In which I return to Dresden Files #15, Skin Game, to look more closely at a couple of scenes.
The usual disclaimers apply. I do nothing to avoid spoilers in my close readings of these novels and if you will be bothered at the revelation of major plot points of Skin Game and possibly previous novels as well, then do not read this post. You have been warned.
“A good con doesn’t just happen.”
Hades deposits Harry back in the vault at the moment he left. The heist continues, but with a twist, Harry is eager to secure the rest of the “weapons” where Nicodemus cannot have them, since Harry is only contractually bound to hand over the chalice. And things proceed with the expected betrayal until suddenly Harry is cornered, outnumbered, and, it seems, out of luck. The chapter ends on a cliffhanger. And then Harry plays his unreliable narrator trump card and reveals to the reader, in flashback form, the story of his second (though chronologically first) drink with a god.
It’s a repeat of scene that’s probably appeared in every Dresden Files novel: Harry is cornered, outnumbered, outplayed. It’s his forte. And then something curious happens:
“And I stopped being able to fight back the maniac’s grin that had been struggling to get lose as I played my hole card and said, “Game over, man. Game over.”
And on those cryptic words, it ends. The beginning of the next chapter is the big reveal:
“A good con doesn’t just happen.
It’s all about the setup.
And at this moment Harry becomes a very self-conscious narrator indeed as he gleefully reveals to the reader , finally, the secret he’s barely been able to contain. Immediately after that first meeting with Nicodemus, and anticipating Nicodemus’ treachery, he asked Mab to help set up a meeting with the god who, as Donar Vadderung, the head and CEO of Monoc Securities, runs an army for hire, specializing in supernatural security services. When Harry asks Mab to set up the meeting she is impressed at how he anticipates her— she had already arranged for the meeting before they met with Nicodemus. Harry’s starting to think several moves ahead.
Like the meeting with Hades, this one involves drinking— it pretty much has to since they meet at Mac’s place— Harry and Kringle each have one of Mac’s famous beers — and Harry gets a sandwich as well. (Mab, on the other hand, doesn’t drink at all.) Again, there’s something about this act of drinking with the gods that seems portentous.
Unlike the visit with Hades, in this encounter with Kringle it is by and large Harry who asks the questions and calls the shots. But Kringle offers him more than just the material help he’s seeking. He also confirms Harry’s suspicions about Nicodemus, gives Harry key information about the nature of Anduriel, the Fallen angel associated with Nicodemus, as well as giving Harry some very pertinent hints about Mab and the the importance of protocol when dealing with supernatural beings.
“Little games of protocol”
Kringle explains that if he had been asked to appear in the persona of Vadderung Harry would have to wait. Mab as queen of Winter can command Kringle, who is under her authority as a winter spirit, but she cannot command Vadderung. Harry protests that Kringle and Vadderung are legal fictions, they’re really the same person. But Kringle explains that these little games of protocol have a purpose:
“Little games of protocol are how one shows respect, especially to those with whom one does not get along famously well. It can be tedious, but generally is less trouble than a duel would be.”
Harry is still learning to respect these games. He still stubbornly tries to fight Mab, even if it would be less trouble to do things her way. Although she seems to sometimes respect him for his stubborn tenacity, it’s clear that at some point he also needs to learn to play the game. And sometimes he can. When he wants. But perhaps in the future more will depend on whether or not he is able to respect protocol. I can’t help but think there’s a pointed message in this exchange, another instance of Kringle voluntarily acting as a mentor to Harry.
“Mab moves in mysterious ways”
Harry opens by posing three questions to Kringle in the form of suppositions that he wants Kringle to confirm: First, Nicodemus will not reveal his true goal if he can help it. He will lie. Second, at least one member of Nicodemus’ crew of outside experts will actually be a plant and have one of the coins of the Fallen. Third, Nicodemus will betray Harry after Harry has got him what he wanted but before the heist is over. Kringle/Odin confirms all of Harry’s theories, showing that Harry has indeed come a long way in terms of outthinking his opponent. These also act as a nice bit of foreshadowing of Harry’s own plans for Harry will match Nicodemus move for move: he will lie about his true goal, he will have a plant, and he will betray Nicodemus as soon as the stated goal is achieved, thus anticipating Nicodemus’ betrayal.
But perhaps Harry hasn’t quite got as far as thinking all of that through at the time of this meeting. His reaction to having his suspicions confirmed is one of frustration: “Dammit,” I said. “I had hoped I was wrong about something. If I’m to follow Mab’s rules, my options are limited.”
But Kringle/Vadderung/Odin offers him a bit of unexpected advice:
“May I offer you a word of advice, based purely upon my knowledge of the Queen’s nature?” “Sure.”
“Mab moves in mysterious ways,” he said, looking back at me with a grin. ”Nasty, unexpected, devious, patient, and mysterious ways. I don’t think she’d throw away a piece as valuable as you on a lost cause. Look for an opening, a weakness. It will be there.”
Look deeper, he’s telling Harry. Probe beneath the surface. Mab is not always what she appears. The situation isn’t necessarily what it seems.
Indeed, Kringle goes on to drop a hint, a key piece of intelligence about Nicodemus’ Fallen angel partner, Anduriel:
“Perhaps that’s because Nicodemus understands just as well as you do where true power comes from,” Kringle said.
I arched an eyebrow at that. “Knowledge,” I said. I thought about it, putting pieces together. “Wait. You’re telling me that he doesn’t use Anduriel in fights because Anduriel isn’t a fighter.”
“Any of the Fallen are absolutely deadly in battle,” Kringle said severely, “even hampered as they are. But the Master of Shadows doesn’t prefer to operate that way, no.” Nicodemus’s control over the gang of superpowered lunatics was starting to make more sense now.
“Master of Shadows. That’s an old, old phrase for a spy master.”
“Exactly,”Kringle said. “Nicodemus knows very nearly as much as I do. Anduriel has the potential to hear anything uttered within reach of any living being’s shadow, and sometimes to look out from it and see.”
Once again, Harry is asked to look beneath the surface. And he sees immediately that this power of Anduriel’s means that he, Harry, must not reveal his plans even to his friends, even to Karin and Michael, because that might give him away to Nicodemus. Thus the great con that Harry pulls off not only on Nicodemus, but on the reader as well.
On the one had it pushes Harry once again into the position of holding out on his friends, unable to let them in on his plans. On the other hand, it highlights just how far he has actually come since the early books because now it is hard for him to hold out on Karin and Butters and he is more painfully aware of how much the deception hurts those friendships. Will this, too, have long-term consequences, or is Harry getting better at shoring up his friendships whenever he can so that they can weather these trials when it is necessary that he hold back a little? Only time will tell, I suppose.
“I never find having too many advantages any particular burden”
Harry recognizes that knowing about Anduriel is a huge advantage but it’s probably not enough to level the playing field. He needs another advantage. Kringle approves, saying, “I never find having too many advantages any particular burden.” Then as Harry outlines his plan to arrange for his own plant “Kringle [takes] on the air of a professor prompting a stumbling protege.” Just in case we missed the fact that Kringle, like Hades, isn’t just helping Harry out, he’s using the Socratic method to lead Harry through a particular thought process.
And indeed Harry’s solution meet’s Kringle’s approval:
Kringle took a pull of his beer. “Not bad. Not perfect, but then, it never is.”
Kringle praises Harry’s plan and then shows that, like Mab, he’s already anticipated Harry’s need. He’s already got the dossier for Grey in his bag before Harry even hatched the idea of a plant of his own. Like a good teacher, Kringle lets Harry figure it out on his own, as much as possible, only giving him information when it’s truly new and not something Harry can deduce from what he already knows, like the nature of Anduriel’s power. But not only is Harry being taught how to anticipate his opponent and strategize, he’s also being taught how to trust his allies to have his back.
When Harry worries about the “gift” of information having a hidden cost— he’s long since learned to be wary when dealing with the fae— Kringle dismisses his worry: “Consider it a belated holiday gift, free of obligation. That island is a tough delivery.” While Harry is not wrong to be cautious, he also needs to learn to trust his allies, to realize indeed that he *has* allies, that not everyone is out to get him. Again, when Harry worries about how he can trust Grey, a stranger, to stay bought, Kringle insists that Harry doesn’t need to trust Grey, he only needs to trust Kringle’s word:
I arched an eyebrow. “You’re asking me to trust a stranger’s professional integrity?”
“I wouldn’t do that,” Kringle said. “I’m asking you to trust mine.”
I exhaled, slowly. I took a long pull of beer. “Well, hell,” I said. “What’s the world coming to if you can’t trust Santa Claus?”
If Harry is indeed being groomed to take a more active role in the fight against the Outsiders, he’s going to have to learn to work with beings like Hades and Odin and Mab in a totally new way. I think in these two scenes we’re seeing the opening moves of a new game. Oh, it’s not totally new, since in fact Harry’s been indirectly fighting against these guys for years. But with new power comes new responsibility.
Indeed it seems that his new role as Winter Knight might not be merely a trap intended to turn him into another Lloyd Slate. Perhaps, instead, what we’re starting to see is that Slate, like Maeve and Lea, had already been compromised by the Nemesis. Perhaps Harry has misunderstood the Knight’s role because the only Knight he’s seen so far was a warped and twisted failure. It seems possible that what Mab has planned for Harry will not be a subversion of who he is but instead a chance for him to become even more who he’s always been: a warden, a protector, a man who does his duty as he sees it, even when his awesome powers are totally misunderstood. Perhaps being Knight and Warden aren’t two very different roles at all but two aspects of the same role — much as Vadderung and Kringle are two different aspects that Odin wears — not incompatible with each other, but ‘little games of protocol’ which will protect him as he acts in multiple realms, moving back and forth between Chicago, Demonreach, and the Nevernever.