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Summer Knight

Book four of The Dresden Files

Dresden Files 4

Jim Butcher - Author

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ISBN 9780451458926 | 464 pages | 03 Sep 2002 | Roc | 4.29 x 6.77in | 18 - AND UP
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Private detective/wizard-for-hire Harry Dresden is suckered into tangling in the affairs of Faerie, where the fate of the entire world-and his soul-are at stake.

Chapter One

It rained toads the day the White Council came to town.

I got out of the Blue Beetle, my beat-up old Volkswagen bug, and squinted against the midsummer sunlight. Lake Meadow Park lies a bit south of Chicago's Loop, a long sprint from Lake Michigan's shores. Even in heat like we'd had lately, the park would normally be crowded with people. Today it was deserted but for an old lady with a shopping cart and a long coat, tottering around the park. It wasn't yet noon, and my sweats and T-shirt were too hot for the weather.

I squinted around the park for a moment, took a couple of steps onto the grass, and got hit on the head by something damp and squishy.

I flinched and slapped at my hair. Something small fell past my face and onto the ground at my feet. A toad. Not a big one, as toads goit could easily have sat in the palm of my hand. It wobbled for a few moments upon hitting the ground, then let out a bleary croak and started hopping drunkenly away.

I looked around me and saw other toads on the ground. A lot of them. The sound of their croaking grew louder as I walked further into the park. Even as I watched, several more amphibians plopped out of the sky, as though the Almighty had dropped them down a laundry chute. Toads hopped around everywhere. They didn't carpet the ground, but you couldn't possibly miss them. Every moment or so, you would hear the thump of another one landing. Their croaking sounded vaguely like the speech-chatter of a crowded room.

``Weird, huh?'' said an eager voice. I looked up to see a short young man with broad shoulders and a confident walk coming toward me. Billy the Werewolf wore sweatpants and a plain dark T-shirt. A year or two ago the outfit would have concealed the forty or fifty extra pounds he'd been carrying. Now they concealed all the muscle he'd traded it in for. He stuck out his hand, smiling. ``What did I tell you, Harry?''

``Billy,'' I responded. He crunched down hard as I shook his hand. Or maybe he was just that much stronger. ``How's the werewolf biz?''

``Getting interesting,'' he said. ``We've run into a lot of odd things lately when we've been out patrolling. Like this.'' He gestured at the park. Another toad fell from the sky several feet away. ``That's why we called the wizard.''

Patrolling. Holy vigilantes, Batman. ``Any of the normals been here?''

``No, except for some meteorological guys from the university. They said that they were having tornadoes in Louisiana or something, that the storms must have thrown the toads here.''

I snorted. ``You'd think `it's magic' would be easier to swallow than that.''

Billy grinned. ``Don't worry. I'm sure someone will come along and declare it a hoax before long.''

``Uh-huh.'' I turned back to the Beetle and popped the hood to rummage in the forward storage compartment. I came out with a nylon backpack and dragged a couple of small cloth sacks out of it. I threw one to Billy. ``Grab a couple of toads and pitch them in there for me.''

He caught the bag and frowned. ``Why?''

``So I can make sure they're real.''

Billy lifted his eyebrows. ``You think they're not?''

I squinted at him. ``Look, Billy, just do it. I haven't slept, I can't remember the last time I ate a hot meal, and I've got a lot to do before tonight.''

``But why wouldn't they be real? They look real.''

I blew out a breath and tried to keep my temper. It had been short lately. ``They could look real and feel real, but it's possible that they're just constructs. Made out of the material of the Nevernever and animated by magic. I hope they are.''

``Why?''

``Because all that would mean is that some faerie got bored and played a trick. They do that sometimes.''

``Okay. But if they're real?''

``If they're real, then it means something is out of whack.''

``What kind of out of whack?''

``The serious kind. Holes in the fabric of reality.''

``And that would be bad?''

I eyed him. ``Yeah, Billy. That would be bad. It would mean something big was going down.''

``But what if''

My temper flared. ``I don't have the time or inclination to teach a class today. Shut the hell up.''

He lifted a hand in a pacifying gesture. ``Okay, man. Whatever.'' He fell into step beside me and started picking up toads as we walked across the park. ``So, uh, it's good to see you, Harry. Me and the gang were wondering if you wanted to come by this weekend, do some socializing.''

I scooped up a toad of my own and eyed him dubiously. ``Doing what?''

He grinned at me. ``Playing Arcanos, man. The campaign is getting really fun.''

Role-playing games. I made a monosyllabic sound. The old lady with the shopping cart wandered past us, the wheels of the cart squeaking and wobbling.

``Seriously, it's great,'' he insisted. ``We're storming the fortress of Lord Malocchio, except we have to do it in disguise in the dead of night, so that the Council of Truth won't know who the vigilantes who brought him down were. There's spells and demons and dragons and everything. Interested?''

``Sounds too much like work.''

Billy let out a snort. ``Harry, look, I know this whole vampire war thing has you jumpy. And grouchy. But you've been lurking in your basement way too much lately.''

``What vampire war?''

Billy rolled his eyes. ``Word gets around, Harry. I know that the Red Court of the vampires declared war on the wizards after you burned down Bianca's place last fall. I know that they've tried to kill you a couple of times since then. I even know that the wizards' White Council is coming to town sometime soon to figure out what to do.''

I glowered at him. ``What White Council?''

He sighed. ``It's not a good time for you to be turning into a hermit, Harry. I mean, look at you. When was the last time you shaved? Had a shower? A haircut? Got out to do your laundry?''

I lifted a hand and scratched at the wiry growth of beard on my face. ``I've been out. I've been out plenty of times.''

Billy snagged another toad. ``Like when?''

``I went to that football game with you and the Alphas.''

He snorted. ``Yeah. In January, Dresden. It's June.'' Billy glanced up at my face and frowned. ``People are worried about you. I mean, I know you've been working on some project or something. But this whole unwashed wild man look just isn't you.''

I stooped and grabbed a toad. ``You don't know what you're talking about.''

``I know better than you think,'' he said. ``It's about Susan, right? Something happened to her last fall. Something you're trying to undo. Maybe something the vampires did. That's why she left town.''

I closed my eyes and tried not to crush the toad in my hand. ``Drop the subject.''

Billy planted his feet and thrust his chin out at me. ``No, Harry. Dammit, you vanish from the face of the earth, you're hardly showing up at your office, won't answer your phone, don't often answer your door. We're your friends, and we're worried about you.''

``I'm fine,'' I said.

``You're a lousy liar. Word is that the Reds are bringing more muscle into town. That they're offering their groupies full vampirehood if one of them brings you down.''

``Hell's bells,'' I muttered. My head started to ache.

``It isn't a good time for you to be outside by yourself. Even during daylight.''

``I don't need a baby-sitter, Billy.''

``Harry, I know you better than most. I know you can do stuff that other people can'tbut that doesn't make you Superman. Everyone needs help sometimes.''

``Not me. Not now.'' I stuffed the toad into my sack and picked up another. ``I don't have time for it.''

``Oh, that reminds me.'' Billy drew a folded piece of paper out of the pocket of his sweats and read it. ``You've got an appointment with a client at three.''

I blinked at him. ``What?''

``I dropped by your office and checked your messages. A Ms. Sommerset was trying to reach you, so I called her and set up the appointment for you.''

I felt my temper rising again. ``You did what?''

His expression turned annoyed. ``I checked your mail, too. The landlord for the office dropped off your eviction notice. If you don't have him paid off in a week, he's booting you out.''

``What the hell gives you the right to go poking around in my office, Billy? Or calling my clients?''

He took a step in front of me, glaring. I had to focus on his nose to avoid the risk of looking at his eyes. ``Get off the high horse, Harry. I'm your freaking friend. You've been spending all your time hiding in your apartment. You should be happy I'm helping you save your business.''

``You're damned right it's my business,'' I spat. The shopping cart lady circled past in my peripheral vision, cart wheels squeaking as she walked behind me. ``Mine. As in none of yours.''

He thrust out his jaw. ``Fine. How about you just crawl back into your cave until they evict you from that, too?'' He spread his hands. ``Good God, man. I don't need to be a wizard to see when someone's in a downward spiral. You're hurting. You need help.''

I jabbed a finger into his chest. ``No, Billy. I don't need more help. I don't need to be baby-sitting a bunch of kids who think that because they've learned one trick they're ready to be the Lone Ranger with fangs and a tail. I don't need to be worrying about the vamps targeting the people around me when they can't get to me. I don't need to be second-guessing myself, wondering who else is going to get hurt because I dropped the ball.'' I reached down and snatched up a toad, jerking the cloth bag from Billy's hands on the way back up. ``I don't need you.''

Naturally, the hit went down right then.

It wasn't subtle, as attempted assassinations go. An engine roared and a black compact pickup truck jumped the curb into the park fifty yards away. It jounced and slewed to one side, tires digging up furrows in the sunbaked grass. A pair of men clung to a roll bar in the back of the truck. They were dressed all in black, complete with black sunglasses over black ski masks, and their guns matchedautomatic weapons in the mini-Uzi tradition.

``Get back!'' I shouted. With my right hand, I grabbed at Billy and shoved him behind me. With my left, I shook out the bracelet on my wrist, hung with a row of tiny, medieval-style shields. I lifted my left hand toward the truck and drew in my will, focusing it with the bracelet into a sudden, transparent, shimmering half-globe that spread out between me and the oncoming truck.

The truck ground to a halt. The two gunmen didn't wait for it to settle. With all the fire discipline of an action-movie extra, they pointed their guns more or less at me and emptied their clips in one roaring burst.

Sparks flew from the shield in front of me, and bullets whined and hissed in every direction as they ricocheted. My bracelet grew uncomfortably warm within a second or two, the energy of the shield taxing the focus to its limit. I tried to angle the shield to deflect the shots up into the air as much as possible. God only knew where all those bullets were goingI just hoped that they wouldn't bounce through a nearby car or some other passerby.

The guns clicked empty. With jerky, unprofessional motions, both gunmen began to reload.

``Harry!'' Billy shouted.

``Not now!''

``But''

I lowered the shield and lifted my right handthe side that projects energy. The silver ring I wore on my index finger had been enchanted to save back a little kinetic energy whenever my arm moved. I hadn't used the ring in months, and it had a whale of a kick to itone I hardly dared to use on the gunmen. That much force could kill one of them, and that would be basically the same as letting them fill me full of bullets. It would just take a little longer to set in. The White Council did not take kindly to anyone violating the First Law of Magic: Thou Shalt Not Kill. I'd slipped it once on a technicality, but it wouldn't happen again.

I gritted my teeth, focused my shot just to one side of the gunmen, and triggered the ring. Raw force, unseen but tangible, lashed through the air and caught the first gunman with a glancing blow across his upper body. His automatic slammed against his chest, and the impact tore the sunglasses off his head and shredded bits of his clothes even as it flung him back and out of the pickup, to land somewhere on the ground on the other side.

The second gunman got less of the blast. What did hit him struck against his shoulder and head. He held on to his gun but lost the sunglasses, and they took the ski mask with them, revealing him to be a plain-looking boy who couldn't have been old enough to vote. He blinked against the sudden light and then resumed his fumbling reload.

``Kids,'' I snarled, lifting my shield again. ``They're sending kids after me. Hell's bells.''

And then something made the hairs on the back of my neck try to lift me off the ground. As the kid with the gun started shooting again, I glanced back over my shoulder.

The old lady with her shopping basket had stopped maybe fifteen feet behind me. I saw now that she wasn't as old as I had thought. I caught a flicker of cool, dark eyes beneath age makeup. Her hands were young and smooth. From the depths of the shopping basket she pulled out a sawed-off shotgun, and swung it toward me.

Bullets from the chattering automatic slammed against my shield, and it was all I could do to hold it in place. If I brought any magic to bear against the third attacker, I would lose my concentration and the shield with itand inexpert or not, the gunman on the truck was spraying around enough lead that sooner or later he wouldn't miss.

On the other hand, if the disguised assassin got a chance to fire that shotgun from five yards away, no one would bother taking me to the hospital. I'd go straight to the morgue.

Bullets hammered into my shield, and I couldn't do anything but watch the third attacker bring the shotgun to bear. I was screwed, and probably Billy was along with me.

Billy moved. He had already gotten out of his T√shirt, and he had enough muscle to rippleflat, hard muscle, athlete's muscle, not the carefully sculpted build of weight lifters. He dove forward, toward the woman with the shotgun, and stripped out of his sweatpants on the fly. He was naked beneath.

I felt the surge of magic that Billy used thensharp, precise, focused. There was no sense of ritual in what he did, no slow gathering of power building to release. He blurred as he moved, and between one breath and the next, Billy-the-Naked was gone and Billy-the-Wolf slammed into the assailant, a dark-furred beast the size of a Great Dane, fangs slashing at the hand that gripped the forward stock of the shotgun.

The woman cried out, jerking her hand back, scarlet blood on her fingers, and swept the gun at Billy like a club. He twisted and caught the blow on his shoulders, a snarl exploding from him. He went after the woman's other hand, faster than I could easily see, and the shotgun tumbled to the ground.

The woman screamed again and drew back her hand.

She wasn't human.

Her hands distended, lengthening, as did her shoulders and her jaw. Her nails became ugly, ragged talons, and she raked them down at Billy, striking him across the jaw, this time eliciting a pained yelp mixed with a snarl. He rolled to one side and came up on his feet, circling in order to force the woman-thing's back to me.

The gunman in the truck clicked on empty again. I dropped the shield and hurled myself forward, diving to grip the shotgun. I came up with it and shouted, ``Billy, move!''

The wolf darted to one side, and the woman whipped around to face me, her distorted features furious, mouth drooling around tusklike fangs.

I pointed the gun at her belly and pulled the trigger.

The gun roared and bucked, slamming hard against my shoulder. Ten-gauge, maybe, or slug rounds. The woman doubled over, letting out a shriek, and stumbled backward and to the ground. She wasn't down long. She almost bounced back to her feet, scarlet splashed all over her rag of a dress, her face wholly inhuman now. She sprinted past me to the truck and leapt up into the back. The gunman hauled his partner back into the truck with him, and the driver gunned the engine. The truck threw out some turf before it dug in, jounced back onto the street, and whipped away into traffic.

I stared after it for a second, panting. I lowered the shotgun, realizing as I did that I had somehow managed to keep hold of the toad I had picked up in my left hand. It wriggled and struggled in a fashion that suggested I had been close to crushing it, and I tried to ease up on my grip without losing it.

I turned to look for Billy. The wolf paced back over to his discarded sweatpants, shimmered for a second, and became once more the naked young man. There were two long cuts on his face, parallel with his jaw. Blood ran down over his throat in a fine sheet. He carried himself tensely, but it was the only indication he gave of the pain.

``You all right?'' I asked him.

He nodded and jerked on his pants, his shirt. ``Yeah. What the hell was that?''

``Ghoul,'' I told him. ``Probably one of the LaChaise clan. They're working with the Red Court, and they don't much like me.''

``Why don't they like you?''

``I've given them headaches a few times.''

Billy lifted a corner of his shirt to hold against the cuts on his face. ``I didn't expect the claws.''

``They're sneaky that way.''

``Ghoul, huh. Is it dead?''

I shook my head. ``They're like cockroaches. They recover from just about anything. Can you walk?''

``Yeah.''

``Good. Let's get out of here.'' We headed toward the Beetle. I picked up the cloth sack of toads on the way and started shaking them back out onto the ground. I put the toad I'd nearly squished down with them, then wiped my hand off on the grass.

Billy squinted at me. ``Why are you letting them go?''

``Because they're real.''

``How do you know?''

``The one I was holding crapped on my hand.''

I let Billy into the Blue Beetle and got in the other side. I fetched the first aid kit from under my seat and passed it over to him. Billy pressed a cloth against his face, looking out at the toads. ``So that means things are in a bad way?''

``Yeah,'' I confirmed, ``things are in a bad way.'' I was silent for a minute, then said, ``You saved my life.''

He shrugged. He didn't look at me.

``So you set up the appointment for three o'clock, right? What was the name? Sommerset?''

He glanced at me and kept the smile from his mouthbut not from his eyes. ``Yeah.''

I scratched at my beard and nodded. ``I've been distracted lately. Maybe I should clean up first.''

``Might be good,'' Billy agreed.

I sighed. ``I'm an ass sometimes.''

Billy laughed. ``Sometimes. You're human like the rest of us.''

I started up the Beetle. It wheezed a little, but I coaxed it to life.

Just then something hit my hood with a hard, heavy thump. Then again. Another heavy blow, on the roof.

A feeling of dizziness swept over me, a nausea that came so suddenly and violently that I clutched the steering wheel in a simple effort not to collapse. Distantly, I could hear Billy asking me if I was all right. I wasn't. Power moved and stirred in the air outsidehectic disruption, the forces of magic, usually moving in smooth and quiet patterns, suddenly cast into tumult, disruptive, maddening chaos.

I tried to push the sensations away from me, and labored to open my eyes. Toads were raining down. Not occasionally plopping, but raining down so thick and hard that they darkened the sky. No gentle laundry-chute drop for these poor things, either. They fell like hailstones, splattering on concrete, on the hood of the Beetle. One of them fell hard enough to send a spiderweb of cracks through my windshield, and I dropped into gear and scooted down the street. After a few hundred yards we got away from the otherworldly rain.

Both of us were breathing too fast. Billy had been right. The rain of toads meant something serious was going on, magically speaking. The White Council was coming to town tonight to discuss the war. I had a client to meet, and the vampires had evidently upped the stakes (no pun intended), striking at me more openly than they had dared to before.

I flipped on the windshield wipers. Amphibian blood left scarlet streaks on the cracked glass.

``Good Lord,'' Billy breathed.

``Yeah.'' I said. ``It never rains, it pours.''

Reprinted from Summer Knight by Jim Butcher by permission of Roc, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2002, Jim Butcher. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission. "Fans of Laurell K. Hamilton and Tanya Huff will love this series."
-Midwest Book Review

"What would you get if you crossed Spenser with Merlin? Probably you would come up with someone very like Harry Dresden."
-Washington Times

Benedict Jacka and Jim Butcher: Author One on One

Benedict Jacka:

Hi Jim, guess I'll start things off! Thanks again for the email you sent back in June—it meant a lot to me.

The setting of the Dresden Files is really varied with a Fantasy Kitchen Sink feel—there are wizards, werewolves, demons, faeries, angels, fallen angels, dragons, at least three kinds of vampires, and a whole lot more creatures that are only hinted at. Did you decide on that from the beginning or did it evolve that way as the books went on? It's something I've been thinking about as I'm at the stage of my own series where there's still a lot of white space free to be filled in.

Jim Butcher:

Hey Benedict! Just giving credit where it is due. You wrote a good book. Seriously. Where's the next one? Initially, when setting up the story world for the Dresden Files, I did a lot of angsting over what kind of vampire I was going to present in the story world. I had them broken out into three general types: the monstrous blood-drinkers, the megasexy fiends, and the folklore-traditional Nosferatu-type vampire. Every one of them offered me different strengths and foibles for storytelling. All of them were fairly familiar figures, and I was sort of unhappy that I hadn't come up with a style of vampire all my own that would play a stronger role than the public domain vamps. And then I thought to myself, "Wait, this is my world. Why not have ALL of them?" I decided that the old parable of the three blind men and the elephant was going to serve as my paradigm for vampires in the Dresden Files. In the parable, one blind man feels the elephant's trunk and declares that it is like a tree. The next feels the elephant's flank and says that the elephant is like a wall. The third feels the elephant's tail and declares that the elephant is like a snake. All of them were right, all of them were wrong, and none of them had the full picture of what an elephant actually is. So that's how vampires worked in the Dresden Files, I decided. The reason humanity's basic description of vampires is so wildly different from place to place and century to century is that we're the blind men. Most of the time, witnesses don't survive encounters with vampires or never realize they had them. The accounts that do manage to make it into the public consciousness are blurred by terror, trauma, confusion, funky mind powers, darkness and the simple fact that the eyewitnesses are encountering many different kinds of vampire instead of one overarching stereotype. Naturally, our strongest idea of the vampire, the Dracula model, incorporates features from many different species. So I sat down, color coded them by Court, and started designing the beasties I would need for the books. Initially, I had planned on the books being about wizards, vampires, werewolves and maybe a few faeries—but as I developed the vampire courts, I realized that what would be even more fun would be a story world that was entirely inclusive about the supernatural, from nursery tales to mythological figures to horror movies to beings of active, living faiths. The question I needed to be asking myself wasn't "what supernatural creatures should I use?" but "in what way can I use EVERY supernatural creature?" From that point, I set out to design an inclusive story world that would have a place for every kind of legend, nightmare, and storybook beasty. The supernatural ecosystem of the Dresden Files is built to be vast and teeming with every weird and scary thing imaginable. There's plenty of room for everyone. And if it allows me to dish out all KINDS of different beatings to poor Dresden, that's a happy side effect. :) The scope of that portion of the Dresden Files is pretty broad, from a design standpoint. One of the things I liked most about Fated, the first Alex Verus novel, was the depth of scope and thought that you employed in creating your protagonist. On the surface, Alex's abilities would appear barely to qualify him as a wizard, and not a very threatening one at that. But when you deepen the scope of the story and look at the ramifications of the things he can do, you realize that Alex Verus is a man of truly awesome power. What can you tell me about the process of creating Alex Verus? Why did you build him as you did, and what kinds of things inspired the creation of his world?

Benedict Jacka:

The setting of the Alex Verus novels is one I've been working on for a long time Fated is actually the fifth book that's set in more-or-less the same universe—and so a lot of the background was already worked out, although the earlier stories were all written as children’s/young adult.

When I sat down to start work on Fated, though, I had trouble deciding what type of magic the protagonist would use. In the previous books my mage characters had always used elemental magic like ice or air, but the problem I kept running into was how to make conflicts involving their magic interesting. When your protagonist's main power is "hit it until it breaks" it's tricky to run a magic vs. magic fight that doesn't turn into a slugging match.

So I went back and thought about the way conflicts had played out in my favorite stories, and I noticed that the characters in those stories very rarely won fights with brute strength. Sure, they might be strong, but victory usually went to the side which had some kind of special edge, like using a clever idea or taking advantage of a rule that had been set up earlier in the story. It's like in Harry's battle with Victor Sells at the end of Storm Front: the way Harry turns the tables isn't with fire or wind, it's with the demon's name (which was foreshadowed earlier in the book).

So I came up with the idea of someone whose magic could only give information. Since Alex's divination can't affect the physical world he can't brute-force his way through problems, which pushes me to think of some more interesting way to solve them. I also liked the dynamic it gave—other mages can wipe the floor with Alex in direct combat, so he always has to scramble to come up with something.

How do you deal with this sort of thing when you're planning out your stories? You've described Harry as a "magical thug" with more power than finesse, but he acts a lot craftier than that (especially in the later books). How do you keep the conflicts fresh and interesting?

Jim Butcher:

Well. Mainly I just stick to the plan I always had for Dresden: I never wanted him to be the big fish in the pond. I always wanted him to be the crafty medium-sized fish, somebody who could rely on brute power for some problems, but not nearly all of them. Then, as I kept on creating the world I needed, I realized that Dresden wasn't even really a medium-sized fish. He was smaller than that. Granted, he has a lot of muscle for most of the world he runs around in, but when times get hard he starts finding himself going up against all kinds of guys who are really just out of his weight class. That's really the rule of thumb for any given kind of combat. Where skill levels are equal, size and strength generally rule the day. If you want to take on someone bigger than you, you've got to be either really good or really smart to beat them. Or you have to cheat. Cheat, cheat, cheat, which I find to be a general theme of wizards in conflict, all over fiction. I mean, Gandalf only got into about three fair fights in all of Tolkien’s work, and he lost two of them. Old Sherlock didn't do so well in fair fights either, you'll recall. A long amateur study of military history, tactics, martial arts, and ancient warfare suggests a common attitude held by the most dangerous of opponents: Fair fights are for suckers. I always wanted Dresden to go into conflict with a very earthy, practical attitude about coming out on top. For Harry, the fun comes from throwing him up against somebody who he just shouldn't be able to take on directly, and seeing how he uses finesse (hah, though more so as he's gotten older), skill, or good old fashioned underhanded play to overcome his opponents. Sure, Harry is a thug of a wizard. But... that's sort of like saying "he's a thug of a glee club director." Granted, there might be a thuggish glee club director out there, but against the greater background of thugdom, I'm thinking he wouldn't stand out as a stellar representative. Among the wizardly crowd, Harry's a beast—which means that he can solve his problems really directly when need be. That's unusual among wizards in the Dresden Files, and it makes them nervous. They're much more at home with the "how do I guess this guy's name and get him to go away" sort of problem than the "great Scott, he just huffed and puffed and blew my house down" sort of problem.

Harry has to play the traditional trickster's role against many opponents—but boy, if he ever throws down against someone like the Merlin, it's going to be a Huff and Puff approach for sure. No good can come of giving that guy time to plot his plots and plan his plans. Or possibly a Fee Fie Foe Fum maneuver might be in order... :) For those who haven't gotten to read Fated yet, Alex Verus is a diviner. Some people would call him a probability mage. He knows things. No, wait, that completely understates it. Alex Knows Things. He has a tremendous capacity to find people and objects, to predict the course of the future, and to act at key points to alter the outcome of events. The more time he has to work, the more of the potential future he can explore, and the more options he can potentially create for himself. He can learn things by watching his future self do them, so that he can learn the consequences of many of his actions without actually taking them. That is a very, VERY cool power to have. Harry would be really jealous of that guy! And nervous. Really nervous. It seems, to me, that someone in Alex's position would have both the inclination and the very high capability for avoiding conflict entirely. As writers, we both know that can really be death on writing interesting plots. So how do you balance that sort of tendency in your protagonist with the absolute need, as a storyteller, to make sure your wizard gets his meddle on? What kinds of plot tend to become problematic when you're writing a character like that?

Benedict Jacka:

It's a good question! The main type of plot that doesn't work is the "A wild X appears!" encounter, where the protagonist is just wandering around minding his own business when a random person or creature appears out of nowhere and tries to attack/kill/capture/eat/marry/sell insurance to him. Good authors usually don't do this anyway without a reason, but Alex can usually see these sorts of encounters coming no matter the reason, so they aren't generally going to happen unless he wants them to.

If you think about it though, this isn't all that different from most reasonably powerful protagonists. Harry Dresden can't see the future but he can take Ways through the Nevernever. If he really put his mind to it, it wouldn't be difficult for him to put himself on the other side of the planet from whatever's trying to do something horrible to him this week. But he doesn't.

In Alex's case it isn't something that's spelled out, but one of the themes of Fated is that Alex is moving away from the "avoid conflicts" mindset that he might have followed in the past. Because the trouble with that attitude is that once you start avoiding conflicts, where do you stop? Avoiding someone in the street is one thing, but what if they track down where you live? How about once they start going after your friends? If you keep following that path you end up with the paranoid-hermit type of wizard, who lives alone and never gets involved with anyone. And Alex does meet another diviner in Fated who lives like that—he just decides in the end that it's too high a price to pay.

Of course, just because Alex is willing to get involved in conflicts doesn't mean that he's not going to pick the battlefield and generally cheat like crazy whenever he can—and writing that is the fun part. :)

In Harry's case it's always seemed to me that the main thing that keeps him fighting rather than hiding is his morals. I remember you saying in one of your interviews that one of the characters you had in mind when you started writing Harry Dresden was Peter Parker—the idea of the superhero who, despite all his powers, gets a completely unfair amount of crap dumped on him but keeps going anyway. In Harry's case if he's given a choice between abandoning a friend or an innocent and going up against something that's way more powerful than him he'll take the fight, even though absolutely anyone in that position would be thinking "oh god there's no way I can win this". Has that changed as the Dresden Files has gone on? The brutal war with the Red Court especially has made Harry do some things that he would once never have considered—how has that affected him?

Jim Butcher:

Oh, man, that is a HUGE question. Part of writing the Dresden Files has been exploring the nature of power, and the choices you have to make when you have it: how is Harry going to use and how is he going to abuse it, or choose not to abuse it. Harry's been handed some really horrible choices lately, and he's been making choices that are really kind of nightmarish. It wasn't like he had any good ones, but even the choices he made during Changes were not necessarily the best. I never wanted Harry to be a particularly heroic figure. I wanted him to be a human one. He does his best, but he makes mistakes, and when he does he has to face the consequences of those decisions. I mean, we all do, but Harry's choices have now left him in a really precarious position, and one that is extremely dangerous for him. His... relationship... with Mab is going to put him in even more positions where even more really bad choices are going to come his way. That's going to force him to fight, not just to succeed in whatever the challenge of the day happens to be, but to hold on to who and what he is—to keep his soul. That's really kind of the heart of the character of Dresden. He is a person with the ability to make a difference, and he refuses to back away from it when people who can't protect themselves are getting hurt. That's what gets him into so much trouble all the time. But the really hard lesson for him to learn has been when not to use his power. Acting on a situation and making it better for those involved aren't always the same thing, and he's been slowly learning that—sometimes the hard way. One thing that I do think is true: Harry isn't ever going to change, not at the core. He's always going to be the guy who doesn't look away, who doesn't take the easier road, who doesn't back down when people are in trouble. He might change the way he approaches helping them: certainly, he's been slowly building a track record of being the guy who empowers other people to protect themselves, rather than being the guy who constantly does all the rescuing. That's one reason the kinds of threats he's been facing have become steadily more powerful, in one way or another, over the course of the series. But hey, let's be honest here. I'm not sure exactly where all of this is going to go, on a personal level. Part of how I figure this stuff out is to sit down and actually write it. I mean, I'll plot out the general events of the story ahead of time, and have a good idea of what direction the overall world is going to go—but the really key internal stuff, the things that happen to the hearts of the various characters in the story, always seem to work best when I allow them to react naturally to their situations and to learn and grow based upon their experiences. Sometimes people hit bad places. They forget their core. They question their faith. They aren't always wise, aren't always selfless, and they aren't always smart. And that's who Harry is. He isn't perfect. But he's trying. That's what stories are all about. Though I must confess, personally: I frequently find myself wondering how to get to the next point of my story, and quite often I work it out by following the advice of old pulp writers, and have someone kick down the door and start shooting. :) Sometimes they're literally shooting, and sometimes they're shooting magic, and sometimes they're laying out ethical or spiritual automatic fire rather than delivering physical danger. But I have no problem with using the random drive-by in my writing. Then I get the fun of working out exactly how that event blends with the greater scheme of the overall story. It isn't the only way to get past an unfinished patch in the story, but it works. Sometimes it winds up going away, but it almost always helps me diagnose why that part of the story isn't working and lets me get back on track. Another happy tactic for that kind of situation is to introduce an interesting or unusual character to help the story over a rough patch, which I call the "Edna Mode," after the wacky little costume designer from The Incredibles. What about you? How do you handle it when you reach a point in the book and just aren't sure what comes next? Do you work from an outline or spend more time relying on your instincts to guide you while writing? There's no one true path for writing, because everyone has to find the way that works for them, but it's always fascinating to me to hear how other writers approach the craft.

Benedict Jacka:

Hmm, work from an outline or rely on instincts…I think I do a mixture of both. Usually I'll have one sketchy idea for a storyline, and out of that I'll get the idea of one or two scenes, and then I start building on those, adding more scenes and the links between them, sort of like connect-the-dots. Sometimes the one or two scenes that I have in mind end up being towards the beginning of the book, but just as often they get used very, very late. (For the second Alex Verus book, Cursed, one of the plotlines involves a character called Martin, and I knew exactly how that story would end, as well as the outline of the last scene, long before I worked out the beginning or the middle.)

Just like connect-the-dots, though, there's way more empty space than there are dots. So while I'll have the outline of one particular scene in mind, I won't know what the details are going to be and I usually won't have any idea what I'm going to do with the scenes on either side of it. For those I just make it up as I go along. This can be quite scary when you stop and realize that your book is depending on a crucial connection between two series of events and you have absolutely no clue what that connection is. My way of dealing with this is to keep on going and trust that I'll come up with something in time. (Not the kind of thing you'd want to hear from, say, an airline pilot, but one of the nice things about being a writer is that you get a bit more leeway with that kind of stuff.)

Every now and again though I get stuck, and the frustrating thing is that I usually don't know why I'm stuck. Something just feels wrong for whatever reason, and the scene I'm writing isn't working out. I've learnt from painful experience that when this happens there's no point in keeping going because I'll just end up deleting it all. Instead I have to stop and go do something else, while in the back of my mind I think about the book and figure out what problem is, and that can take a long time—days if I'm lucky and weeks if I'm not.

Though the feeling once it clicks and everything does start to work again makes it all worthwhile. :)

That bit of pulp advice of kick-in-the-door-and-shoot actually makes a lot of sense when you think about it. In the short term it gives you some action, and in the long term dealing with the consequences and figuring out how it links in with the rest of the plot can give you ideas for how to fit everything together, kind of like shaking up a kaleidoscope. Maybe I'll try that next time I get stuck again!

We're getting to the end of this email exchange, so before I get to the last question I'd like to say thanks for taking the time to do all this (and for all the detail you've been putting into the answers!) I've been reading your books for over five years now and I've hugely enjoyed getting this chance to chat with you. Good luck with the rest of the Dresden Files, and I'll be reading them as they come out!

So far we've mostly talked about the protagonists of our series (it's natural when you write in the first person), but in the long run the secondary characters do just as much to shape the story. In the Dresden Files as the series has gone on Harry's accumulated a kind of extended family—not just his blood relatives like Thomas but also Molly and Michael and Murphy and everyone else that he's worked and fought with. When you're sitting down to write a new book, how do you decide which of those characters to include? If readers seem to respond particularly strongly to a character, do you use them more, or do you stick to your own judgment? And do you have any favorites? (Although I can see why you might want to keep that last one a secret!)

Jim Butcher:

Arranging the secondary characters is almost always a challenge. Generally speaking, before the story gets started, I'll pick one character who gets to be Robin to Harry's Batman whenever he's doing stuff that isn't critical Lone Hero action. Sometimes picking Harry's wingman is a really easy and obvious choice, and I just cackle and gleefully plop them down into the soup next to Dresden. Other times, though, there are multiple characters who could do the job and all of them would be viable storytelling choices. When that happens, I guess I could just write the names down and throw a dart at the page—but the past few years I've been too lazy for dart-throwing, so instead I've gone to the readers on my web site's forums, on Twitter, and at signings and conventions, and I ask them who they'd like to see more of. Weird, right? Asking the readers? Clearly a little success has driven me mad with power. :D But when I'm not dead certain about when someone absolutely must fill a certain role (I mostly am, but sometimes not), it seems reasonable to me to check in with the readers and see who is resonating strongly already. It makes my job easier and seems to be working out so far. As far as favorite characters go, that changes all the time based upon my mood. My absolute favorite to write is Bob the Skull. Bob gets to say all the appalling things that go through my mind but which I know better than to give voice, and that's always fun. Characters like that make it easy to be entertaining and I'm always in favor of anything that makes the job easier. More importantly, characters like Bob make my job a lot more fun. And while it isn't truly necessary for me to have fun while I'm working—I'm a professional writer, and if I don't work I don't get paid, so I can' t wait around for it to be fun—when I'm having a really good time with my work, it tends to create the best results. That's good for everyone. Benedict, it's been a real pleasure talking with you, and I hope we can bump into each other at a convention sometime! I was very impressed with Fated, I'm glad that there are other writers who are making things up as they go like I am. :D I'm very much looking forward to reading more of your work. Hey, readers! You guys can look for the first Alex Verus novel, Fated, this February 28, 2012! You should definitely fit this book into your reading schedule before what may or may not be the Mayan apocalypse coming up at the end of this year. Excellent noir action, villains of every shade of black and grey, a really savvy and enjoyable protagonist and tight, swift plotting make this series well worth your time and entertainment budget.

Benedict Jacka:

Likewise. Looking forward to getting the chance to meet you in person one of these days!


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