Battle Ground – A Literary Crime

Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files has always been a complicated subject for me. On one hand, Butcher has a special knack for melding lore that is modern, ancient, well-known, and obscure into a giant melting pot of exciting action that gets the blood pumping. On the other hand, the series has a number of issues including the consistently poor treatment of female characters, the inconsistent quality of the books, and the fact that although Butcher does a great job combining all of the lore of the world, there often doesn’t feel like there is a lot of substance that he is adding. However, despite the flaws, I would have still considered myself a fan of The Dresden Files… until I read Battle Ground.

For those who aren’t followers of the series, Dresden is a huge ongoing urban fantasy with seventeen core novels under its belt, seven more planned, and a ton of spinoff content. We used to get a steady stream of content from Butcher, and books would come out almost once a year – until recently. The last Dresden novel I enjoyed, Skin Games, came out in 2014. Afterward, Butcher announced that he needed to take some time to transition the series into its next iteration, and he was going to take some time to create the biggest and best Dresden story yet. A book so awesome, that a single volume couldn’t contain it. So we waited six years, 2020 rolled around, and I read both of Butcher’s masterpieces. If you skim my review of Peace Talks from last year, you will find I was wholly unimpressed with the novel. But, when I finished Battle Ground I turned to my co-reviewers and said, “this is the worst book of the year.”

You might be asking yourself why I am spending so much time explaining the goings-on around this book without actually explaining what is wrong with it. That is because I needed you to have context so I could talk about all the ways this book is bad. It is bad mechanically, thematically, conceptually, logistically, subjectively, objectively, and contextually. The series has always walked a fine line on a cliff face of being too problematic, and this book yeeted itself along with the whole series into the sea.

So let’s stop beating around the bush and actually talk about what’s wrong with Battle Ground. First off, this isn’t actually a book. It is one long drawn-out action scene where all of the action is happening off-screen. I have absolutely no idea why, but Butcher decided the best way to convey a sense of awe and grandeur was to have most major events happen off-page and have Dresden turn to the reader and say, “wow there are some truly indescribable things happening outside right now, I can’t even talk about them, I bet you wish you could hear what is happening, instead I am going to talk to an irrelevant person at this bar.” This is just a terrible narrative choice, and Butcher used “indescribable” so many times in lieu of description that I almost had a stroke. The prose, in general, is terrible. Butcher is not a good action writer, a fact he has managed to hide for a very long time by making this series primarily a mystery with a few action set pieces. The prose feels like watching a trainwreck on repeat until it melts your brain.

The entirety of the book is predicated on the idea of solving questions that were left unanswered in the previous novel, Peace Talks. The singular job that Battle Ground had to accomplish in its 400 pages of ‘content’ is to explain one or two problematically unanswered questions about what motivated a character from Peace Talks. This character made a few seemingly irrational choices and we never found out why. It doesn’t even come close to doing this job, making Peace Talks an even worse book retroactively, which is impressive given my already low score. This book reads like an appendix in both of its connotations, and it should have been ripped out of the body of works like the bloated, poisonous, vestigial list of useless information that it is.

Up next, we have the fact that Butcher completely shatters his magic system and worldbuilding for no clear reason. Dresden’s power level in this story is exactly whatever Butcher needs it to be for the situation he is in, which means it varies wildly to the point of completely obliterating immersion. Sometimes he is strong enough that Odin himself bows to his greatness. Other times Dresden is so weak, because Butcher wants you to always feel like every second of this book is a life or death exchange, that he struggles to fight a metaphorical stray dog. I rapidly gave up trying to understand how strong Dresden was or what his powers were because it is a losing battle from the outset. Part of this issue is the fact that Butcher is trying to transition Dresden into a ‘higher weight class’ of power with these books. Ostensibly, the series is moving from Dresden solving small crimes in Chicago to battling interdimensional horrors that threaten reality. The problem is that Butcher really likes writing about how Dresden is an underdog and is as stubborn metaphorical dog with a bone who can’t drop it. So the fun scrappy underdog premise that sold the previous iteration of the protagonist is getting in the way of him stepping up to the big boy table.

In addition, the very little bit of actual story we get in this book is there to paint Dresden as the ultimate Gary Sue of all time. Not only does the reader have to suffer Dresden whine about how unfair his life is, and how unimportant he is to the cosmos for seven hundred pages, they are subjected to the knowledge that this whole interdimensional war, which involves the deaths of DEITIES, was carried out to make Dresden look bad. It reads like someone was trying extremely hard to empower incels and tell them that “don’t worry, the world really does revolve around you no matter what other people say.” I want to claw the flesh off my face.

But, we still haven’t gotten to the crowning achievement of Battle Ground, and the reason that I absolutely will not be continuing on with the series. Unfortunately, this is a spoiler and you should walk away if you are somehow still interested in this novel. This book takes a female love interest that has been built up for 16 novels and has finally started to move away from “Dresden’s sex hole with feelings” to “likable complicated character,” and kills her for nothing other than shock value and to make Dresden feel bad. Her death is so meaningless, cliche, and unimportant that I honestly refused to believe it happened. I thought it was a “Rey killing Chewy” situation. It is not. It’s done so that Dresden can have some sort of motivation to keep the world from dying, which apparently wasn’t enough for him, and so he can reach inside his own ass and find some deus ex machina power to be even cooler and more self-centered. And to just absolutely salt the wounds, the book ends with Dresden finding out that he is being “forced into marriage with a harem of sex demigods” in the next book, and is really sad about it so the reader should feel okay that Dresden is still a good person. I am still livid thinking about it as I write this review.

This is the worst book I have actively reviewed in the entirety of the time I have been running The Quill to Live – though there have been worse ones I haven’t reviewed. The only reason the score of this book isn’t lower is because it didn’t incite violence against minorities, so it isn’t the literally worst book of all time, though it throws its hat in the ring. There are actually a number of additional sins I haven’t even covered, but I have spent enough time being angry for a single review. Extremely do not recommend.

Rating: Battle Ground – 2.0/10
-Andrew

The QTL Best And Worst Romances Of Fantasy

We are not a site that is well versed in the subgenre of romantic fantasy. I am absolutely positive that there are hundreds of fantastic fantasy romance stories that we have never heard of. And yet, in our time reviewing the larger fantasy landscape, we have come across a number of beautifully heartful, and catastrophically awful, romances. So, if you are looking for a list of the definitive best paranormal romance stories to check off your list, I would recommend you look elsewhere. But, if you like our content and are looking for a wonderful romance story, or a hilariously bad take on relationships for Valentine’s Day – we have you covered.

Quill To Live’s Top Five Fantasy Romances

5) The Lions of al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay Lions is one of the top Quill to Live books as a whole, but it has a unique and wonderful take on romance. While there is no singular romance plot to elevate and speak about, the entire story and characters are all motivated by their love of their partners and family. It’s a story about the multifaceted power of love for both good and bad. The characters in Lions are frankly phenomenal. I deeply love every single one and Kay shattered my heart at least five times over the course of the book. The story is just heart-achingly beautiful and feels like it speaks to good people trying to be good in situations where there are no good options. I found Lions asking me to think about smart questions I had never considered before, such as “what are the many forms love can take?” and found it to be a very thought-provoking and contemplative book. It helped me grow a little as a person, which is, in my opinion, the single greatest trait a book can have. The dialogue is witty, and the situations characters find themselves in are often hilarious and heartwarming. To top it all off, the book is standalone and ends with an incredible climax that feels both thematically satisfying and gripping to read. Just… don’t grab it first if you are only looking for positive vibes this Valentine’s Day.

4) The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune – Here comes The House In The Cerulean Sea again, making its way onto yet another Quill To Live list. It’s well-deserved, though, thanks to T.J. Klune’s positively charming romance between two of the book’s main characters. Cerulean follows Linus Baker, a corporate drone/caseworker at the Department In Charge Of Magical Youth. When he’s sent on an oddball assignment, Linus arrives at the eponymous house and meets a ragtag bunch of misunderstood magical youth and their quirky caretaker, Arthur Parnassus. The romance and love that radiates throughout Cerulean isn’t found just in the central romance. It’s also found in the love that Linus develops for the children he’s sent to (presumably) care for. If you want a believable and heartwarming romance, Cerulean has you covered. If you want to explore love in many different ways beyond the cookie-cutter romance, Cerulean delivers that, too. 

3) The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster BujoldChalion is a slow burn that you won’t be able to finish in a day, but is very much worth your time and worthy of a top pick in the romance category. The book tells of an estranged nobleman returning home to the place of his youth and becoming a tutor for a cursed household. Fortunately, the slow pacing is very enjoyable because the cast of characters, both protagonists and antagonists, are excellently written and pleasant to be around. Chalion accomplishes the rare feat of showing some of the cast grow up over time and getting you invested in how they change as a person. Much of this revolves around a growing romance between two of the leads. I enjoy how there is no love at first sight and you get to see the characters slowly build the relationship brick by brick. The prose in this novel is also gorgeous, which always gets me in the romance mood. I found myself presented with an endless stream of quotes that I was sending to friends because they were profound, wonderful, or sometimes hilarious like this one:

“Men write poems to the objects of our desire in order to lure them closer.” 
“How practical. In that case, you’d think men would write more poems to ladies’ private parts.” 
“The ladies would hit us. Lips are a safe compromise, being as it were a stand-in or stepping-stone to the greater mysteries.” 

2) The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern – To me, The Night Circus is what I always wanted Romeo and Juliet to be. Romeo and Juliet is purported to be one of the best love stories of all time, but when you think about it, it’s actually about two horny teenagers who knew each other for three days and then killed themselves because of their horrific communication skills. The Night Circus, on the other hand, tells a good version of this epic romance. Two rival magicians from different schools battle it out over years in a traveling circus of wonders through an arcane contest and slowly fall in love. On top of the epic premise, the prose is downright gorgeous and the plot has enough twists and turns to tip the book towards a thriller without ever becoming a Shakespearean tragedy. It’s one of the most popular fantasies of the modern era for a very good reason, and if you haven’t read it you should.

1) Swordheart by T Kingfisher I only actually read Swordheart last year, but as you can see it made a very powerful impact on me. This book simply makes me happy. It’s a low key realistic relationship, in the form of a magical sword dating a housemaid. These characters are just so warm and nice and relatable that it is so easy to insert yourself into one of their shoes. Plus, as an added bonus the book is laugh-out-loud funny from the first line. While some of the romances on this list are aspirational ballads of the greatest love stories of all time, this is the one that felt spiritually closest to the story of how my wife and I fell in love, and I could read it a hundred times and never get bored.

Quill To Live’s Worst Five Fantasy Romances

5) Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft – I greatly enjoy Senlin Ascends, but the set up for a portion of the story is “Senlin, a teacher who married his student, loses his wife in a crowd and spends multiple books looking and pining for her.” I always dislike the teacher and student couple trope; it always feels a bit predatory. Benching the wife, Marya, for a large portion of the story offscreen does not do a lot to make her a compelling motivation for Senlin’s journey. However, I will say that when we eventually do get to spend some time with Marya in the later books I dislike her, and the relationship, a lot less. But let’s be honest, we are all hoping Senlin ends up with Edith, the first mate of his skyship, at the end of the series.

4) Godsgrave by Jay Kristoff – Kristoff has always had some trouble with romance subplots, but his treatment of his protagonist, Mia, in book two of the Nevernight trilogy was a straight-up plot hole. I will avoid naming the other half of this relationship to keep you pure of spoilers, but essentially Mia falls in love with an antagonist of book one for no real perceivable reason other than plot convenience. The massive pile of bodies standing between these two people coming together only comes up a few times and then is swept under the rug. It feels like a badly done rewrite where Kristoff decided at the last minute to shake up the romantic landscape and just threw a freaking dart at a board when choosing the new pairing.

3) Night Angel by Brent Weeks – I feel like this one is pretty self-explanatory if you have read it. If you haven’t, don’t. We have now moved into the territory of romance crimes so grievous that they actually somewhat ruin the books. In this case, we have Gary Stu boy loves Mary Sue girl who is too pure for this cruel, cruel world. The story is about a boy who becomes the world’s greatest assassin to protect a childhood crush, and wants to murder half of the population of a continent because someone was once mean to her. There is also a much greater romance crime at the end of the series involving a metaphorical cursed BDSM sex collar, but I won’t go into much more detail in case you want to read this bad life choice. Week’s Lightbringer has slightly better romance subplots, in that they aren’t agonizing to read, but I wouldn’t hold your breath. 

2) Battle Ground by Jim ButcherBattle Ground was easily the worst book we read of 2020, and we will be coming out with a more in-depth review of its sins in the future. For now, let it be known that one of the reasons this book is so offensive is the treatment of a main female character/romance for plot convenience that has been built up over 15 books. She just yeets out a window in the most contrived possible way to the point where it absolutely murdered any forward momentum I had in the story. This is on top of the fact that Butcher’s treatment of women, both in romances and in general, has been highly questionable in multiple instances over the series’ many installments. The entire thing is starting to read like an incel’s badly directed erotic fantasy, and Battle Ground was miserable enough that I finally stepped off the Dresden train of misery. 

1) The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss – I don’t need to contextualize this one, I know you all have read this book, Denna and Kvothe absolutely suck. 99% of the problems in this story can be traced back to the fact that these two characters never have one functional conversation. It is a comedy of errors that isn’t even slightly funny. Neither of them are likable characters in the slightest when it comes to their treatment of the other. The Felurian scene in book two was like being violently punched in the face with poor writing choices while out for an otherwise enjoyable literary stroll. Neither Denna nor Kvothe has any qualities the other admires yet somehow they claim each is the ultimate catch. I enjoy the Kingkiller series, mostly for its undeniably beautiful prose, but each time I return to it, I need to shut off the parts of my mind that respond to romance and love so that it doesn’t murder the rest of my brain in an attempt to stop me from reading further.