Before I delve into my thoughts and what I took away from the book, let me warn you now:
And by spoilers, I mean nearly the entire damn book.
A quick aside: the following is a combination of my process of thoughts as I read and a review of the book. Any English instructor I have ever had would, and probably should, cringe and cry at the "review" presented.
Oh. My. Gawd.
A lot of what happened I knew in advance. My gut twisted and I knew, I knew where this story was headed. In 99% of all other books and stories, I would be devastated. I would be horrified. I would be disgusted that the author took such a predictable route. It kills weaker characters, in my opinion. But Dresden? Mr. Butcher, I applaud you. Based on my normal reaction, you took a risk, but it was worth it. Dresden needed this. And it was done in such a way that, even knowing it was coming, I could not stop reading. It was classy - if anything in Dresden's life can be called "classy".
Prior to Ghost Story
Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, Chicago's resident wizard, is shot by a sniper on his brother's boat at the end of Changes. Dresden falls into the cold, black water, and then unconsciousness takes hold. Readers, like me, were left screaming, NO! It can't be!
Mr. Butcher then released a short story anthology, which included the novelette Aftermath, a tale from Karrin Murphy's point of view following the shooting. No sign of Dresden, just a lot of blood.
My heart broke. I kept telling myself over and over that Mr. Butcher had something up his sleeve - it couldn't end this way!
Ghost Story Unfurls
Then Ghost Story came along after what seemed an eternity. It picks up in the black of the water, which soon transforms into a train station. That white light? An oncoming train. Yup, something that could only happen to Dresden.
After a near miss of the train and a brief encounter with a few angels in a police station, Dresden rejoins the "real" world. As a ghost.
Yes, I know. The title of the book screamed that this was coming. For a split second, I still had hope - maybe one of the Sidhe had stepped in? His godmother, the Leanansidhe, for example?
And then it hit me.
Dresden's not dead. He can't be. This is all in his head. And if it's not completely in his head, then maybe one of the greater beings did swoop in and rescue him.
Crazy, no? I mean, he stood before angels, for crying out loud! Dead is dead and what his mind perceives as "Chicago Between" is purgatory. End of debate. Right?
Dresden is told that "three of the people [he loves] will come to great harm" unless he solves his own murder. We all know Dresden by now - of course he returns to help.
Life as a Ghost
I love reading inside Dresden's head. When I was first learning to read, my dad taught me how to envision the world on the page as a movie set and to immerse myself into the story; I love walking beside Dresden and learning along with him in his clumsy, headstrong way. Ghost Story offers a new learning experience for our magical champion: an afterlife as a spirit.
Limitations to a spirit in the mortal world: what is myth and what is truth? Dresden spends the majority of the book learning what he can and cannot do through trial and error and under some guidance of an incorporeal mentor, Captain Sir Stuart Winchester, whom he fights alongside to save Mortimer Lindquist. Mort is a medium and, as it turns out, a downright powerful ectomancer.
Mort is also one of the few people with whom Dresden can communicate. Medical examiner Waldo Butters, with the help of Bob, modifies a radio to hear Dresden while Molly Carpenter uses a tuning fork as her communications aid. The only other human character alive that can hear Dresden is Fitz, a punk kid living in an abandoned warehouse under the rule of a minor thug wizard.
Yes, Dresden, even in death, still manages to find strays that need his help.
A Sense of Duty
Dresden returns to find Molly borderline insane. He had been duty bound to his apprentice to keep her safe and teach her the ways of the wizarding world. The fragmented mind in rag-tattered clothing that walked the streets was a result of his last and final battle with the Red Court vampires; her schizophrenic tendencies and unstable situation are his fault - he failed to protect her and sent her sensitive mind into the horrors of battle with strong, dark magic.
But Molly is not the only one broken. Murphy has devolved back to the super-suspicious and distrusting woman she was before she accepted the reality of the supernatural world. She is on edge, guilt-ridden, and stressed. She refuses to acknowledge Dresden as dead and fears his specter as an imposter, going so far as to having him followed.
Two of the few women in Dresden's life (and now afterlife) are mentally injured because of him. He takes it upon himself to find a way to help them while on his quest to find his own killer. Because that is what Dresden does. He tries to fix his mistakes.
It's Not a Harry Dresden Story Without More Trouble
So Dresden is tasked with finding his killer. Mort is being attacked nightly by wraiths. There is a minor wizard abusing homeless kids. Molly has become a feared, insane vigilante known as Rag Lady and Dresden must somehow fix her brain. Murphy's house is the target of a drive-by shooting. May be getting a bit stretched, but Dresden will find a way; he always does.
But the entity behind the scenes? Corpsetaker. Yes, she is back! Her lair is fortified with a human cult group and a door through the Way that, well, merges World War II and nightmares.
Did I mention that Bob discarded his evil portion and Evil Bob is in charge of defending Corpsetaker? Yup, Dresden has his plate full.
Dresden has always been good at rallying the troops and lucky enough to emerge (in some cases, stumble or crawl) on top. Being a ghost really has not hindered his leading abilities. Armed with a horde of ghosts to command, Bob's knowledge and skills, Molly's talents, and Murphy's group, Dresden is set to take on Corpsetaker.
Never Too Old (or Dead) To Learn
Throughout the book, Dresden is forced to stop and think things through before setting off on whatever his current mission is. He realizes that, in life, he was rather bull-headed and charged right into situations that he should never have survived, cost the lives and sanity of those he loved, and set off chain reaction elements that could have been prevented. As a ghost, he cannot push through certain limitations, like sunlight and thresholds, and must learn to cope with sitting back and watching events unfold. Lea even uses techniques to train Molly that, simultaneously, teach Dresden the importance of his actions.
This is why I do not fault Mr. Butcher for taking this route with Dresden. One of the reasons, at least. Dresden needed to die to have enough limitations binding him into inaction so that he can learn to think before running head-first into battle. Will he keep this lesson at the forefront of his mind? While he is dead, yes. Assuming for a minute that my original guess is right and he is somehow still alive, it will probably not be his first reaction all the time, but it will be there more often. I'm an optimist, okay?
Curious Events Graveside
Dresden also does a lot of soul-searching throughout the book. Memories of his past bubble up and we get more insight into the boy that became our wizard and why he is the way that he is.
Lea eavesdrops in on one such memory and begs him to finish - in trade for answers, like any good Sidhe. Their question and answer session is interrupted by a cemetery statue, Eternal Silence, the same "haunted" statue that Dresden mentions appears and disappears from the cemetery all the time. This statue, however, moves and speaks during the daytime. In the sun. After sunrise.
Eternal Silence speaks like Death in Terry Pratchet's Discworld series, all capital letters, bold words booming directly inside the listener's mind. He silences Lea about Dresden's death. After Dresden has asked all of his questions, the statue departs and Lea prattles on about proxies.
The Clues Add Up
The statue is an important character. I knew that the moment he was introduced. But with Lea going on about proxies, I started thinking hard. For whom could the statue be a proxy? My mind could not decide, but my speculation that Dresden was still alive and was probably with Mab (Lea admitted to being her proxy) and whoever was behind the statue began to eat at me even more.
Hints fly from the very beginning about the truth. Subtle hints about Dresden being a not-quite-right spirit, and speculation that he was, well and truly, a soul....
Did you catch the first major red flag?
Come on, really? His body is "unavailable"? Did you really think he was dead? Angels and spirits are like the Sidhe: half truths and speculation can be pretty misleading. Yes, it had been six months since the shooting, but "unavailable" is not the same as 'decomposed and gone'.
I will admit, though, that when I read that line, my first thoughts were that Mab had him holed up in a block of lake ice in her castle. I did not expect that she had teamed up with Demonreach (also Eternal Silence) and that he was on the island in their care.
The future of Dresden
There is a wide expanse of stories to come for Dresden and plenty of hints as to what some may be. Many questions are answered by Ghost Story, but several more arise.
How will his return to the mortal world be accepted? Murphy had finally broken down and allowed his death to become a reality - just in time for him to reawaken with a heartbeat. Will he even return to the land of the living? Will Mab convince him that, for the best interests of all of those he knows, he is best thought still dead and hide out of sight?
What is the pressing matter that required Mab to have a self-aware and responsible White Knight? War is brewing, but with whom?
Which Bob survived the fight in the Nevernever? Was it a draw?
With Maggie under the Carpenter's roof, is her true identity safe from the White Council and the world? Yes, she is safe (did you ever guess there could be that many guardian angels for one family?), but how long will it last?
What really became of He Who Walks Behind?
After finishing the book, I perused a few spoiler threads online. The majority of what I read came down to people either hate the book or only so-so loved it. Many claim Mr. Butcher is "losing his touch" or peddling to the publishers with Ghost Story - like I said, this technique is something that I normally cry about, and it appears they do as well. But in this instance, I would have to disagree, and it being, in my opinion, well executed, makes this book one that I love.
Many characters are introduced and, while some may seem to be minor, one-off characters, I see potential for their involvement in future books. There are story arcs that have yet to fully expose themselves and I do believe that some of the other readers are on the right track with a lot of their speculation. Only time will tell.