SKIN GAME by Jim Butcher

It’s pretty amazing that even this far into the DRESDEN FILES series, every time a new book gets published, Jim Butcher finds a way to make it all feel fresh and new.

By this point, Butcher has created an incredibly rich world full of fantastic allies and villains, and he’s able to keep things fresh by rotating the characters in and out of the story. In SKIN GAME, the 15th book in the DRESDEN FILES series, we see the return of Nicodemus. To balance the odds, Michael Carpenter, who quickly became one of my favorite Harry allies in GRAVE PERIL, returns to the action.

I’ve long said that Butcher seems like an author who gets better and better the more he gets to work with his characters and his world — not only in this series, but also in CODEX ALERA, where they got better and better as the story progressed. SKIN GAME feels like Butcher at his best — alternating humor and silliness with a heartfelt emotion and sincerity that is unlike any other author I’ve read.

We get Harry’s penchant for movie quotes and other assorted oddities (Parkour!), but at the same time, when his daughter Maggie comes into the story, the tone changes and we see once again how much family means to the Winter Knight. Butcher is so good at showing us Harry’s vulnerabilities that it’s almost easy to forget that by this point, almost everyone in the story who isn’t a fae queen or a god has pretty good reason to fear him.

Butcher also does an excellent job with the storytelling in this one. Under Mab’s orders, Harry must help Nicodemus steal the Holy Grail. Part of a team of independent contractors, we spend much of the story guessing at their motives, trying to figure out who is committed to Nicodemus’s cause and who might be convinced to help Harry when their inevitable clash takes place. Butcher has sometimes been great with the mystery portion of his story, and other times that aspect of his storytelling has been less successful, but this time it was especially fun to watch all the different personalities of this “The Usual Suspects”-style team working even as they all try to figure out one another’s angles.

At this point, DRESDEN FILES is probably my favorite series going, and the only complaint I have is that once I get my hands on these books I tend to plow right through them. It’s a good thing Butcher is such a proficient writer, because now I’ve probably got another year before I find out what happens next.

TRIPWIRE by Lee Child

SYNOPSIS

Here, Reacher is incognito, living the life of a drifter and digging swimming pools in Key West. When a PI from New York comes looking for him, and shortly afterwards turns up dead with his fingertips sliced off, Reacher flies north and discovers that the instigator of the search is Leon Garber, his former army commanding officer. But Garber has died the day before Reacher arrives. As Reacher finds out from Jodie Jacob, Garner’s beautiful attorney daughter, Garber was helping an elderly couple to locate their son, who supposedly died in a helicopter crash during the Vietnam War. The military won’t confirm the death, however, or even classify the soldier as missing in action. Pursuing the search together, Reacher and Jacob narrowly escape murder attempts by a pair of dark-suited thugs who work for an evil corporate loan shark named “Hook” Hobie, who has a hideously disfigured face and a metal hook for a right hand. Hobie is harboring a terrible secret linking him to the couple’s vanished son, and he’ll kill anyone who tries to discover his diabolical past.

THOUGHTS

Of the three Jack Reacher books I’ve read so far, this was probably my least favorite.

Whereas each of the first two books opened with action (KILLING FLOOR opens with the cops rushing into a diner to arrest Reacher and DIE TRYING opens with Reacher stumbling into the middle of a kidnapping), TRIPWIRE takes a while to get going.

Throughout much of the first two books, Reacher is a powerhouse with only a few occasional quirks. You root for him because he’s larger than life — so clever and so brutal that there’s no doubt that if you found yourself in a life-or-death situation, you would want Jack Reacher on your side.

Reacher is still nearly superhuman at times in TRIPWIRE, but we see a lot more of his flaws. He has difficulty shopping for clothes, displays fears about owning a home and is unable to buy some of the supplies he needs because he doesn’t carry a credit card and doesn’t have much money due to his drifter lifestyle. At times, the book drifts from a straightforward mystery/action tale to a fish-out-of-water story. I know the common wisdom says the hero must have flaws to be interesting, but I have to admit that I liked Reacher better when his flaws weren’t quite so obvious.

Things get really strange for a brief period early in the book when Reacher reunites with his former CO’s daughter and he reflects upon his desire for her the last time they’d met — when he was 24 and she was 15. I really could have done without that nugget.

Child again does a good job with his villains, making them ominous and interesting, and Jodie is given enough spunk and intelligence to make her an excellent partner for Reacher. Had the pacing matched the previous books, it would have been easier to overlook the flaws.