May 142015

skingame_lgSkin Game, by Jim Butcher

Synopsis: An urban-fantasy supernatural bank heist

Book Review: This is a frustrating book, because it has some very cool parts, but some very big failures as well, and you can see the unrealized potential within it. It reads very much like a novelization of the Buffy TV Series if it had been done by someone without Joss Whedon’s talent for self-awareness and meta-analysis.

Skin Game has that snappy, modern, referential humor that we so love. It is often funny, and in parts laugh-out-loud hilarious. The big parasite twist absolutely made my evening. :) The writing is never bad, and in parts it is outstanding! “Her heels clicking with metronomic inevitability” or “with all the sympathy of a bullet in flight” are evocative and high-impact lines. And the characters are generally strong and distinct, making them easy to identify and accept.

Unfortunately the awesomeness-to-word-count ratio is not favorable. The story seems to need to take a break every so often to have a fight scene, like a Fox executive is standing over Jim’s shoulder saying “No one’s been staked in 20 minutes? Throw some vampires at them!” Now, some of these fight scenes are vital, well-built, and fantastic. The one just outside Carpenter’s house was a tour-de-force, with a fantastic build-up, high stakes, the possibility of something bad actually happening, and major plot-altering outcomes as a result. I loved it. But several other fight scenes were dull, and could have been removed entirely without changing the story one bit. Any time a scene can be removed without altering a story at all, it should be.

It wasn’t just the fight scenes though. There’s a lot of really unfortunate dialog that basically consists of the characters telling the reader how s/he should be feeling right now. Most of it while trying to sound profound or moving. That is bad writing. You never tell a reader how he should feel (even if it’s dressed up as friends psycho-analyzing the protagonist to make him feel better). You make a reader feel things by showing them action that evokes those feelings. No matter how many times someone says “They took away everything that was familiar. They hurt you.” that doesn’t make us feel that pain. Repeating it doesn’t make it more impactful. There was not a single emotional point in the book that was left un-belabored.

As a result, a lot of the book was simply boring. Which is one of the worst things a book can be. Any time I have to resort to skimming a book it loses esteem in my eyes, and I had to do that quite a bit. With the exception of the fight outside Carpenter’s house, I never felt reluctant to put it down, or excited to pick it up again.

I suspect that part of the problem is that this is the 15th book in a (planned) 20 book series. Call me cynical, but I have a very hard time believing this story arc had to be spread out over 20 books and couldn’t have been done in (say) five. Very little of consequence happened in this book, and all those extra pages I was forced to skim through were just padding. For comparison, Catherine Valente wrote Deathless, which in the course of a single book takes its protagonist from age 10 to age 60+, covers two world wars, and has an amazing character arc, intense plot, and vast changes in the world. It’s an epic story. A few years ago I read the first Dresden novel (Storm Front). Harry Dresden seems virtually unchanged since that novel. Same with the world he’s in. Valente accomplished more in a single book than Butcher’s done in fifteen. I kinda resent that. My time is being wasted so a series can be padded out. Bleh.

Ultimately, I want something that will stick with me when I read (or watch) a story. Buffy was campy and fun, but it was also good–it still reverberates in my life. Skin Game, once you skip the boring bits, was certainly fun. But there’s nothing there that’ll stick with me. As one friend said: “A workman-like example of entertainment product.” It’s probably good beach reading with a drink. But that’s not what I’m interested in. Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: There isn’t much to say here. I won’t say there’s nothing for a book club to talk about. It is interesting to compare what different people find enjoyable – what jokes worked for some but not others, what bored one person vs what excited another, etc. There were a couple people in our group who were legitimately entertained and said the rest of us were being too finicky. But that only gets you so far. There wasn’t anything thought-provoking or innovative to push discussion. While it may be a good book for individual reading for some, as a book club book I would Not Recommend.

Puppy Note: This book really isn’t terrible, it’s just not great. Which means it’s already better than at least one nominee I’ve read every year. Every year since I started participating in the Hugos there’s been at least one book that I thought was simply awful, and in one case I was surprised the book had even made it to print! This book is easily better than any of those. And from what I’ve heard, some of the other books in this series have been quite a bit better. Which, first of all, makes me more convinced there should be a separate Hugo category for Series. But which also makes me ask “Why did Brad pick this book, this year?” It’s obviously not a good example of what Butcher can do when he really tries (or at least I hope that’s the case). Picking this particular mediocre book smacks very much of the exact sort of “basing Hugo decisions based on insider knowledge and politics,” rather than “just judging a work on its merits” that the Puppies campaign was supposedly against. Oh how quickly things turn.

  2 Responses to “SF/F Review – Skin Game”

  1. I’m a little more charitable than you, I guess–I really enjoyed this book. It’s one of my favorite Dresdens.

    What I’m not sure about is how it stacks up to the other books on the ballot. It certainly doesn’t come close to Ancillary Sword, and it doesn’t seem to match up to The Three Body Problem, although I’m not through with that yet.

    I suppose if you like fun romps for your Hugo, Jim Butcher is your writer. (And urban fantasy, as a genre, is arguably underrepresented.) But I want a bit more than that for an award-winning book.

  2. Apparently the Dresden Files came about as Jim Butcher trying to prove that you could be successful just by writing by a formula.
    The books in the series are not exactly the same, but they are pretty close.

    They’re quite entertaining though, especially from the (I think) 3rd book onwards. Though I have to admit I lost steam while reading through the series and just kind of stopped a few books ago.

    It’s a fine formula for enjoyable action-schlock, but IMO it’s not quite enough to carry 20 books or more.

    The series also has a conservative feel to it with the characters, even though Jim Butcher is obviously a nerd and probably a liberal. Maybe that’s just my idiosyncrasy speaking, but the kind of /strong female characters/ he writes (in a way quite similar to Eric Flint) often just kind of rub me the wrong way. Not sure if others feel the same way.

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