Sunday 8 November 2015

Storm Front, by Jim Butcher

This is the first of The Dresden Files series, featuring a wizard (Harry Dresden) openly practising in present-day Chicago, in an alternative world in which it is accepted (rather reluctantly and with varying degrees of scepticism) that wizardry exists. He makes his living by finding things that people have lost, and also works as a consultant for the police, called in whenever they find a crime in which the supernatural seems to be involved.

Storm Front begins with just such a call, to the scene of a pair of spectacularly bizarre deaths. Dresden is soon caught between conflicting pressures – the demands of the police to help solve the crime, the threats of a gangster boss who doesn't want him to, and the requirements of the secret White Council of wizards, who might decide to execute him if he reveals too much to non-wizards. Threading a route through this minefield stretches Dresden to the limit, especially when he becomes the next target of the murderer.

Although this is the first of the series (published in 2000), Dresden already has quite a backstory, as gradually becomes clear with hints that he has far more powers than he dare reveal. In an interview reproduced at the end of my copy of the book, Butcher reveals that he always intended this to be a long series (fifteen and counting) and planned the story arc accordingly.

The story is recounted by Dresden in the first person, in a laconic style typical of a classic Private Investigator story. I am most reminded of the Alex Verus series by Benedict Jacka, and it is perhaps to Butcher's disadvantage that I only encountered his work after reading Jacka, Aaronovitch and various other authors writing stories about magic in contemporary London. I prefer Jacka's work, partly because I enjoy stories set in a place I know, secondly because I find Alex Verus a more intriguing character – I like the fact that he lacks the devastating powers of most magicians and needs to rely on his talent for divination and his wits to survive. And finally, I prefer Jacka's writing, with its constant thread of dry humour. However, Storm Front is not bad at all – it is entertaining and enjoyable and I might go on to read other books in this series.


dlw said...

I'd never heard of Jim Butcher until a few months ago. Someone gave me all 15 of the Dresden books and I read them over a few weeks.

The first five or so were tough going. The PI stuff wasn't too bad, but there was no backstory. Despite TV and public appearances, the public and the police mostly don't know or care about wizards, vampires, fairies, and so forth. Harry mentions he makes small change tracking lost items by sympathetic magic... I just couldn't make the Dresden world make any sense. If someone could find items via sympathetic magic, insurance companies, coroners, and intelligence agencies would be bidding for their services. It gets even worse as further books reveal more Dresden powers and more bad guys.

I wound up mentally overlaying the Dresden stories over the top of Laurell K. Hamilton's Anitaverse. The Anitaverse has a few holes too, but at least it was better than the no-framework we got from Butcher.

Somewhere around Book 5 the style changes from "urban noir" to "wisecracking PI" and he starts adding some backstory... but he never deals with those first two problems, even when he has Dresden tearing up Chicago while riding a zombie tyrannosaur...

Butcher is definitely a storyteller, but the lack of context significantly harmed the Dresden books for me. It didn't seem to bother most of his readers, though.

Anthony G Williams said...

Thanks for that, an interesting perspective on the series.

Carl V. Anderson said...

I read the first and second one and haven't gotten back to them. I remember enjoying the first one and feeling that the second was tighter and more intense with the action. I will eventually get back to them.