Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Storm Front, chapters 14 and 15, in which having lots of women in your book is no protection against rampant misogyny

I worry sometimes that these posts are too negative, and that there's only so much benefit that can possibly come from what amounts to a couple thousand words of vitriol.  (I'm not Jewish, but I think about the concept of tikkun olam often.  It's good stuff, in the modern interpretation.)  And then I read another paragraph and I remember that this book fucking deserves my ire and we all deserve to be armed with the knowledge to defend ourselves against this kind of garbage.

(Content: misogyny, sexual assault, murder. Fun content: watch me stumble around trying to make sense of this world's logic, like a drunk man escaping a labyrinth in a centrifuge.)

Storm Front
Chapter Fourteen: Fucking Magic, How Does It Work*

Oh good, we get to start this week with further examination of how unfathomably stupid love potions are (and all defences of them).  To recap, Dresden and Rodriguez are standing in a three-foot-diameter copper circle that is their only defence against some kind of acid toad demon, and she wants to get down on the floor and bang, even though this would lead to their immediate violent deaths.  It takes Dresden a full minute to pull away from the kiss she initiates, though he assures us that he felt self-conscious and hesitant the whole time.
The potion had taken hold of her hard. No wonder she had recovered from her terror enough to come back up the stairs and fire my gun at the demon. It had lowered her inhibitions to a sufficient degree that it must also have dulled her fears.
OF DEATH?!  To be clear here, actually having sex isn't an option on the table for them right now, because they would die immediately upon breaking the circle.  So we have to ask again what it means for this potion to have 'lowered her inhibitions'.  That's a phrasing that implies that the drinker will do what they really want to do, behind their fears and anxieties and all those things that, apparently, aren't the 'real' person.  But obviously that's not the only thing a 'love' potion does, or else people would take them before job interviews and public speaking and the like, to suppress their stressors and just get on with the task at hand.  Stage fright is an inhibition.  'Not dying' seems to me more like one of those things we want, which an anti-inhibition potion would only intensify.  There's also the specificity of trying to jump Dresden: is that because Rodriguez really wants to jump him, or because he made the potion and therefore he's induced her to want him, or because she really wants to jump someone and the only other option is a toad demon?
Susan's fingers wandered, and her eyes sparkled. "Your mouth says no," she purred, "but this says yes."
Dresden is of course still naked and somewhat sudsy from his shower, so clearly this particular fantasy wouldn't be complete without Rodriguez grabbing his junk.  But for extra fun, we have here Rodriguez using a classic anti-consent line to justify her continued advances, which means this 'love' potion has not only obliterated her self-preservation instincts (and probably her entire identity outside of her role in this book as the literally-hypersexual Latina) but also any concern she might have for consent from the object of her chemical lust.  Again: not an indicator of love.  This potion is a terrifying mind-warping poison that turns the drinker into a potential rapist.  What in the actual entire fuck.  Good thing Dresden is a mighty Man and able to easily fend Rodriguez off when she literally tries to judo him to the floor, or this scene might have been uncomfortable for the male readers.  (See also: good thing she's hot, good thing they aren't related, good thing she's a woman... Butcher had a lot of ways that he could have made this scene something other than a 'cheeky' patriarchal wank fantasy, and he made sure to avoid all of them.)

Anyway.  Bob the Skull can see the escape potion and offers to throw it to Dresden in exchange for twenty-four hours of freedom from his skull.  Dresden refuses, on the grounds that he is responsible for Bob's actions while free (he says this like it's some kind of legal quirk, and not a moral concern), but Bob is a terrible person and insists.  Can't wait to find out what kind of sexual assault he gets up to.  Dresden gets Rodriguez to drink half the potion by implying it's an aphrodisiac or something, and they get a few seconds of magic wind travel before it drops them outside in the rain.  Dresden says they'll be safe if they can get to Reading Road, which always floods in the rain and will count as enough running water to kill the demon if it follows.  Combining potions leaves Rodriguez nauseous and thus still useless, but it seems like it may have at least neutralised the 'love' potion, so we're spared any more of that garbage.

Halfway to the flooded road, a shadowy avatar appears under a broken streetlight to villain-talk at Dresden: how they didn't think he'd survive this long, do you really think I'd give you my name, soon my demon will kill you, et cetera.  Dresden is "stunned" that they summoned the demon, as if he isn't well-versed in the risk-reward ratio of doing so and this isn't a pretty standard thing in his world and life.  The shadow is in turn startled when Dresden mind-slaps it, demanding to know how he is capable of such a thing, as if they don't all know he's a wizard.  The shadow calls for the demon and for some reason Dresden watches it walk out and casually toss a car aside, instead of running more.

Maybe it's a pet peeve, but there are few narrative decisions I detest more than characters stopping to watch a threat be dangerous rather than running.  Especially if they end up just barely missing a closing door or something by one second later on.  Dresden compounds this by taking the time to "thrust [his] staff" at the shadow and dispel it, which apparently causes the caster on the far side some pain but otherwise does nothing to improve his situation. (He gets a one-liner out of the experience, which is presumably good enough.)  Then he tries to haul Rodriguez to her feet and does the whole angsty 'if I run I can still make it to the river but she'll die'.  But no, he is too Good and Pure to do such a thing, so he faces off against the demon, and then finally strikes upon the Million-To-One Chance that he could tap into the storm himself to draw enough power to kill it.  (There is much talk of channeling power to the tip of his staff.)

It works, leaving him exhausted but completely unharmed.  What a twist.

Naturally, Morgan the Warden arrived just in time to see the demon but not the avatar of the person who summoned it, so he declares that Dresden is a blight and he's convened the Council to come to Chicago in two days and sentence Dresden to death.  He disappears immediately, and within minutes a cop car has arrived to grab them both.  ...What?  Okay, sure.  Rodriguez declares this to have been the worst night of her life:
She glanced aside at me, and her eyes glittered darkly for a moment. She almost smiled, and there was a sort of vindictive satisfaction to her tone when she spoke. "But it's going to make a fantastic story."
Damn right it is, Susan Rodriguez.  I'm sure we're supposed to think ill of you for daring to profit off this, but you have been drugged, mind-controlled, and nearly abandoned to die, and you are the only person we know who's trying to crack the masquerade on the parade of magical horrors running unchecked across the world, so as far as your journalistic career goes, you have my goddamn sword.

Chapter Fifteen: Somewhere Alison Bechdel's Scar Is Burning

It turns out that the cop car was sent there by Murphy to pick Dresden up, and that's because she wants him to check out the scene of Linda Randall's murder that night.  So that's both our sex workers dead now.  Butcher knows when he wants to be consistent (kill the sex women) and when he doesn't (worldbuilding).  The cops let naked Dresden grab some clean clothes (sweatpants and a t-shirt that says "Easter has been canceled--they found the body", perfect for a murder scene) and drive him over there.  The banter starts up immediately and I am trying to imagine a person who wouldn't wish harm on Dresden after thirty seconds listening to him talk.
"Dresden," she said. She peered up at me. "You planning on having King Kong climb your hair?" 
I tried to smile at her. "We still need to cast our screaming damsel. Interested?" 
Murphy snorted. She snorts really well for someone with such a cute nose.
I don't know what any of this means.  I actually miss Wheel of Time and its compulsive capitalisation and 'here are the sixteen different names we have for this thing'.

In another weird quirk, Murphy explains that Linda was killed in the same manner as "Tommy Tomm and the Stanton woman".  Was that actually easier or more natural to say than 'Jennifer'?  Really?  Would anyone call Tommy 'the Tomm man'?  No.  That's a reference reserved only for women to make them sound less like people.  Just put on your fedora and admit you'd rather call them all 'females', Butcher.

After actually being pretty consistent about not being able to guess at his wizard enemy's gender last chapter, Dresden immediately starts defaulting to 'he' and calling them "the Shadowman" as he explains his new storm-magic theory to Murphy.  Quite reasonably, Murphy wants to know how he failed to consider this option before now.  I know we readers are new to magic and so these ideas aren't going to leap to mind, but if tapping storms is an adequate replacement for things like getting twelve other people to perform a ritual with you that requires absolute trust and unity, I feel like maybe it would be a more commonly considered method.  Like, if you talk to an engineer about possible engines for a doomsday machine, they're not going to say 'I don't understand, it's impossible to get this kind of power from coal... unless... unless they somehow managed to tap the power of the atom!'  They're going to say 'Well, it's stupidly dangerous, but I guess this thing has a fission reactor'.  Dresden has acted throughout this sequence like he and his enemy are inventing storm magic as they go along, but he's talked about it like established fact.

I pause here to note again that I would probably be less petty about this if Dresden weren't an awful person navigating a world that hates women and people of colour.  I guess my point is that this book is not only socially reprehensible, but I don't think there's any case to be made that the 50s-era patriarchal morality is something that's worth suffering through for the sake of the great magical story.

Dresden scopes out Linda's apartment (he's pretending he never met her, because Murphy would have questions) and it looks about the way you'd figure a thirtysomething white guy likes to imagine a sex worker's apartment looks: lingerie everywhere, half-burnt candles on every flat surface around the giant bed, an open drawer full of sex toys, unused kitchenette full of pizza boxes.

Distinctly absent from the description: literally anything that would suggest Linda was an actual person.  No books or movies or half-finished knitting lying around, no photographs of friends or family or holiday memories, no gecko in a terrarium.  Not even a terrible manuscript about a sex worker, a dashing foreign prince, and the tumult of their courtship.  Butcher actively dismisses the idea that Linda's life could not be summed up with 'fucks people for money'.

He nevertheless makes an effort to tag her as sympathetic anyway: Dresden feels "a sudden pang of understanding and empathy for Linda", since the emptiness of the apartment has much in common with his own (but even he has a cat and a blasphemous t-shirt, which is more depth than she's been granted).  Seeing her body (murdered in the same heart-ripping manner as the others), he thinks about her personality, "a quick wit [...] sly sensuality [...] a little hint of insecurity", which is still more a sex fantasy than a person, but I'm willing to give Butcher a D for effort.  Dresden is still particularly hung up on someone murdering with magic, which I get is a cultural taboo for him but remains weird to me.

(Before I forget: Linda is also naked, because she just got out of the bath.  Dresden notes her tan lines.  Help me.  Someone.)

The forensics team falls silent at his approach, and Dresden sees in their faces the deep fear of scientists faced with "bloody evidence that three hundred years of science and research was no match for the things that were still, even after all this time, lurking in the dark."  Perhaps it's fitting for Dresden's arrogance that he wouldn't realise the only reason 'science' can't explain magic is that it hasn't had a chance.  Magic still has observable, reproducible rules.  That's all you need in order to do science.  Though it pains me to say it, Dresden is a scientist of magic.  Dresden even knows exactly what happened here (murder-wizard tapped the storm to kill Linda) but he insists he doesn't have the answers they're looking for and walks away.

Murphy gives us the timeline: Linda called 911 to say she knew who killed Jennifer and Tommy, then the phone cut off as the spell hit her.  She's also done the digging to know that Linda's employers, the Beckitts, had a daughter who was killed three years earlier in a gunfight between Marcone's mob and "some of the Jamaican gang that was trying to muscle in on the territory back then".  (Is this the first mention we've had that black people exist in this universe?)  Dresden immediately concludes that Mrs Beckitt's "numb face and dead eyes" are fully explained by this loss.  Marcone, of course, dodged any legal case the Beckitts took at him.

Murphy reveals that she found Dresden's card (he gave one to Linda) but hasn't yet added it to evidence, and demands to know what he knows.  He roundabout admits to having spoken to her, that she said she knew nothing, and she used to work for Bianca.  Murphy, at long last, loses her fucking chill, slams Dresden against the door, and points out that if he'd told her this right away, not only might the police have gotten information from her, but she might not have been murdered.
She stared up at my face, and she didn't look at all like a cutesy cheerleader, now. She looked like a mother wolf standing over the body of one of her cubs and getting ready to make someone pay for it.
As much as I think physical intimidation is not admirable, I'll take a million of this Murphy over forehead-kisses nurse-mother-girlfriend Murphy.  (Also, points to Murphy for properly valuing even the one-dimensional Linda the author has given us.  Dresden is morose about how all of this relates to him and his Feelings; Murphy is just furious that another of her citizens is dead.)

Dresden considers what limited information he's still withholding from Murphy (that Linda had said she was coming to see him tonight) and decides to keep on withholding it, for fear that she'll either decide he is the killer (a vengeful boyfriend jealously taking out Linda's other lovers first) or that she'll draw Shadowman's attention and end up murdered next.  I cannot fathom how telling Murphy that Linda had called him before 911 would somehow raise her profile (she's already leading the investigation), but Dresden seems pretty convinced that it will, and that's good enough for him.
Then, too, there was the White Council. Men like Morgan and his superiors, secure in their own power, arrogant and considering themselves above the authority of any laws but their own, wouldn't hesitate to remove one police lieutenant who had discovered the secret world of the White Council.
Wait, what.

WhAT


Okay, we've been operating this far on the induction that there isn't strictly speaking a Masquerade in this world.  That there's no wizarding law against mundane people knowing that magic and demons re real, but it's mostly dismissed as fairy tales.  So Dresden lists himself in the phone book as a wizard, so that people specifically looking for magic solutions know who to call, and we can presume that over the next few decades the social trends that Dresden listed for us earlier will lead to a rediscovery of the supernatural sides of the world.

And now here's Dresden saying that the Masquerade is actually to be protected at any cost, up to and including the death of any mundane person who learns too much of the truth.  The White Council might literally murder a cop for successfully tracking down a killer wizard.  Dresden is in fact putting people in mortal danger every time he tells them he can perform a cantrip to find their missing shed key.

I've talked a lot about inconsistency in this book, but holy fuck.

Dresden doesn't look at Murphy as he says again that he knows nothing more, so he can only "sense [...] the little lines of hurt and anger around her eyes" and he's not certain if she wipes away a tear before passing Dresden's card over to Carmichael for tagging.  She asks Dresden to come to the station to make a statement (he refuses) and says she'll get a warrant if he's not home to be questioned in the morning.  And, of course, declares that if he is behind this she'll take him down, magic or not.

It occurs to me that her sudden flare of aggression earlier was perhaps less 'Murphy finally stops coddling Dresden' and more 'Murphy is a woman brimful with chaotic emotions and cannot be dispassionate like Dresdenman'.
I understood the pressure she was under, her frustration, her anger, and her determination to stop the killing from happening again. If I was some kind of hero from a romance novel, I'd have said something brief and eloquent and heartrending. 
But I'm just me, so I said, "I do understand, Karrin."
I assume we're supposed to think that is eloquent and heartrending under the circumstances, but Dresden is too humble to realise what a romantic hero he is.

That is roughly the end of the chapter, but one more question about the total lack of worldbuilding in this book: who is supposed to investigate magic killings here?  The White Council knows that there have been murders, but apart from Morgan's pet theory that Dresden is evil incarnate, they don't seem to care much.  There are apparently no wizard cops checking out the scene or following leads (if there were, Dresden would hopefully contact them), but the council is apparently also happy to kill any mundane cop who digs too deep into wizard business, including murder.  If Dresden weren't around, who would actually be there to identify and stop the killer?  It's tempting to say they don't care unless the killer is targeting other wizards, but Dresden also seems pretty sure that any magical murder is the worst taboo possible, so... yeah, I'm really lost.

Next time: tracking magic absolutely exists and this whole plot is nonsensical.

---

*I suppose I should make a consistent note that these books don't have chapter titles and I'm just making them up for funsies, lest new readers be confused that the titles are so much more entertaining and thoughtful than the text.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Storm Front, chapters twelve and thirteen, in which Dresden must endure women throwing themselves at him

I keep taking weeks off between Dresden posts, because I just cannot with him, but the downside is that it can feel like I'm taking forever to get anywhere in this book, and every page is more of the same: Dresden is insufferable and the people around him talk smack about him while making it glass-clear that he is Amazing and Dangerous and they don't really mind how terrible he is after all.

For fun reading, I'm currently halfway through the second Alloy of Law book by Brandon Sanderson, and while I have my issues with his philosophies and I think the protagonist is some kind of Boredom Singularity, at least Sanderson has the courtesy to surround his grim tough protagonist with a cast of vastly more entertaining people, even including multilayered nonsexualised women, people of colour, and--le gasp--people who might not be straight or cis.  And they criticise the hero for good reason, and he takes those criticisms to heart and tries to change his behaviour (slowly).  I could probably stomach Dresden more easily if this book included, for example, a scene where the Lord God Himself calls Dresden out for being such a misogynist tool.

Storm Front
Chapter Twelve: Tsundere and Lightning*

Let's just... get through this together.

Dresden awakens twenty minutes later in Murphy's office; she's cushioned his head and feet and is busily holding cold compresses on his forehead and throat but tragically not his mouth.  Dresden immediately takes the opportunity to 'joke' about his secret fantasy of Murphy in a nurse outfit.
"A pervert like you would.  Who hit your head?" she demanded. 
[....] Her hands were no less gentle with the cool cloth, though. 
[....] "If you didn't already have a concussion, I'd tie your heels to my car and drive through traffic."
The above three lines basically summarise all of Dresden's interactions with Murphy here: she makes it clear verbally that she has nothing but disdain, scorn, and animosity for Dresden, while also taking the utmost care to personally ensure his wellbeing.  Giving him first aid herself, okay, that makes some sense for a practical person like Murphy.  Then he tries to get up and hurls all over her office floor, so--without a word--she cleans off his face, gives him another cool cloth on the neck, and personally drives him back to his apartment.
But mostly I remember the way her hand felt on mine--cold with a little bit of nervousness to the soft fingers, small beneath my great gawking digits, and strong.  She scolded and threatened me the entire way back to the apartment.
The picture of Murphy this gives us is less 'complicated' than 'someone's very specific kink'.  She's tiny and soft and feminine and nervous, but cares for him like a nurse and scolds him like a mother.  I'm pretty sure there are women who get paid a very good hourly rate to deliver this precise fantasy of denigration/adoration to men, but do we need one of them in a cop outfit to be our ostensible female lead here?

Murphy hauls Dresden into his dark apartment (all the lightbulbs burnt out last week) and declares that she's putting him in bed after she lights some candles.  The phone rings, next to Dresden:
"Mister Dresden, this is Linda. Linda Randall. Do you remember me?" 
Heh. Do men remember the scene in the movie with Marilyn standing over the subway grating? I found myself remembering Linda Randall's eyes and wondering things a gentleman shouldn't. 
"Are you naked?" I said. It took me a minute to register what I'd said. Whoops.
Pictured: Agent Scully, praying for our deliverance from this creepy fucker.

Murphy, as part of her new 'service top' designation, goes to make Dresden's bed and give him phone privacy.  Linda has decided she does have a lead for Dresden after all, and wants to meet him tonight--Dresden has forgotten about the "date" that Susan Rodriguez "tricked" him into tonight, and agrees anyway.

Naturally, every sentence Linda speaks just overflows with seduction and implications of imminent nudity.  I won't quote them, because they're truly not worth inflicting on you, but it's important that you understand just how dedicated Butcher is to this AU where sex workers are literally compelled to hit on everyone all the time regardless of the subject matter.  They're talking about her friend's murder investigation, and she's no longer trying to distract him like she supposedly was last time--this is just who Butcher has decided she is.

Murphy is of course exasperated that Dresden has apparently made a date for tonight, and in response to his assertion that she's just jealous, snorts back:
"Please. I need more of a man than you to keep me happy." She started to get an arm beneath me to help me up. "You'd break like a dry stick, Dresden. You'd better get to bed before you get any more delusions."
I understand that we live in a dystopia where romcoms and bad subplots have cemented the notion that any form of woman-rejects-man can and will be used to foreshadow their eventual hookup.  From that, it's hard to find any way to legitimately shut that down in the text.  However, Murphy here has 1) interpreted "you're just jealous" not to mean "you can't get a date" but rather "you wish you could date me" and 2) rejected him on the basis of his supposed sexual inadequacy, which is the type of thing that gets treated as a flirtatious challenge ("why don't you try me?") that no Red-Blooded American Man like Dresden can truly allow to stand.  If there is any reliable way to cancel out sexual tension, it doesn't involve saying 'I've thought about sex with you and decided I am too sexually aggressive for it'.  Which is fine if you actually want to flirt, but supposedly Murphy does not, so what the hell.

She could have avoided all this by passing Dresden over to a police paramedic or getting a rookie constable to drive him home.

Dresden thinks he remembers what he's forgotten: he said he'd call Monica Sells.  Murphy resignedly helps him do so, grumbling about how "my first husband" was just as stubborn.  (I figured this meant he was dead, but a quick google informs me that they divorced and he's going to be a minor antagonist later on, because of course.)  A little kid answers Monica's phone, screams for mom, and wanders off.  Monica herself is in full Stepford mode and discreetly asks to "cancel my order", which Dresden thinks is weird but apparently not suspicious.
I thought I heard a voice in the background, somewhere, and then the sound went dead except for the static. For a moment, I thought I'd lost the connection entirely. Blasted unreliable phones. Usually, they messed up on my end, not on the receiving end.
I will completely break from form here to observe that, artistically speaking, Butcher is good at this: making innocuous statements that solidly imply information to the reader while keeping the character plausibly ignorant.  Here, for example, I would bet my own bone marrow that he's indicating that there is wizardry happening at Monica's house, messing with the phone, but Dresden never phones other wizards and he is generically Unwell, so he doesn't realise that this is literally the reverse of his usual problem.

There, I said something nice about Jim Butcher's writing skills.  Let it not be said I cannot be a kind and generous hater.

Murphy takes Dresden's temperature, checks his eyes with a penlight, and gets him some aspirin, continuing with her nurse deal.  I'm really confused about what's supposed to be wrong with him at this point: he's dazed because he got concussed yesterday, that makes sense, and that can mean all sorts of bad things, but why does she keep acting like he's feverish, covering him with cold cloths and such?  If you get a fever as a result of a head injury, I'm pretty sure you should see a doctor immediately.  Is Murphy taking care of Dresden so she can quietly end him?
I only remember two more things about that morning. One was Murphy stripping me out of my shirt, boots, and socks, and leaning down to kiss my forehead and ruffle my hair.
The rising level of mother subtext for Murphy, in addition to running against everything else about her character, is raising some uncomfortable questions about Dresden's fantasies.  ...Well.  Some further uncomfortable questions, anyway.

The second thing Dresden remembers is that the phone rings again, Murphy answers, and tells them they have the wrong number.  Not sure what that's about, but at least Dresden falls asleep and the chapter ends.

Chapter Thirteen: Title Drop

Dresden awakens that night as a thunderstorm rages outside.  Murphy folded his coat and left him some cash with a note that "You will pay me back"--because it's not like she likes him or anything!  (I've seen this anime.  We've all seen this anime.  It's every anime.)  Dresden puts his coat on in the dark, still shirtless, so now instead of a generic grim detective, he looks like a rejected model for the generic grim detective calendar.

Dresden mulls the way he can "feel the storm, in a way that a lot of people can't", because hearing how special he is hasn't gotten old yet.  I would be fine with him observing it, thinking about exactly the same stuff that he says here (how it's a huge knot of energy, all four classical elements in the wind and the rain and the lightning racing down to the earth), if he could maybe just say these things instead of emphasising how he FEELS SO MUCH MORE because he's just better than non-wizards.  More plot-relevantly, Dresden realises that a wizard with limited self-preservation instincts could tap into a storm to fuel the murder magic he had theorised about previously, and that there was a storm Wednesday night as well.  The mystery begins to unravel maybe!

But that's enough plot progression for now; time to pour on the filler.  Somebody knocks at the door; Dresden expects it to be Linda (silently thankful that, with her, it probably doesn't matter if he's disgustingly unshowered and such, uuuuugh) but of course it's Susan Rodriguez, here for their date.  Dresden lets her in and she shows off her form-fitting backless dress for a while before asking if he's working overtime on the magic murder and if he'd make a statement.
I winced.  She was still hunting for an angle for the Arcane.
Dresden.  That's literally her job and you knew from the start that was the point of this.  She dates people to get at their secrets.  That is the only conceivable reason anyone would date you, because you're terrible.  Dresden leaps into the shower and then leaps out again minutes later when he sees through the window that Linda has arrived:
I couldn't let Linda just come to the door and have Susan answer it. That would be the cattiest thing you've ever seen, and I would be the one to get all the scratches and bites, too.
Why am I inflicting this on you?  Because you have to know.  If I have to suffer through this mess, then by Eru Iluvatar you will all leave my blog knowing down to your deep tissues that this character is unequivocally a misogynist catastrophe (and his author's got a lot to answer for too).

Thankfully we get a break, because it's not really Linda at the door, but a demon that has just barely been holding together an illusion until now.  Susan of course screams uselessly as it hocks a shot of acid at Dresden, who dives behind the sofa and tells her to get back in the kitchen.

Awk.
"Susan!" I shouted. "Get back toward the kitchen! Don't get between it and me!" 
"What is it?" she screamed back at me. 
"A bad guy." [....] 
"Why isn't it coming in?" Susan asked from the far corner, near the door. Her back was pressed to the wall, and her eyes were wide and terrified. My God, I thought, just don't pass out on me, Susan.
This is the kind of objective female inferiority that makes it impossible to pass off all of the misogyny as being Dresden's bias creeping into the narration.  I mean, yes, Dresden judging her harshly for not handling it well when her lousy date gets interrupted by an acid frog monster, that could just be him.  But the decision that Rodriguez, composed investigator and magic-sleuth, should turn into a screaming wreck incapable of even running for safety at the first glance at a short demon, that was Butcher's doing.
"Can it get in?" she said. Her voice was thin, reedy. She was asking questions, gathering information, data, falling back on her ingrained career instincts--because, I suspected, her rational brain had short-circuited.
Pictured: Princess Bubblegum cutting someone off and sending them to jail.

No, Dresden, you colossal jackass, that is VITAL FUCKING TACTICAL INFORMATION at this moment.  She's not being a stupid drone; she's determining what's safe and not, since that will seriously impact how you two respond to this invasion.  Sigh.  Dresden shoves her down into the basement (with a brief interlude as Rodriguez notices that his towel has fallen off and he's naked) and then does battle with the demon, hurling a gale-force wind in its face and commanding it dramatically to get out.  It's too powerful even for naked Dresden and his mighty staff (which he summoned into his hand and now holds straight out from his body--everyone praise the ancestor of your choice that this book wasn't illustrated), so he tells Rodriguez to drink the escape potion from earlier (oh god, we saw this coming).  That fails to spirit her away, but she also finds Dresden's revolver, climbs back up the stairs, and unloads all six rounds, giving them time to... run back downstairs.  Well.  Classic horror movie mistake, but okay, at least Rodriguez tried.

And now, of course, it's time for the wacky shenanigans, because Dresden uncovers the copper circle he inlaid in the basement floor, pulls Susan into it with him, and erects an unbreakable anti-demon barrier (also acid-proof, apparently).  Demons can't remain summoned during the day, he explains, so they just have to stay in the circle for the next ten hours and they'll be fine.

It is at this point that Bob the Sex Offending Skull points out what we all realised would inevitably happen back in chapter eight: Susan didn't drink the escape potion; she drank the love potion and she will now disregard their safety in favour of trying to get Dresden to bang her on this concrete floor before they die.

Hang on a second here.

We all know love potions are fucked up; overriding someone's mind and consent is not cool under any circumstances.  But this isn't even a love potion--this is a fucking potion.  Rodriguez isn't suddenly filled with admiration for Dresden's (hypothetical) virtues, she doesn't weep for the family they will never get to make together, she doesn't suddenly ask if she can somehow save him by sacrificing herself.  She stops caring about anything (including her own life) except getting that pasty wizard D.  I'm all in favour of love and sex in whatever combination makes everyone happy, but there are only two conclusions that we can draw here:

Option 1: 'love potion' is a euphemism for 'elixir that causes the drinker to stop wanting anything except sex with one particular person'.  Evidence in favour: classically, love potions lead to sex in most stories, probably because they're introduced as an excuse to get two people to have sex in an unusual circumstance.  Evidence against: the brewing of this potion involved candlelight and love poetry and the sorts of things that are supposed to be associated with high-minded romance, with sex as a possible consequent rather than the entirety of the event.

Option 2: 'do me here and now' is the specific response of Susan Rodriguez to this love potion, because like most women in this book she is nothing more than a projection of lust and she cannot fathom any way to express affection other than sex.  Evidence in favour: look, you've all read as much of this book as I have; you know what it means for her to be pretty and female and brown.  Evidence against: ...

...

Maybe I'll have something by next time.  (Merciful spoiler: they don't have sex.)

---

*I suppose I should make a consistent note that these books don't have chapter titles and I'm just making them up for funsies, lest new readers be confused that the titles are so much more entertaining and thoughtful than the text.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Drizzt Do'Urden and the failure of fantasy racism

(Content: discussion of racism and other oppression.  Fun content: I hope you like elves.)

I should preface this with a giant disclaimer (in case there was any question) that I'm white, so this whole post is an extended 'it seems to me...' and I don't want to speak over anyone's experiences.  I don't think I've seen anyone address this specific flaw to supposedly progressive fantasy; I'd be happy to link to any such works if y'all know of them.  (Also, I think a lot of what I say below can translate to representation of other demographics and types of oppression, like LGBT people and comic book mutants, but it's Black History Month, so that's where we focus.)

Pictured: either my family tree or a box of assorted entertainment crackers; who can tell?

The best thing that speculative fiction can do is show us a bizarre new world that loops into our real mundane world right now and gets us to see something in a new way.  Consider classic Star Trek's episode about an alien cop chasing a fugitive, each of them literally half paper-white and half ink-black, divided down their centre line, but the cop is convinced that he's racially superior because he's black on the correct side.  The Snowpiercer movie (thankfully nothing like the original comic) is a beautiful, layered, sickening, and ruthless exploration of capitalism and literal class war.  And if I start talking about Discworld novels we'll be here all day.

Countless stories--like Star Trek there, and like Forgotten Realms and Lord of the Rings and X-Men and basically every other serialised speculative story sooner or later--take the opportunity to criticise racism, usually by showing us elves and dwarves scowling at each other or something.  The first problem with this kind of scenario is that it extrapolates human 'races' (a nebulous and nonscientific concept) into entirely different species, so that the story is about (white) humans learning to get along with weird other-y pseudo-natural entities (of colour?).  We can do better.  But, at the same time, there's no reason that identifying with the badass werewolves or dragons or fae should be restricted to white people either, so yes, let's have elves with high tops:

Pictured: painting of an armored elf with distinctively black features, by Nick Robles.

Running with this, writers sometimes give us a paragon of virtue like Drizzt Do'Urden.  Drizzt is one of the most iconic characters in modern fantasy: a renegade drow (dark elf, literally black-skinned) from the underground city of Menzoberranzan who grew up disgusted by his people's cruelties and so ran away to the surface, where he roams the land of Faerun slaying monsters and rescuing the helpless.  He is, of course, nevertheless hounded at every turn by people who see his black skin and assume he's a monster.  I won't speak to authorial intention here, because I haven't read RA Salvatore's mind at any point in the last thirty years, but there's only one common reading of Drizzt's story and what it symbolises for our world.  We readers look at these presumptuous bigots, who think the only good dark elf is a dead one, and scorn them for failing to get to know Drizzt before judging him.  We know better and we are enlightened.

Drizzt is a good guy.

Drizzt isn't like other drow.

Drizzt is one of the good ones.  A credit to his kind.

#notalldrow

But the thing about those narrow-minded common peasants who flinch or scream at the sight of Drizzt walking into town is that they're only wrong this time.  With literally any other member of his species, they'd be absolutely right to freak out, because a powerful and sadistic murder-specialist would have just said hello.  That's not racism; that's basic probability and pattern recognition.

Fantasy racism like a fear of dark elves is ultimately a terrible allegory for real-world racism because the dark elves have worked long and hard to gain that reputation for monstrosity, whereas in the real world white history is basically a laundry list of the other nations and peoples we've slaughtered and enslaved and oppressed for monetary gain, political power, or occasionally just for sadistic fun.  In order for Drizzt the onyx-black elf hero to be an actual metaphor for black people in North America, our continent would have to live in constant fear of invasion from a subterranean army of African-diaspora wizard-ninjas, and I figure there can't be more than five or six million registered voters who actually think that's a concern.

What I'm getting at when I say #notalldrow is that Drizzt's experience, being a variously privileged individual walking into vulnerable spaces full of people who have been hurt before by people who look like him (and who know that he has the power to hurt them further), is the experience of the oppressing class, not its victims.  White people, especially but not exclusively white men: we're the drow.  When Drizzt sees someone afraid of him at first glance, it's not because they've been arbitrarily taught that black people are inherently inferior and disgusting.  If we read these scenarios and all we think is "Bah, foolish bigots, we Drizzt would never be so villainous!" we're only reinforcing the idea that vulnerable people owe us their reflexive trust or they're the real racists.

To the credit of Drizzt's fictional persona, he sympathises with these people and is patient with the caution strangers take around him.  At least, this is a good aspect of his character if it's taken as a model for, say, white people to not go around acting indignant that people of colour aren't always ecstatic about our presence.  From the 'surface' reading of his story, where Drizzt is the victim and he is patient with having to work to personally win over every single racist he meets... that's suboptimal to say the least.  The tangle that this kind of speculative fiction has made of power dynamics makes it harder to draw any conclusive arguments out of the text beyond a lukewarm 'everyone should be good to each other'.  That kind of 'equal opportunity learning' gives us stuff like the unholy mess that was Disney's Pocahontas, in which the indigenous Powhatans are also guilty of prejudice against strangers just because the white people are here to conquer, pillage, and murder.  I cannot even.

Fantasy racism doesn't speak to real-world racism as long as it seeks to justify its existence: as long as those simple innocent farmers are afraid of orcs because orcs are literally and objectively the twisted embodiment of malevolence forged by an evil god to burn the world, fearing orcs isn't racism, it's self-preservation.  Fantasy that wants to tell us that racism is bad has to start by admitting that racism isn't a defense mechanism but a weapon--a philosophy that helps the people in power convince everyone else that it's okay to kill and exploit those other people, without provocation, because they just don't deserve any better.  Stopping racism is about acknowledging and revealing and destroying that idea, and it's got to be done in us, the privileged, oppressing class.

I'd love to add some examples here of fantasy racism done properly (purely as propaganda and not based on objectively truth) but... I'm not sure I can think of any.  Even in Discworld, the conflicts between trolls and dwarves ultimately come back to 'both sides bear guilt'.  In the Warcraft universe, primary example of a setting where orcs are heroic protagonists as often as villains, the orc-human divide stems back to those one or eight times that the orcish horde got cursed into raging berserkers and tried to burn down the planet.  In settings like Star Trek (and often Star Wars, depending on the book) aliens often are pretty one-dimensional in ways apparently defined by their species.  I think a good case can be made regarding house elves in Harry Potter, but that'd be a book unto itself and there are plenty of people who feel the text ultimately fails to make a proper case distinguishing the racist propaganda from the truth.  If any of you readers have encountered a good speculative treatment of how racism functions that doesn't make these kinds of errors, I would love to hear about it.

Let me end by sharing with you a quote from Chris Rock, in an interview from 2014 which I was lucky enough to encounter this week:
So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years... The question is, you know, my kids are smart, educated, beautiful, polite children. There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.
Hope everyone's been having a good Black History Month.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Storm Front, chapters ten and eleven, in which the worst and best of the book are on display

Sorry for the delayed post this week, folks.  I blame the unfathomable depths of my hatred for this dude.  At least a better plot shows up in this part of the story.

(Content: misogyny with a sex worker zest.  Fun content: literal word porn, muppet anguish, Ming-Na Wen being badass.)

Storm Front
Chapter Ten: This Book Is Noir, Dammit, NOIR*

Dresden drives away from Bianca's mansion in a loaner car from the tow trucker, but stops not far away to use a pay phone to call the victim's friend and sex-co-worker, Linda.  Forgive the pun, but apparently Linda's voice is like aural sex (I feel shame, if it helps) given the buffet of adjectives Butcher pours all over it:
The phone rang several times before a quiet, dusky contralto answered. [...] "Mmmm," she answered. She had a furry, velvety voice, something tactile. [...] She laughed, the sound rich enough to roll around naked in.
That's seriously only a sampling of it.  More effort is going into convincing us that this unseen woman is totally still worth having sex with than has been spent to explain Dresden's entire living situation (phenomenally rare superpowers and permanently broke).  There's one thing here worth a second glance:
"I'm not occupied. At the moment." 
In archaic English (1400s or so), using 'occupy' to mean 'currently having penetrative sex' wasn't wordplay--that became the default meaning.  It was considered an obscene term for centuries.  People said 'occupy' for sex so much that the word was kicked out of polite conversation.  When was the last time we managed that as a society?  Sure, no one says 'gay' to mean 'happy' anymore unless they're going for wordplay, but it's not considered obscene exactly.

I wonder if the current US presidential campaign will make people stop talking about 'trump card' like it's a good thing.

Anyway, Dresden says he's investigating Jennifer's death, Linda calmly panics and says she has to go and has nothing to say thanks okay bye.  Dresden fumes for a moment before deciding that, from Linda's new job as a driver for some rich couple, and the background noises, she's probably at O'Hare airport, so off he goes, luckily finding a "silver baby limo" still waiting at the second concourse he checks.  I'd make a wildlife documentary joke (the baby limo has an increased reflective capacity to confuse predators, but its hide will turn matte as it matures, to improve solar uptake) but I've got a million of those and we'd be here all night.  Dresden calls her again from another pay phone (did those still exist in 2000?  I guess) and uses the Objectively Worst 'flirting' response: "I like women who play hard to get".  She hangs up on him again, so he walks up and knocks on her window.

Linda gets another paragraph of description, because apparently just giving one to her voice was inadequate.  Highlights include: "a little too much eye shadow, [...hair] which hung down close to her eyes in insolent disarray [...] a predatory look to her, harsh sharp".  Dresden repeats his desperate need to talk to her about Jennifer, and she concludes: "And I like a man who just won't stop".

Pictured: Kermit screaming as deafeningly as me right now.

Apparently in Butcher's version of reality, sex workers are incapable of not flirting, even when they are being pursued by a strange man who wants to ask them dangerous questions about their murdered friend.  At no point does she say 'Fuck off, creep', or 'I'm calling the cops' or just mace him.  She's a veteran sex worker and the chauffeur for a rich couple, driving their solid gold limo to the airport--there is exactly zero chance she doesn't have three flavours of pepper spray, a taser that can cook a frozen turkey, and an entire gun show in the glove compartment.  No, she's a sex worker, and that means that she is always conjuring boners, all the time in everyone, even her enemies.  Faith and fucking begorrah.

She keeps doing it even while he asks her about her recently murdered friend.  Linda admits to knowing Jennifer, having "shared a bed" (more girl-on-girl for the male viewer!), and regular threesomes with Tommy Tomm.  After literal pages of how Hard it is for Dresden to focus while talking to her, he realises--LE GASP--that she's trying to confuse him with boners so he won't realise she's hiding something!

So we're clear on relative badness: go back to literally any part of Eye of the World, no matter how much I hated it at the time.  Yeah, even that part.  This here is worse.  These pages are worse than the entirety of that book.

Dresden strikes upon the key question ("When was the last time you spoke to Jennifer Stanton"--what an unexpected direction!) and she drops the flirting instantly.  Turns out she called on Wednesday, the night of the murder, and she was supposed to have joined Jennifer and Tommy, but she'd had to work.  That, she assures us is the extent of her knowledge, so I'd skip the rest of this scene, except it's so bad and if I have to suffer, so do you.

Linda tells us that Jennifer would never get tangled up in anything dangerous or immoral:
"She was sweet. A lot of girls get like--They get pretty jaded, Mr Dresden. But it never really touched her. She made people feel better about themselves somehow." She looked away. "I could never do that. All I did was get them off."
Pictured: Kermit's face warped into overwhelming sorrow, like mine.

This tragic sex worker is only capable of selling sex, not actively improving the lives and self-esteem of her clients.  Very sorrow, such subsuming of self in the service of men, wow.  This also serves to assure us that Jennifer was someone worth mourning--she didn't get jaded like all those other sex workers.  She was more like a person, or at least cared about people (men).  Is that as bad as this gets?  No, it has one more circle of hell for us:
"Why," I asked her, the words slipping out before I thought about them. "Why the slut act?"
What's this?  Has Dresden noticed that he's basically writing a straight-faced parody and revealing some clever--oh, fuck it.
"Because it's what I do, Mr Dresden. For some people it's drugs. Booze. For me, orgasms. Sex. Passion. Just another addict. City's full of them." She glanced aside. "Next best thing to love. And it keeps me in work. Excuse me."
Yup.  That's where this ends up.  Linda can't stop flirting because she's a sex addict constantly looking for her next lay.  Now, look, I'm sure (I hope) that a considerable number of sex workers do actually enjoy their work, but you'll find a lot more addicts among their clients.  The idea that your average sex worker just desperately wants to screw all the time is a fantasy as indulgent as Dresden's mighty blasting rod.

Pro tip for dudes writing sex workers: don't; you're almost definitely atrocious at it.

Linda's employers, the ultra-professional Beckitts, arrive and demand to know who Dresden is; Linda claims he's an old boyfriend and tells him to take off.   Mr Beckitt cops a feel of Linda as he gets into the car, while Dresden notices that Mrs Beckitt's face reminds him of soldiers released from German prisoner-of-war camps after WW2: "Empty. Numb. Dead, and just didn't know it yet."  Because if you want precise characterisation, the best direction to leap in is something associated with Nazis.  That's definitely ideal for your scenario, and not a howling cliche used every time someone wants to be dramatic.  At least pick a different war.

Dresden heads inside the airport, gets coffee, and considers what to do next--he needs do to paying work, and interrogating Linda doesn't count, so he either does the murder-magic research Murphy wants, or he digs more into Monica's missing husband.  The latter is less likely to get him decapitated, so Dresden calls the only pizza place close enough to the lakehouse, and is soon put on the line with the cracking-voiced teenager who delivered to Victor Sells.  The kid immediately goes into "I told you I'm not gonna say anything to anyone" sputtering, and Dresden runs with it, getting the terrified kid to drop a few specifics: that he saw an orgy going on inside, and that he ran into a photographer as he left (explaining the unsubtle film canister mentioned some chapters ago).  The kid hangs up soon after, being much better at saying 'no' than Linda was.

Dresden brushes the whole thing off as "an advanced case of male menopause" on Victor's case, because apparently 'midlife crisis' wasn't misogynistic enough.  He hasn't yet realised that, as this novel's B-plot, the whole thing is going to turn out to be some kind of giant magic-related conspiracy.

(Question for the audience: are there psychometric magics in this setting?  Like, you can find a person via an object they've touched, or vice-versa?  I kind of assume there is, since Dresden apparently specialises in finding lost objects, but finding photographer dude or Victor himself would be way easier if so.  Just wondering if that remains consistent later.)

Dresden returns home and gets jumped by one or more goons just outside his door.  Foot on his neck and baseball bat smiting the ground next to his face, Dresden is told to stop snooping or else, and then left.  He stumbles inside, but of course as a protagonist, after some aching and groaning, he takes it all as motivational:
"You are not some poor rabbit, Dresden!" I reminded myself, sternly. "You are the wizard of the old school, a spellslinger of the highest caliber. You're not going to roll over for some schmuck with a baseball bat because he tells you to!"
Are you though, Dresden?  Highest calibre, I mean?  We keep coming back to this: you're either one of the less-than-two-thousand people in the world who can wield magic, and therefore spectacularly powerful by any reasonable measure and have no reason to live in fearful poverty, or you're a low-rung hobbyist whose physics-defying abilities are irrelevant in the magical hierarchy and indeed the societal power structure in general.  Any chance you'll make up your mind soon?

Dresden makes some tea and grabs his gun--sorry, his "Smith & Wesson .38 Chief's Special", because this is that kind of book--having decided that the goons were almost definitely sent by Marcone, and they would be more put off by a gun than a wand.  Then it's time to start reverse-engineering that murder magic after all.

Chapter Eleven: A Brief Interlude Of Actual Plot

We catch up with Dresden the next morning, sleepless, hextuple-checking his "calculations" on the magic.  Apparently the spell is impossible or the killer is godlike.  I'm very curious what kind of math goes into murder magic, but we won't hear any of that.  Dresden immediately takes off to see Murphy.
Things were bad. They were very, very bad!
Gripping.  General guideline: if you're using exclamation points outside of dialogue, they had better be ironic.  When they're not, I start reading in the voice of a failing standup comedian--one who doesn't know the difference between loud and funny, but has just realised that the audience does.

Dresden gets to the police station and is forced to wait (by a "greying matron", not the usual "mustached old warhorse" who would trust him like he deserves).  He can see down the hall to Murphy's office, though, where she stands:
...with a phone pressed to her ear, wearing a martyred expression. She looked like a teenager having a fight with an out-of-town boyfriend, though she'd tear my head off if she heard me saying any such thing.
Shucks, Dresden, I'm just a simple country lawyer, but maybe that's because you reflexively infantilise every woman you meet and Murphy (nominally a mighty cop) knows she has to constantly fight back if she wants you to take her seriously for ten seconds ever again.  I suggest we reverse the metaphor, and hereafter a teenage girl having a phone-fight with an out-of-town boyfriend shall be described as 'looking like a detective trying to get the chief to acknowledge that, even if she's a loose cannon, she gets results, dammit'.

While Dresden's waiting, some kid shows up at full sprint out of the holding cells, freaking out, Dresden tries to tackle him (ineffectively, because he's a squishy wizard) and they collapse into a painful heap, but the kid does stop trying to escape.  Instead he screams at Dresden:
"Wizard! I see you! I see you, wizard! I see the things that follow, those who walk before and He Who Walks Behind! They come! they come for you!"
The cops show up to drag the kid away and explain that he's a ThreeEye junkie, sending Dresden off into a spiral of frantic speculation, because "for reasons I don't have time to go into now" he really is marked with the shadow of He Who Walks Behind, a murderous spirit that one of Dresden's enemies once sicced on him.  He survived with a scar on his aura, which only wizards should know how to see, but the junkie apparently did as well, meaning--zomg--ThreeEye really does give people the Third Sight.

(I think I would actually really enjoy the 'oh, btdubs, I'm marked with the shadow of a spectral hitman, long story' aside if it appeared in a book that I didn't already hate.  I love a good noodle incident, even if I'm skeptical that Dresden can spare pages talking about how sexy a woman's voice is or how bored he is in the waiting room but not to explain what enemy he made who put a multiplanar contract on his head.)

Dresden further informs us that Third Sight is overwhelming, either tearjerkingly beautiful or awesomely awful, and that wizards learn to keep it shut most of the time or they go mad.  Possibly more dangerously than that, junkies run the risk of seeing through the masquerade and 'forcing' a vampire or other disguised beastie to kill them in pre-emptive self-defence, which he calls "double jeopardy" because he never went to law school.

Murphy shows up with coffee for him, filled with sugar just the way he likes it, because apparently she's his boss and his assistant.  (Spoilers: it's only going to get worse.)  She does demand 50 cents for it on the way to her office.  Her office does get some description, with its aikido trophies and sleek new PC (she unplugs it before Dresden walks in) and paper nameplate taped to the door as a reminder of how quickly she can be fired.  It's better characterisation than any other woman has got in the book so far, I'll give it that much.

Dresden explains the magic situation: he was right that it was a thaumaturgic ritual, but his math shows that it would take a hilarious amount of energy to do to even one person, let alone two.  Murphy suggests the "wizard version of Arnold Schwarzenegger pulled this off" and Dresden explains that being focused with your energy isn't the same as having a lot of it.  He provides us with an abruptly racist and bizarre metaphor involving "some ancient little Chinese martial-arts master" who can't "lift a puppy over his head" but can "shatter a tree trunk with his hands".  Yeah, that's not how anatomy works.  I mean, here's Ming-Na Wen breaking through concrete with a ruinous spearhand technique:


You're all welcome.  But: that still involves having muscles.  She can probably also slam-dunk an SUV.  I remember the last taekwondo master I trained under, and yes, he looked like a kindly grandfather, but there was nothing frail about him.  It was like shaking hands with a vise.  The magic men made of nothing but skin and bones who can headbutt mountains into valleys are just weird orientalist fantasy.

Anyway. Dresden goes on with the other possibility, which he says is less likely: a group of wizards, hard limit thirteen, all working together.  That requires absolute trust and devotion, so it's mostly only possible with a fanatical cult.  Either way, he has also worked out that the point of the murders wasn't to scare Bianca, but to send a message to Marcone, as part of the new secret drug war in Chicago between ThreeEye and conventional narcotics.

This chapter, in various ways, feels like it's from a much better book.  A book that's about wizards getting involved in mafia wars, and not about a parade of varyingly-naked skinny white women who would totally have sex with Dresden if only he weren't so tragically Devoted To Justice.  I suppose we're only halfway through.  Maybe it's going to get better?  Eventually?  Oh, who am I kidding, I know we still have Love Potion hijinks coming soon.

Murphy tells Dresden to give her a list of names of people who could have pulled off the killing spell, Dresden refuses, she threatens to haul him in for obstruction and says it's her job to be a cop, not his (true, and well done Murphy).  I would like to ask again about the existence of wizard cops, and whether Dresden (now that he understands the situation and has evidence that he couldn't be the killer) might not do better to inform the White Council of his findings.  But Dresden's pounding headache, which has been building momentum for a page, finally decides it's time for a quick end to the chapter, so he passes out on her office floor.

Next time: Murphy plays Florence Nightingale for no good reason.

---

*I suppose I should make a consistent note that these books don't have chapter titles and I'm just making them up for funsies, lest new readers be confused that the titles are so much more entertaining and thoughtful than the text.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Erika vs Burnt offerings, chapters 7 to 11

We last left Anita training some puppies to play fetch, after pulling rank to make them come take care of their own injured because he was bad and helped a werepanther (against the interim leader's orders). She might be getting some of these werewolves killed in the process, but, eh, these things, they happen.

Anita rushes home to change and read over the file on the arsonist, making her late for her super sexy date. Off Anita goes for her hot vampire date, where we are given fanfiction levels of description about her clothes and makeup. The word "blusher" is used to describe blush, which I don't think I've heard used by people who speak English as a first language under the age of 70. I will give credit: it is at least at first centered on "how do you stash a gun in formal wear" and "this is why I'm wearing a dress I am definitely going to flash in, so I can get to my gun".  Because god forbid she just... flash the gun? She's licensed to carry the thing. People are already staring at her for all her scars. Just--just embrace your lack of fucks, Anita. Strap the gun to your fucking face.

Also, after about three paragraphs of "it's so hard to hide a gun in a dress which is why I need to dress revealingly", I'm wondering why she isn't just wearing something with an A-line skirt, or fit and flare, or with ruching... All of those would work great to hide a gun in a thigh holster without too much risk of flashing and easy access, but it's the 90s, I guess. Those styles didn't exist yet. Nor did jackets and shoulder holsters.

Then we get a description of her vampire babe boyfriend:
Jean-Claude's hair is black and curly, but he'd done something to it so it was straight and fine, falling past his shoulders, curled under at the ends. His face seemed even more delicate, like fine porcelain. He was beautiful, not handsome. I wasn't sure what saved his face from being feminine. Some line of his cheek, bend of his jaw, something. You would never mistake him for anything other than male. He was dressed in royal blue, a color I'd never seen him in. A short jacket of a shining, almost metallic cloth was overlaid with black lace in a pattern of flowers. The shirt was his typical frilled, a la 1600's shirt, but it was a rich, vibrant blue, down to the mound of ruffles that climbed up his neck to frame his face and spill out the sleeves of the jacket to cover the upper half of his slender white hands.
I don't know about you, but I'm positively dripping.

Pictured: A hilariously ugly royal blue metallic lacy shirt.

The blue matches his eyes.

We're told like, two paragraphs later he's not wearing underwear. This has swerved wildly from "lots of action, even if some of it is hamfisted" to "time to fist some ham".

He keeps calling her ma petite and slipping in occasional French words. My French is bad.  Like, super bad. I'm basically illiterate in French. Also the French I do speak is Canadian French which is a strange and different beast onto itself. It's like the equivalent of Cockney to the rest of the English language. Hilarious and sometimes indecipherable to people who don't speak the dialect and often made fun of. Despite that, I bet I speak better french than Laurel K Hamilton. For instance, he just keeps calling her "my little". To me, this stuck out. I assume it's supposed to be "ma petite cheri" but he's been calling her that since like, book two. So I did what any reasonable adult with a question does. I called my Mommy.

My mother is Very French. But again, Canadian French (I can not spell the slang name for the dialect my family speaks, but it roughly translates to "mutt" according to her). I asked her if calling someone "ma petite" was weird. She informed me it was super old fashioned, and is generally something you would call a child. If the person in question was super little it was... ok. Yeah, she could see it. It made sense, she guessed? She also proceeded to tell me some more local versions of the term. "Ma petit crotte or". Rough translation? My little golden turd. Or simply "my petit crotte" and drop the golden entirely. I know what I'm assuming Anita is a little of.

This is why the rest of the world makes fun of Canadian French.

There is also one other factor I feel the need to mention. All my sources? Canadian. Canadian French is known for (besides being hilarious and the ugliest sounding version of French in existence) being very informal. Parisian French, which is what Jean-Claude would be speaking, is very formal. So (and if someone who speaks "proper" French wants to correct me please do) him calling her this is overly familiar (when he started) and makes him sound like a grandpa. Sexy.

They banter; it's actually not awful, aside from the fact that she is so incredibly turned on by his mere presence that they had to get her a fresh chair twice now. As part of being Jean-Claude's human servant, he can now taste food through her, and he hasn't been able to taste food for ages, so, this is great for him. He missed food. Strangely, we are told very specifically that this isn't a fetish, but it leads to this exchange:
"No, no more of this tasting shit. I've gained weight. I never gain weight."

"You have gained four pounds, so I am told. Though I have searched diligently for this phantom four pounds and cannot find them. It brings your weight up to a grand total of one hundred and ten pounds, correct?"

"That's right."

"Oh, ma petite, you are growing gargantuan."

I looked at him, and it was not a friendly look. "Never tease a woman about her weight, Jean-Claude. At least not an American twentieth-century one."
I'm not sure if this is "my body doesn't do this, so no, it means I'm doing something wrong" or "but I'm getting faaaaat" followed up with her actual weight to reassure us she's not. Anita is about 5'01, 5'02. Same height range as me. At my smallest adult size, I was about 115 lbs, and that wasn't healthy. I mean, she could have a super slender delicate frame, but given the fact that she goes around punching vampires and I think her tits are waxed poetic about, I don't think she'd be that delicate. I am now curious how she was going around staking vampires before getting super powers, like, at that size wouldn't she get dizzy halfway through? Presumably she's mostly muscle, which is actually heavier than fat, so, where are her organs? Does she have hollow bones?!

Ahem. Anyways.

They spend 20 minutes "negotiating" what to get for dinner--which: really? How large was that menu? They started off agreeing on the entree, so it was what? "I want an appetizer." "I don't." "Fiiiine. Soup or salad? I want soup." "Well I want salad."

Like..? How did that take 20 minutes? It's implied this whole time was negotiation over it. That sounds tedious. However, unlike in 50 Shades, we don't have to actually see said negotiation, so, not so bad I guess.

We then get this:
"Would you like wine with dinner, then, sir?" 
He never missed a beat. "I do not drink wine." 
I coughed Coke all over the tablecloth. The waiter did everything but give me the Heimlich. Jean-Claude laughed until tears trailed from the corners of his eyes. You couldn't really tell it in this light, but I knew that the tears were tinged red. Knew that there would be pinkish stains on the linen napkin when he was done dabbing his eyes. The waiter fled without having gotten the joke. Staring across the table at the smiling vampire, I wondered if I got the joke or was the butt of the joke. There were nights when I wasn't sure which way the grave dirt crumbled. 
But when he put his hand out to me across the table, I took it. Definitely, the butt of the joke.
Pictured: A very unimpressed puppy

Wat. I don't even know. That waiter better be getting such a good tip. Jean-Claude was drinking wine when Anita got there, and now he has to deal with these two laughing like jackals. Jean-Claude now isn't ordering anything, so the bill will be smaller, and therefore his anticipated tip. Anita was rude, and has probably flashed him when he had to get her a new chair because she soaked the last one, and they took forever to order. Unnamed waiter dude, you are not being paid enough to deal with this shit.

Also yeah. Vampires cry bloody tears in this world. Which he is dabbing away with the table linen. I mean, blood happens, but this seems like it could be a potential biohazard. The blood tears, not him using the napkin specifically. What if a vampire goes to a sad movie? These are questions I will never get answers to.

They order dessert, continue eye fucking and antagonizing each other before Van Damme notices some vampires walk in. Well, one vampire and one human servant (not her own), dressed all fancy in white. Because Anita and JC are in black/dark colors. Subtlety. They vaguely menace at Van Damme and Anita, who nearly shoots the human in the middle of a fancy restaurant, because that's how she do, and go off. They were sent by members of the vampire council, there about a vampire they killed a book or two ago who was hella old something something be scared of them for reasons. Anita and JC are In Danger because they killed a former council member and now anyone and everyone that they care about is also maybe in danger. OH NO ANITA JUST ADOPTED A BUNCH MORE DOGS AND SOME CATS!

They go out to Anita's car, and Jean-Claude's ex is there. Asher, super hot vampire dude with horrible scars over half his face. He and Jean-Claude used to have a threesome going with Asher's human servant before she got inquisition'd. He wanted to murder Anita as revenge, because he blames JC for... reasons? Either way, he's there to drag them to the council and has been promised revenge. It's all very overwrought and melodramatic.
"You've finally given me what I need to hurt you, Jean-Claude. You love someone else at last. Love is never free, Jean-Claude. It is the most expensive emotion we have, and I am going to see that you pay in full." He stood in front of Jean-Claude, hands in fists by his side. He was trembling with the effort not to strike out. Jean-Claude had stopped crying, but I wasn't sure he'd fight back. In that moment I realized he didn't want to hurt Asher. 
Guilt is a many splendored thing. Problem was, Asher wanted to hurt him.
I stepped between them. I took a step forward. Asher was either going to have to step back or we'd be touching. He stepped back, staring down at me as if I'd just appeared. He'd forgotten me for just a second.
 
"Love isn't the most expensive emotion, Asher." I said. I took another step forward, and he retreated another step. "Hate is. Because hate will eat you up inside and destroy you, long before it kills you." 
"Very philosophical," he said. 
"Philosophy's great," I said. "But remember this: don't ever threaten us again. Because if you do, I'll kill you. Because I don't give a fuck about your tortured past. Now, shall we go?"
 See what I mean by overwrought? Although I will give credit to Anita. I enjoy how few fucks she gives. She will murder you if she thinks she has to, and she won't lose too much sleep over it. It's one of her main character traits, and it's consistent so far. Although she is going to start losing sleep because she's not more bothered, and that will become a weird and vicious cycle.

 We find out in the car that the vampire council members that have popped up have taken over JC's stomping ground and wrangled his people. So all their people and toys are hostages which really leaves them with their hands tied. The vampire council think since he killed the other guy and didn't take his place he's trying to start a new council. A cooler one. One where they have smoothies. The reason he didn't join the council is because he knew he wasn't strong enough to not get his ass murdered. Asher believes him, and alternates between angsting and trying to be coy with Anita in the back seat. It's like he's a surly teenager hitting on his dad's new girlfriend.

This is all naturally a test of the two: they don't want them dead, because they're afraid they'll be seen as martyrs. They just want them, you know, physically and emotionally scarred into submission. Because that can't be turned into anything sympathetic either. Still, today, probably not going to do anything too horrible, they want to see what they've got. Because the ruling group of vampires can't start a smear campaign and kill him when he's disgraced and they brought no one here to see what the hell they're going to do to these two.

Before going into the Circus of the Damned--oh, yeah, that's the name of the place. JC also owns a strip club called Guilty Pleasures.  Anita takes a moment to marvel at how pretty JC and Asher are, and wonder how one vampire found both of them at the same time and place when they're not related.

Asher, horribly scarred, stretches out his scars trying to make himself more gross and asks "DO YOU THINK I'M SEXY NOW ANITA? HUH? DO YOU?"

And Anita just kinda shrugs. "I dunno, I'm into hair and eyes, and your hair looks like some spun gold fairytale shit, and you have very pretty eyes."

Asher rips his shirt open to show his torso and scars off: "STILL THINK I'M BANGABLE?"

"Yeah. I'd still tap it."

"IT GOES DOWN TO MY PENIS, ANITA."

"Listen, I already said I would hypothetically ride that shit, why are you trying to sell me harder on it?"

Asher, confused because everyone has looked at him like he was disgusting and scary since this happened (holy water wounds, man, they are the worst) and vampire skingrafts aren't an option, is confused and distressed. He manages to get Anita a bit spooked at one point, but that was because he was So Angry, which also confuses him.

So he screams "NOBODY UNDERSTANDS ME" and flies away.

You might think I'm exaggerating the scene in my rewriting it here, and I am, but barely. He literally tells Anita his dick is scarred too and flies away in rage because she isn't bothered by his scars.

I'm 69 (heh) pages into this book, and I have lost track of how many people Anita Blake has threatened to harm or kill. It's been like, maybe 8 hours so far. There are also the werecritters, the whole fire thing, and vampire murders going on too. After 50 Shades and Wheel of Time I don't know what to do with all these things happening in less than 800 pages.

Tune in next time to see who Anita shoots first!

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Storm Front, chapters eight and nine, in which Will endures for you, precious reader

I was actually going to just drop this book and move onto something else (probably Brandon Sanderson's Way of Kings), that is how much I hate Harry Dresden.  The moments when he's supposed to be roguishly charming or witty make me want to lock him on the other side of a door, and the moments when he's supposed to be foolish or abrasive or share Old-Fashioned views on women make me want to throw him off a bridge.  The nature of magic is really fun and interesting, actually, but it's so inadequately explained that it starts forming plot holes. (E.g.: Dresden meets with a vampire and takes a literal pocketful of sunshine with him as a security measure, but no explanation is given for why he can only carry one at a time, so why doesn't he go with cargo shorts crammed full of summer days?  Why does it only work once?  'Plot mandate' is not a good enough reason.)

But I figured I should at least finish reading the book so I could do a quick wrap-up post, and about halfway through (a few posts from now) I hit a line of narrative so strikingly wretched that the heavens rent asunder and a sidereal entity appeared before me to declare: No: the people must know your suffering in its every exacting detail.  Thus bidden by them who turn the wheels of the stars, I opened a new Chrome tab and began to blog.

(Content: misogyny, death, invasion of privacy, discussion of rape.  Fun content: Fred Clark, womanpires, and nitpicking alchemy.)

Storm Front
Chapter Eight: Boners (It's A Pun) (Get It?)*

Dresden stumbles home late from his investigation of the lake house (where he was accosted by White Council enforcer Morgan) and decides to unwind by brewing potions.  He's got a two-floor basement apartment, a giant cat named Mister, and no hobbies apart from magic.  He describes himself as "the arcane equivalent of a classic computer geek", doing magic and nothing else, but I struggle to see how that fits with the rest of what we know about him: that he's broke and most people don't take him very seriously.  If he's starving for work, he's not doing magic professionally, and if he's doing magic for himself, how is he affording it (we're about to see that it's pricey) and why doesn't he seem to have anything to show for it?  His apartment is candle-lit and wood-fired; no enchanted lamps or heated floor or an ensorcelled compass that detects when people lose their keys within a three-block radius.

Dresden occupies an interesting sort of place here, metatextually.  He's sort of like a level 1 character in an RPG, who is supposedly the hero/survivor of a hundred life-or-death struggles, but also has a single Potion of Lesser Cure Wounds in his inventory and is legitimately threatened by a random encounter with two Tiny Bats.  I have no idea where he fits into his world.  Do most wizards live like this?  If other wizards aren't broke, why?  Do wizards normally just run big corporations (meddling with stocks via thaumaturgy, obviously) and funnel their bonuses into building sweet arcane artifacts?  In basically every facet of his life, I can't tell if he's ordinary or exceptional by the book's standards.

Anyway.  Dresden heads down into his basement's basement, where he keeps his lab, and wakes up the air spirit named Bob that lives in a skull on his shelf.  Bob is Dresden's magical database, since he's got unnumbered years of experience assisting various wizards.  Unfortunately, Bob is also an even bigger skeeze than Dresden, requiring us all to recalibrate our skeezometers by an order of magnitude in order to take proper measurements:
"Let me out for a ride, and I'll tell you how to get out of it." 
That made me wary. "Bob, I let you out once. Remember?" 
He nodded dreamily, scraping bone on wood. "The sorority house. I remember." [....] 
"Save it. I don't want to hear it." 
He grunted. "You're trivializing what getting out for a bit means to me, Harry. You're insulting my masculinity."
Their debate on who's more masculine goes on until Dresden trumps Bob with his upcoming date with Susan ("Dark skin [...] dark hair, dark eyes. Legs to die for. Smart, sexy as hell."  Three repetitions of the word 'dark', one unspecified use of 'smart'.  Is there any louder way to scream 'I'm not racist or sexist because I threw in a single word about her that isn't about her body'?)  Dresden moves on to demanding they make an "escape potion" without actually specifying the type of escape (Bob later says it'll temporarily turn him into wind), but Bob refuses unless they also brew a love potion.  Harry makes various threats and refusals back, but ultimately realises Bob has the upper hand and relents.
And, I thought, if Susan should ask me for some kind of demonstration of magic (as she always did), I could always--No. That would be too much. That would be like admitting I couldn't get a woman to like me on my own, and it would be unfair, taking advantage of the woman.
He doesn't quite call it what it would actually be (hint: rape) but at least consent eventually came into his calculations somewhere.  After his own manly pride.  (I hate Dresden so much.)   So they brew the potions, which are interesting enough (Harry at one point pours a jar of mouse scampers into the escape potion, and a sigh into the love potion).  Other ingredients for the love potion include tequila ("Champagne, tequila, what's the difference, so long as it'll lower her inhibitions?"--I also hate Bob), chocolate ("Chicks are into chocolate, Harry"), perfume, lace, candlelight, a love letter (torn from a smutty novel: "women eat these things up"), and powdered diamond (Dresden substitutes a fifty-dollar bill after being assured "Money [...] very sexy").

Predictably, I have Questions.

We're told that the ingredients for any potion vary with the person making it, and Bob's ability to deduce the right ingredients from knowledge of a person is what makes him so valuable, so the above isn't just a love potion, it is a Harry Dresden Love Potion, for use only by Harry Dresden to make a woman fall in love with Harry Dresden.  So... why is it so generic?  Why is it full of stereotypical Chick Stuff instead of items that might actually relate to the kind of person who would love Harry?  Why isn't the liquid base black coffee with a ton of sugar (the way Harry likes it, to keep him working at all hours)?  Why a "passionate love letter" that he could and would never write, and not something that might actually represent his affections for someone, like sharing a personal secret or wish?  Why perfume and not cologne or aftershave or something?  Lace and not a scrap of leather jacket?  Chocolate and not blood shed doing the right thing regardless of cost?

There are societal-level reasons that a Harry Dresden Love Potion reads like a Wal-Mart Valentine's Day Bargain Gift Bag, and they are the same reasons that Wrath personified is always a muscular dude who murders people but Lust personified is always a curvy white woman that causes other people to get aroused.  Love and romance are girl things that are not related to male identities, but are simply catered to for the sake of naked sex times.  And, apart from Exceptional Girls like Murphy, we assume that The Women have largely interchangeable tastes, as if we don't all know women who hate chocolate or never read a romance novel or wouldn't prefer the smell of sawdust and solder to the most expensive perfumed diamonds in the world.  (I assume that a Harry Dresden Love Potion wouldn't work on a man, but would it?  What would go into a manly love potion? Beer, gunpowder, beards, and Neil Patrick Harris' voice saying the word 'turgid'?")

I'm vexed by this in particular because a lot of things in this book can ultimately (maybe) be brushed off as Dresden's own foolishness (his dismissive attitude towards Monica, his interpretations of world politics and wizard history) but this is worldbuilding on an objective level.  This is, we are told, Expert Magicking, and thus the universal power of candlelight and purple prose to make a woman tear off her own undergarments are fundamental Fact.

Anyway.  Harry pours the potions into a couple of clearly-labelled old Gatorade bottles (this chapter is full of noodle incidents like "that diet potion** you tried", "the antigravity potion, remember that", and "ever since the invisibility/hair tonic incident") and goes to bed, head full of the deadly tasks still to face, like talking to a vampire woman vampire woman.

Chapter Nine: WOMANPIRE 

Dresden awakes the following afternoon to Murphy on the phone, and says he's got no leads yet but he'll have something by the end of the weekend.  Apparently Murphy is currently being hounded by the commissioner, who likes to use her as his scapegoat for unsolvable crimes.  It's not clear what makes her a good scapegoat, unless he likes to tell people 'My best detective believes in magic but I can't fire her because somethingorother (female privilege, probably) so I am bound'.  Harry suggests that he would have more luck talking to Bianca than Murphy has had, but she forbids it:
"If you get your ass laid out in the hospital or the morgue, it'll be me that suffers for it." 
"Murph, I'm touched." 
"I'll touch your head to a brick wall a few times if you cross me on this, Harry."
The endless heaping of Murphy's tough-talk without actually seeing her do anything but beg Harry for help does not make for a compellingly deep, plausibly strong, or even vaguely interesting character.  Y'all know how I do--getting attached to the underloved female characters is like my signature move in these posts--but Murphy needs to actually be involved in something before I can particularly care.

After lunch, Dresden monologues at us for a while about how wizards aren't innately special people, but they're very good at preparations, so if they know what they're facing, they'll have a solution.  In the case of going to face a vampire madam, Dresden polishes his cane--I see you snickering there in the back--secretly holsters a silver knife, pockets his escape potion and pentacle (his mother's, given to him by his father, the first indication we have that Dresden had parents), and puts "a small, folded piece of white cloth into my pocket".  Apparently he also wishes he could bring "my blasting rod or my staff, but that would be like showing up at Bianca's door in a tank".

Dresden drives down to the Velvet Room on the lakeside, a 1920s mansion, and his car sputters out just as he arrives, leading to a not-particularly-interesting battle of bluffs between him and the predictably stupid muscly doorman, who ultimately buzzes up to Bianca and lets him in, though the guard takes the cane off him.  (What's the difference between a cane and a staff and a blasting rod?  Is there some reason he couldn't make a staff that looked like a cane?  I have many issues with the Penny Arcade dudes, but all I can think about is this classic comic.)  Dresden gets to keep his pentacle, though, and in this setting vampires are vulnerable to faith, not symbols themselves, so Dresden's faith in magic makes it a good shield.  (On this subject, I look to Fred Clark and his thoroughly alternative take on what kinds of crosses confound vampires--in his philosophy, I'm not sure whether that pentacle would work or not.)

Dresden enters the big old house, passes "a well-groomed young woman with a short, straight haircut" and waits in the library for half an hour before Bianca appears.  A sampling of the descriptions I'm having to read right now:
Her hair was a burnished shade of auburn that was too dark to cast back any ruddy highlights, but did anyway. [....] She approached me and extended her hand, a motion oozing feminine grace.
I have trouble imagining any kind of feminine oozing that could be described as 'graceful', but correct me if I'm wrong that these are words best not put in close proximity to each other.
"A gentleman, they said. I see that they were correct. It is a charmingly passe thing to be a gentleman in this country." 
"You and I are of another world," I said.
Et cetera et cetera Bianca is the most fuckable thing he's ever seen and he draws her chair out for her and she crosses her legs "and made it look good", which is just baffling me.  Anyway, he says he's here to ask about Jennifer Stanton's murder and Bianca instantly leaps over the table to tear out his throat, so Dresden hurls the handkerchief full of sunshine at her and blasts her across the room, shredding bits off her.
I had never seen a real vampire before. [....] It had a batlike face, horrid and ugly, the head too big for its body. Gaping, hungry jaws. Its shoulders were hunched and powerful. Membranous wings stretched between the joints of its almost skeletal arms. Flabby black breasts hung before it, spilling out of the black dress that no longer looked feminine. [....] Its clawed feet were still wearing the three-hundred-dollar black pumps.
Do I even need to explain all the things that bother me here?  Bianca has become 'it' instead of 'she' now that she doesn't look human, but unless Butcher is trying to do something clever here with gender assignment, it seems likely to me that the "flabby black breasts" (wild guess: some humans have those) indicate that Bianca is also a female vampire (not a genderless vampire in a female role), so what does it say that she gets her pronouns revoked for not being sexy enough?  Is there any particular reason that a key element of her hideous transformation is that her flawless white skin has turned black?  I feel these things should speak for themselves.

Dresden pulls out the pentacle and pours enough magic into it to ward her off, creating a standoff situation.  Bianca reveals that she thinks Dresden killed Jennifer, and so there's a lot of 'why should I trust you not to try to kill me if I lower my weapons' haggling.  Dresden swears "by fire and wind" (these are phrases that I want to mean more than 'it sounds cool') that he had nothing to with the murder, and they cautiously sit down again.  Bianca transforms back: "The flabby black breasts swelled into softly rounded, rosy-tipped perfection once more."

I don't know what to make of the obsession with breasts in this chapter (and others).  Is Butcher trying to go for 'scared but erect' in the reader, or can he just not help himself?  Dresden says that she looks perfectly beautiful again, but he can't forget what she 'really' looks like.

After pages of staring, they get back to the plot, but Bianca tells him "You're the only one in the city with the kind of skill required to cast that sort of spell."  Chicago proper has a population of 2.7 million, with about 10 million in the whole metropolitan area.  I don't know what percentage of those people are wizards, but 'best spellcaster in a city of ten million' seems like a pretty good superlative.  Are you a superhero or just clinging to the last rung, man?

Turns out Bianca and Tommy Tomm were old friends and she knew he was always kind to his escorts, so she feels actual remorse at whatever's going on.  Dresden can tell she's hiding something, so he locks eyes with her and they ★SOULGAZE★.
More than anything else, Bianca wanted to be beautiful. And tonight, I had destroyed her illusion. I had rattled her gilded little world. She sure as hell wasn't going to let me forget that.
Not luxury, not power, not control, not secrets or influence or independence or knowledge or any of those classic immortal vampire desires.  Nope.  Bianca, ancient deathless lady of manners, desperately wants everyone to think she's hot.  By human standards.  If I understand the worldbuilding so far, vampires aren't even from Earth; they're immigrants from some spirit world.  What kind of womanpire's most desperate wish is to make human men tumescent?  Ugh.  This is something that could be sold with a sufficiently developed backstory, but we're just supposed to take it as an obviously sensible desire at first glance.

She says she'd kill him now if she hadn't given her word, and he says he'd use his death curse to drag her to hell with him.  Bianca turns her head away, too slow to keep Dresden from seeing her shed a single tear.

What am I even reading.

Bianca reluctantly offers Dresden the name and number of Jennifer's friend (and threesome partner) Linda Randall, and they prepare to say belligerent goodbyes when Bianca notices that Dresden has started bleeding from the scratch she gave him earlier, and she starts getting overpoweringly thirsty.  She croakingly tells him to leave, but Dresden of course lingers by the door to watch her suffering as she tries not to murder him by instinct.  You're a tool, Dresden.  She tells him she'll make him regret the night, and the woman from earlier shows up.  I assume at this point the classic porn saxophone starts playing:
Paula murmured something too soft to hear, gently brushing Bianca's hair back from her face with one hand [...] and pressed her wrist to Bianca's mouth. [....] Bianca's tongue flashed out, long and pink and sticky, smearing Paula's wrist with shining saliva. Paula shuddered at the touch, her breath coming quicker. Her nipples stiffened beneath the thin fabric of the blouse [...]
Harry Dresden can see a woman's nipples stiffen under her shirt from across a dark room.

Again, I feel that is a thing that speaks for itself.

The saliva apparently gets Paula wasted, and Bianca bites her wrist open to start feeding as Paula collapses into some kind of sexual epileptic fit.  Dresden finally leaves: "The scene with Paula might have aroused me, if I hadn't seen what was underneath Bianca's mask. [....] The woman had given herself to that thing, as quickly and as willingly as any woman to her lover."  Dresden thinks a bunch about the implications of addiction to vampire saliva and the possible enslavement of wizard thralls, watches the tow truck guy work on his car for a while, and finally the doorman delivers Linda's phone number.  Dresden had been told Paula would bring it down, but realises that she isn't coming.  Dun dun DUNNN.  I assume we are to conclude that Bianca couldn't stop feeding and has killed Paula, just in case we weren't sure whether we were supposed to find her sympathetic or not.  (She's in the sex industry and she's a secretly-ugly woman; of course we weren't.)

Lest you think our suffering has ended, let me warn you that we haven't even met the sex-addicted sex worker who's sad that she can never make her clients 'feel better about themselves'.  For some reason, I didn't go into this book expecting it to be full of painfully misogynistic sex workers (the sexy corpse, the evil madam, the tragic hooker) but apparently that's what we signed up for.  See you all next time!

---

*I suppose I should make a consistent note that these books don't have chapter titles and I'm just making them up for funsies, lest new readers be confused that the titles are so much more entertaining and thoughtful than the text.

**We are also informed at some point that Dresden is that most curious kind of individual: the tall skinny man who eats constantly but mysteriously never gains any weight, also known as Every Goddamn Protagonist Ever, Sweet Buttered Jehoshaphat.  So why was he trying a diet potion, if he has no body image issues?