Thursday, October 30, 2014

Storm Front, by Jim Butcher

This week I've thought it'd be fitting to return to the realm of Urban Fantasy by looking into the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher. Some of my readers may recall that I tried reading a very similar series set in my native Cincinnati, however the author's attitude on vampires was not to my liking which lead me to dropping it. I will say that Storm Front had issues of its own, but I'm willing to try at least one more book in this series before I decide whether or not to go forward with the rest of the series.

The Dresden Files, from what little I've learned about them, is a series of books that focuses on Harry Dresden, a professional wizard and paranormal investigator working in Chicago. I will say that this book seems to have a lot of similarities with other Urban Fantasy I've read, (albeit, I haven't read terribly much of that) but they seem to draw heavily upon pulp noir fiction for inspiration. Which I find a little curious because when I think about it, fantasy and pulp detective mystery don't seem to be two things that go together naturally, but the results always seem to be rather entertaining. And it's definitely an excellent change of pace from the swords and sorcery high fantasy that seems to dominate the fantasy section at the book store.

Harry Dresden is your typical pulp detective: short on cash, constantly behind on his rent, a bitter man who sometimes gets called in to help with a case the police can't quite puzzle out. The main difference, of course, is that Dresden is a full-blown wizard with a staff, magic charms, leather books, the full works. In this book the Chicago police call Harry in to investigate a gruesome murder that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Dresden and his contact on the force, Detective Murphy, suspect that magic was involved, but of course her skeptical partner thinks Dresden's little more than a charlatan. To top this off, Dresden gets asked by an extremely worried woman to find her husband, who's been dabbling in magic. Soon enough it turns out that there's much more going on here than meets the eye, and some people think Dresden may be to blame.

I will say that compared to the Hollows series (which is really, really similar) Butcher sort of explains some things about how his universe works, but there is quite a lot that is left unexplained as well. I got the impression that magic is still largely hidden in this universe, opposed to being out in the open like it is in the Hollows, but I get the feeling Dresden's going to have to explain more about magic to muggles like Murphy and the reader as his activities become far less clandestine. Especially central ideas like the Laws of Magic or the Nevernever. I've of course got a vague idea as I'm more than passingly familiar with fantasy, but I'd appreciate a much more detailed explanation. Furthermore there are a lot of oblique references to Dresden's past, including actions which resulted in a death mark on his head, but we're really only given the general details. I really hope that later books will do a better job at expanding and better explaining Butcher's universe. But that remains to be seen. The Hollows was at least better at explaining how the universe worked and how it was different from our own.

The thing which I liked the most about this book was I think the much more intelligent take on vampires in this series. Of course this may be my inner paladin coming out against creatures of the night, but I'm always annoyed by literature that treats vampires as misunderstood bad boys rather than dangerous blood-sucking monsters. (The exception for me is Discworld, where vampires can transfer their addiction to blood to other things like photography or coffee.)  Butcher at least shows that there's something fundamentally wrong and perhaps evil with vampires, which I greatly appreciated.

I will say that the book shows potential, despite being rough around the edges. I will say that Dresden seems to get a few lucky breaks, rather than figuring everything out himself. And that was one thing that really frustrated me with the Hollows because Rachel was really not good at her job and tended to fly off the handle and had to rely on other people to solve her biggest problems for her. Dresden does, by contrast, go into situations rather prepared and with something approaching a plan. When the going gets tough, Dresden seems to get by through a combination of quick thinking and good luck. Hopefully he'll get better as the books proceed.

I would say this book in particular isn't anything to write home about. It's okay, but it's nothing spectacular. Granted, there are plenty of series that start off pretty rough and get better, including my all-time favorite of Discworld. I do plan on reading more of this series and seeing where it goes from here.

- Kalpar

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