1. Dresden and other magic practitioners gather in one place.
2. Another group attacks, and fighting ensues.
3. Harry and his friends win, but Harry is wounded.
4. Harry wakes up in a strange bed and spends time recovering.
5. Repeat, only this time the magic attacks are worse, and Harry's injuries are more serious.
I'm not knocking the formula -- it generated bestsellers and a TV series for Butcher. And Butcher seems to do it better than most: the characters are well drawn (though just from this one book I suspect that he relies a little too heavily on the beautiful but evil woman stereotype), the beats come when they're supposed to, and there's even a twist at the end. The stakes are high, and, while we know that Harry won't die, there are some tense moments when bad things appear about to happen to his friends. (Actually it seems that Harry did die in one of the previous books. But here he is again, so I don't really think that counts.)
I wasn't kidding about Harry's injuries getting worse. Even before the book starts he's in pain from something growing in his head, and as the fights continue and the casualties mount up he gets shot through the calf. Mab has given him some magic to shield him from pain, so it's not as unbelievable as it sounds. But then he breaks his arm and heads back into the fray -- and at this point my Suspension of Disbelief packed its bags and told me it would sit this one out.
Butcher also tends to skimp on any description that doesn't involve magic. Here's Harry going into a receptionist's office: "I found myself in an office decorated with tastefully spartan sensibilities." That's it -- no description of the desk, the waiting area, the art on the walls, nothing. I'm not even sure what this means -- the Spartans weren't especially noted for their decorating skills. Then he goes on into the main office: "Harvey's office was as elegant as his entry, but more crowded with the tools of his trade -- computers and office equipment and bookshelves and files." Elegant how? What kind of furniture? Where are the computers and the (somewhat vague) office equipment?
My main problem with this being on the Hugo ballot is that, as I said, it's a formula. It's comfort reading, the kind of book you turn to when you've had a hard day and need to relax, when you don't want anything too challenging or surprising, when you're pretty sure the good guys will win in the end. That's why there are so few descriptions of the real world -- they get in the way, slow you down on the way to the magic battles. But this isn't a book that turns your brain inside-out with amazement, that makes you think, that adds to your understanding in any way. Which is why, O my Puppies, a book that sells well is not necessarily one of the best books of the year.