Last time on Storm Front,
“So, Mister Dresden. What brings you to my humble house? Care for an evening of entertainment? I quite assure you that you will never have another experience like it.” She placed her hands in her lap, smiling at me.
I smiled at her, and put one hand into my pocket, onto the white handkerchief. “No, thank you. I came to talk.”
Her lips parted in a silent, ah. “I see. About what, if I might ask?”
“About Jennifer Stanton. And her murder.”
I had all of a second’s warning. Bianca’s eyes narrowed, then widened, like those of a cat about to spring. Then she was coming at me over the table, faster than a breath, her arms extended toward my throat.
Which at the moment just looks like rage. In a minute, though, Harry will explain what’s really going on and that she was attacking because she was expecting him to attack her and trying to kill him first. (And remember, her attacking him means almost certain death at the hands of the Council, but she still feels that’s the better option.) So go read that scene where she’s complimenting him for being such a gentleman and remember she’s this on edge the whole time.
Suddenly it looks a lot less like Harry showing how he respects women and a lot more like her playing along with a john’s fantasy in the hopes she can make it out alive.
It’s time for the white handkerchief he kept mentioning to show its worth. Remember how he had a shadow in one to dump in a potion earlier? In this one, he had sunlight.
The light smashed into Bianca, hurled her back across the old table into one of the shelves, and tore pieces of flesh away from her like bits of rotten meat being peeled off a carcass by a sandblaster. She screamed, and the flesh around her mouth sloughed and peeled away like a snake’s scales.
I had never seen a real vampire before. I would have time to be terrified later. I took in the details as I tugged my talisman off over my neck. 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.
I like this bit. I just don’t like everything else that’s coming.
Flabby black breasts hung before it, spilling out of the black dress that no longer looked feminine.
The book’s been hinting for a while that it considers “feminine” and “thing I want to fuck” to be synonyms, but here’s where it’s confirmed. Her secondary sex characteristics are completely exposed now, and somehow she looks less female, because it only counts as feminine if they’re perky enough for Harry to jerk off to.
He then pulls out the pentacle and activates it, driving the vampire back again.
“You killed her,” the vampire snarled, and its voice was exactly the same, sultry and feminine, even though twisted by rage and coming from that horrid mouth. It was unsettling. “You killed Jennifer.
Harry not only wasn’t expecting this, but it doesn’t even register for a couple minutes of conversation – for now, he just brushes it off as absurd and says as much. This despite Harry not only being the only obvious suspect, but Morgan helpfully showing up to inform him that in the eyes of the supernatural community, he is the only obvious suspect.
At any rate, he insists he’s here to talk, and the vampire without -ess now that she’s not longer “feminine” due to her dangly boobs says fine then, lower the amulet, at which point she can eat him.
I tried to work through the situation from her point of view. She had been scared when I showed up. She’d had me searched and divested of weapons as best she could. If she thought that I was Jennifer Stanton’s murderer, would the mere mention of that name have brought that sudden violence out of her? I began to get that sinking feeling you get when you realize that not everything is as it appears.
Harry is a detective! Five minutes after someone’s fucking explained this to him, he works out that actually it should’ve been obvious all along.
What’s particularly irritating is that in detective fiction terms, the author’s cheating. We have no idea if it’s standard to search guests, and Harry doesn’t even say, “I wondered if it was standard to search people who came to talk,” or anything to tell us he doesn’t know, so the scene is presented as if it’s how things always go in the supernatural world. Then here, NOPE actually it must be a sign she was scared. This is why Harry’s a surprisingly terrible viewpoint character, he just doesn’t explain his world properly. It isn’t that he should know everything, but he should at least be clear if he doesn’t know one way or the other. What we get is Harry just breezing through everything and leaving the reader no way of telling what’s normal and what isn’t.
“If I put this down,” I told her, “I want your word that you’ll sit down and talk to me. I swear to you, by fire and wind, that I had nothing to do with her death.”
“Wind and fire” sound dramatic, but there’s a logic to oaths. You’re supposed to swear by things that are constant and dependable. If someone swore by the fickle wind and transient fire, that oath isn’t worth the breath it takes to utter.
Maybe you could argue wind and fire would be a good oath for short-term stuff – wind and fire are both powerful while they last, and maybe when you’re supernatural and oaths actually mean anything, you develop a system for oaths depending on how long they’re meant to last, to avoid a bunch of irrelevant oaths piling up. Like, if you swear to serve someone for a day, you don’t want to swear by the mountain that’ll last a million years, because it means you’ll have “oath to serve X on date XX/XX/XXXX” stuck to you for the rest of your life and it makes your magic laggy like if you put way too much stuff in your computer startup menu. But I’m pretty sure that’s not a consideration here. In fact, I’m pretty sure “Wind and fire” sound dramatic, but is, as of the last word, more thought than the author put into this.
The vampire stiffened, and though its voice was still harsh with rage and pain, still sexy as a silk shirt without any buttons
I do feel there’s an unpleasant connection here between pain and sexiness.
At any rate, Bianca promises to talk if he lowers the burny faith thingy. Harry does one better and throws it onto the table and out of his reach.
The vampire slowly lowered its arms, blinking its too-big eyes at me and then at the pentacle upon the table. A long, pink tongue flickered out nervously over its jaws and lower face, then slipped back into its mouth. It was surprised, I realized. Surprised that I had done it.
Sexy feminine issues aside, the actual conflict of here is done well. If Harry had gone into this as a supposed peer rather than a slack-jawed yokel, knowing that this could easily be seen as an aggressive move and in the context of a world where everyone powerful liked to keep their distance from everyone else powerful, and we see it illustrated by how even knowing this problem he still can’t stop things from erupting into violence, this would be a lot better.
And if he wasn’t such an asshole generally, the idea that all it takes to defuse fear-based conflicts is rising above your own fear for a show of trust would be a lot more moving.
Also it’d help if he didn’t immediately follow up with:
Vampires are like demons, like wolves, like sharks. You don’t let them think that you are potential food and get their respect at the same time.
Bianca was afraid and it was fear (“respect” of his ability) that prompted this whole mess. The situation was only defused, and she only comes to think of him as something not to maul, when he makes a show of weakness to prove he doesn’t mean her harm. What Harry takes from this is it’s time to alpha male the fuck up because vampires only respect badassery.
Also, tiny worldbuilding fact – demons look worse, and there’s also “Elder Things” that aren’t even ripped off from Lovecraft but ripped off from people ripping off people ripping off Lovecraft.
The vampire stared at me for a moment more. Then it shuddered, drawing its wing membranes about itself. Black slime turned into patches of pale, perfect flesh that spread over the vampire’s dark skin like a growth of fungus. The flabby black breasts swelled into softly rounded, rosy-tipped perfection once more.
Bianca stood before me a moment later, settling her dress back into modesty again
Another nice thing about the actual direct conflict is that as soon as she’s not fuckable, Harry refers to her as “it”, which, offensive as it is, at least means she gets to exist on her own terms and not as potential sex. Now that she’s back to being a vampiress, Harry’s reverting to type. He reenacts the whole gentleman holding out the chair for the lady thing.
She stared at me for a long minute. Some expression flickered across her face. She was disconcerted by my apparent lack of concern about the way she looked, and it told.
See, as a woman, she’s obsessed with being viewed as attractive. She’s not thinking “wow, he’s not peeing himself after seeing my awesome True Form!!!”, she’s thinking that wow, he’s still treating her as ~a lady~ despite her being disgusting. And of course, the “gentleman” script he’s on says the polite thing to do is pretend to be nice to ugly bitches, so he’s thinking the whole while that the real her is disgusting and the glamour/makeup she wears is meaningless.
This whole thing is additionally skeevy as fuck because of the idea the gentlemanly thing is to just pretend what happened didn’t – that the only problem is how embarrassing violence is. She tried to attack him, he smacked her down, he acts as if it never happened as if it’s humiliating to her to acknowledge he needed to sear her skin off. It has all sort of awful parallels to women pretending they aren’t abused because admitting it happened would be even worse. People don’t do this in fights between men.
Then she lifted her chin, proud, and settled gracefully into the chair again, regal as any queen, every line stiff with anger. The Old World rules of courtesy and hospitality were holding-but for how long?
GUESS WHAT HARRY DOES NEXT
I returned to my seat and leaned over to pick up my white handkerchief, toying with it. Bianca’s angry eyes flickered down to it, and once again she repeated the nervous gesture of licking her teeth
THAT’S RIGHT AS SOON AS HE’S DEFUSED THINGS HE REMINDS HER OF THAT TIME HE BURNED HER SKIN OFF BECAUSE FUCK YOU HE IS AN ALPHA MALE
Harry goes back to the reason he’s actually here and she explains as clearly as possible that no really, only he could have done it, why is she explaining this to him? While it’s not made clear because the author very obviously doesn’t give a fuck, this establishes Harry is the wizarding 1%, because supposedly there’s enough of a wizard population to support a pub and one that, at least some of the time, is packed full, but none of those guys are even possible culprits.
She explains that no, she can’t think of any other enemies who could do that. She says that this is because obviously she wouldn’t leave someone like that alive, which actually seems like dodging the question – another new enemy could have popped up, or an old enemy who was simply crafty enough she could never take them out directly. In either case, of course, she has every reason not to want Harry messing with things, so it makes sense to read this as her saying that if so, she’d deal with it herself and so won’t tell him.
In another book, the fact she talked sideways at this issue would be relevant, but here it is not.
Another issue is that Harry previously stated that vampires were not allowed to attack mortal wizards and has still not said there are any exceptions (not even in connection to the fact that she just attacked him – if he was the killer, would that have been allowed, or would she still have been attacked in retaliation?) which would mean that she shouldn’t be able to move against any enemy like this one before – either not at all, or not until the enemy attacked first, even if she knew it was going to happen.
But none of that will be addressed. Moving on, you know how we’ve had hookers, but not hookers with hearts of gold yet?
“How did you know Tommy Tomm?”
She shrugged, her shoulders gleaming like porcelain, and just as brittle. “You may have thought he was just a bruiser for Johnny Marcone, Mister Dresden. But Tommy was a very gentle and considerate man, underneath. He was always good to his women. He treated them like real people.”
Her gaze shifted from side to side, not lifting. “Like human beings. I wouldn’t take on a client if I thought he wouldn’t be a gentleman, but Tommy was better than most. I met him years ago, elsewhere. I always made sure he had someone to take care of him when he wanted an evening of company.”
Given our options, I’ll take “vampire running ethical escort service” over the alternate of “women exist only to tear into each other”. And I mean, she’s a vampire. Whether or not this is a valid business model is probably irrelevant. If you’re going to have a giant harem of women (as it is contractually mandated that vampiresses be primarily lesbian with bisexual tendencies to bang the eventual hero) you might as well do something else with it too.
I guess it’s sort of like the recurring complaint of how there shouldn’t always need to be sexism in fantasy. Admittedly this is supposed to be a gritty realistic fantasy, and I’m also pretty sure the author doesn’t mean anything beyond that he wants sexy hookers without the character looking bad for drooling over them, but still. It could have been even worse.
Bianca decides to skip further banter and ~soulgaze~
I didn’t flinch. I met her bottomless gaze and quirked my mouth up in a little smile, as though I had something more, and worse, to pull out of my hat if she wanted to come after me again. I saw her anger, her rage, and for just a moment I got a peek inside, saw the source of it. She was furious that I had seen her true form, horrified and embarrassed that I had stripped her disguise away and seen the creature beneath. And she was afraid that I could take away even her mask, forever, with my power. More than anything else, Bianca wanted to be beautiful.
Because she’s a woman. For women, it doesn’t matter that you have enough power to make the issue of attractiveness irrelevant. It doesn’t even matter if you’ve found a way to look attractive. Being beautiful is the most important thing in the world, and you aren’t really pretty (it’s just the makeup). Beauty, for women, is always, always an illusion, even if someone has to peel your very skin off to prove it.
You just flat out don’t see this narrative with men. There’s vanishingly few stories about men being ugly, and even then the focus requires men to have an actual problem as a result of being ugly – men aren’t presented as sad no women think they’re pretty, they’re sad they can’t get any women to fuck them as a result.
(It’s actually kind of interesting – we had two world wars in close succession last century, where we had the medical technology to save someone with half their face blown off but not to fix it. WW1 was particularly awful.
And there are a very few stories talking specifically about veterans that record how awful it is to have children cry when they see you, but…that’s it. It’s not a concern that’s made its way into the public consciousness. Women have to fear ugliness in all its forms, while we’re told beauty has no real worth for men – even the ugly beasts have the problems be misunderstandings more than anything, they’re not inherently worth less.)
She shuddered and jerked her eyes away, furious and frightened at the same time, before I could see any deeper into her-or she into me. “If I had not given you my word, Dresden,” she whispered, “I would kill you this instant.”
And again, we see that only Refrigerator Tiger comes out the better on a soulgaze. Seeing into that guy threw Harry badly, but he’s all coolness and control after seeing into a terrified, furious predator’s soul, as that has no resemblance to a tiger’s soul at all.
The book by this point has just completely forgot there’s any rule about vampires attacking wizards so Harry instead says she shouldn’t because wizards apparently do death curses and he’s pretty sure he’d either win or at least take her with him. This sure sounds like a lie despite Harry supposedly sucking at them, and Harry goes on to say he’s bluffing, which is a skill that requires good lying ability.
She stiffened, then turned her head to one side, and let her fingers go limp. It was a silent, bitter surrender. She didn’t move quickly enough for me to miss seeing a tear streak down one cheek. I’d made the vampire cry.
And so we reach the inevitable ending – despite literally possessing superpowers, she is a woman and has been put in her place by a man.
Oh sure, Harry feels bad, but he’s rewarded literally the very next line by her giving him information on the case. Dead Hooker A had a possibly still live friend, Hooker B.
“She’s working as a driver for someone. Some rich couple who wanted a servant that would do more than windows. She wasn’t the type I usually keep around in any case.
Everyone, let’s try to predict where this is going.
A) Is she already dead?
B) Is she not dead, but will be dead before the end?
C) Is she going to survive the novel?
But back to the vampire. She suddenly realizes he’s bleeding and almost loses control and tears into him.
Bianca kept on staring. Her tongue flickered around her mouth again. “Cover it,” she whispered. A strange, mewling sound came out of her mouth. “Cover it, Dresden.”
I picked up my handkerchief, and pressed it over my throat. Bianca blinked her eyes closed, slowly, and then, turned away, half-hunched over her stomach.
And yet somehow, her being a ravenous monster is just another weakness.
She tells him to go and says that he’ll regret this day.
I walked toward the door, but then stopped, glancing back at her. There was a sort of horrid fascination to it, to knowing what was beneath the alluring exterior, the flesh mask, but seeing it twist and writhe with need.
Yet another reminder of just how little Harry’s supposed chivalry is worth.
And then he can’t go because they’re about to lez it up!
the straight-haired young woman who had greeted me earlier entered the room. She gave me a passing glance, then walked past me, kneeling at Bianca’s side. Paula, I presumed.
Paula murmured something too soft to hear, gently brushing Bianca’s hair back from her face with one hand. Then she unbuttoned the sleeve of her blouse, rolled it up past her elbow, and pressed her wrist to Bianca’s mouth.
I had a good view of what happened. 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, and she let her head fall slowly backwards.
Her eyes were glazed over with a narcotic languor, like a junkie who had just shot up.
Bianca’s fangs extended and slashed open Paula’s pale, pretty skin. Blood welled.
Bianca’s tongue began to flash in and out, faster than could really be seen, lapping the blood up as quickly as it appeared. Her dark eyes were narrowed, distant. Paula was gasping and moaning in pleasure, her entire body shivering.
Did you think I was being sarcastic. No. Not in this terrible, terrible book.
I felt a little sick and withdrew step by step, not turning my back on the scene.
Indeed, he felt sick enough to have been noting the shape of Paula’s nipples.
Paula toppled slowly to the floor, writhing her way toward unconsciousness with an evident glee.
Bianca followed her down, unladylike now, a creature of bestial hunger. She crouched over the supine woman, and in the hunch of her pale shoulders I could see the batlike thing beneath the flesh mask, lapping up Paula’s blood.
I got out of there, fast
So it’s “slowly” up until Bianca stops looking like a hot woman and starts looking like a bat, then suddenly he can move quickly. But he’s horrified the whole time, he swears.
The scene with Paula might have aroused me, if I hadn’t seen what was underneath Bianca’s mask. Instead, it only made me sick to my stomach, afraid.
Sure, Harry. Sure.
The woman had given herself to that thing, as quickly and as willingly as any woman to her lover.
You’re just speaking clinically here, of course. You’re definitely not into that.
He then helpfully informs us that the saliva “probably” contains a drug. No shit, Sherlock.
It would explain Paula’s behavior, the need to have more of her drug. But I wondered if Paula would have been so eager, had she known Bianca’s true face.
Because addicted people normally have such high standards.
What’s most annoying here is why would that even change things? So she looks like a giant bat. This is back to beauty being the most important thing for women – what does it actually matter? If she didn’t have a scary alt-form it’d be more reasonable to trade blood to your drug dealer?
Harry then says that wow, I guess that explains why the White Council is terrified about vampires, a fact never previously mentioned. He imagines that if a wizard was addicted, they could…have a pet wizard? And that’s the worst thing imaginable. And somehow no vampire has thought to just spit in a wizard’s face yet.
Do not think I will not make you regret it, she had said.
You’d think an author would be decently ashamed of this sort of clunker, but no, he’s actually repeating it just in case anyone missed it.
Harry was told Paula would deliver the phone number of dead hooker’s possibly still alive hooker friend, but a little while after he leaves, the guard from earlier gets a call and writes down the number for him instead.
I glanced at the paper, but avoided reading it just then.
Why the fuck would you do this, and if you were going to, why the fuck would you bother telling anyone?
“I thought Bianca was going to send Paula down with it.”
He didn’t say anything. But his jaw tightened, and I saw his eyes flick toward the house, where his mistress was. He swallowed. Paula wasn’t coming out of the house, and Fido was afraid.
So Bianca just killed Paula.
I found this unclear when I read the book. I think it’s because the author is assuming there’s binary states of alive/dead, while I assumed that Bianca had just drained enough blood Paula passed out. Still a disturbing loss of control from your unstoppable boss, still not a healthy thing to happen, but you’d think vampires with long-term feeding arrangements would be really good at not murdering their livestock by accident. Point is, Paula’s death will be a major plot point later.
What will not be a plot point of any kind is Harry feeling like this is his fault, despite the fact we don’t know how vampires work so all we have is the sequence of events – Bianca was attacked and seared by magic and faith, became desperate for blood afterward, then accidentally drank too much and killed Paula. It’s made abundantly clear Bianca did not mean to kill Paula.
Now, Harry didn’t go into this deliberately intending to fuck Bianca up to the point she’d accidentally kill somebody else, but as I said, he was explicitly told the supernatural community assumed he was the killer and he failed to put one and one together here. Even just calling in advance rather than barging in would’ve helped the case – sure, Bianca would’ve told him to go fuck himself, but they’d probably have then worked out that she thought he did it and he was saying he did not, in fact, do it. There’s even a good chance that, without things erupting into violence, Bianca would’ve been willing to tell him information because he’s hunting for her enemy, and he should be absolutely fine with the idea she likely wants to kill the guy herself, because any heartsploder is out of Harry’s league and the police certainly can’t handle it.
Instead, he fucked it up in just about every way, alienated someone who should’ve been an ally, and led to someone’s death.
On it was a phone number. And a single word: Regret.
Drama! And Harry obligingly angsts about now he’s got even more enemies. Because obviously that is the only thing to be bothered about here.