the previous installment, namely the short-lived denoument and conclusion.

Where Summer Knight Could Have Been Better

While Butcher did a pretty good job with the elements he had mixing in Summer Knight, one of the major plot points was fairly obvious to me much earlier than it should have been.  That’s not a big deal, though, since it was an enjoyable ride despite that and, like Agatha Christie, Butcher seems to want to give the reader all the pieces so that he/she can figure it out on his/her own anyway.  There were a few loose ends, though.  For example, what was the Ogre Grum looking for in the dead old man’s apartment?

Once again, I felt a pang of annoyance at Harry’s continued disclaimer that he is not good at the spur of the moment magic (evocation).  I might not be good at, say, delivering children, but if I found myself unexpectedly having to deliver a child three or four times in an emergency situation, you’d think I would take the hint and study up on it a bit more.  Dresden is so frequently cornered and left with quick-and-dirty magic as his only option that you would think he would prepare for such eventualities.  While he has the excuse of being preoccupied in the space between Grave Peril and Summer Knight, I still feel that in general he should take the hint.  It just seems like laziness or general unpreparedness that chips away at my willing suspension of disbelief a little each time.

Harry is defined by a few stable qualities: his incurable compulsion to help or believe a woman in need, his sense of fair play and basic good morals, his cynicism, and his short temper and stubbonrness.  His short fuse and stubbornness get him into some hot water in a White Council meeting, and at that point I was wondering if it wasn’t a bit too simple, that Harry blows up at exactly the right moment to cause him grief.  Granted, it’s a character flaw, but woudln’t it be more realistic to show him struggling with it and occasionally holding his tongue instead of painting himself into a corner with his hasty words every chance he gets?  It felt less like a character flaw and more like a plot device in a few areas in this book.

Concluding Thoughts

Summer Knight was a very enjoyable book despite the aforementioned criticisms.  It follows up well on the series thus far and expands our understanding and investment in Dresden’s world.  Butcher is able to give Dresden some angst but also show him growing some more as a character to deal with it.  The action is exciting, the mystery is intriguing, and the settings (particularly the battle scene at the end) are neatly imagined.  I’m happy to say that I still recommend this series to just about anyone: while it’s not challenging deep philosophical ideas, it’s still fun, with a well-planned plot structure, characters you can invest in, well crafted scenes, and thrilling action.