Sunday, 14 November 2010

Book Review: The Dresden Files

The Dresden Files: Jim Butcher

1. Storm Front: 3/5 7. Dead Beat: 5/5
2. Fool Moon: 3/5 8. Proven Guilty: 4/5
3. Grave Peril: 4/5 9. White Night: 4/5
4. Summer Knight: 4/5 10. Small Favour: 5/5
5. Death Masks: 5/5 11. Turn Coat: 5/5
6. Blood Rites: 4/5 12. Changes: 4/5

"The world is getting weirder. Darker every single day. Things are spinning around faster and faster, and threatening to go completely awry. Falcons and falconers. The center cannot hold.
But in my corner of the country, I'm trying to nail things down. I don't want to live in a world where the strong rule and the weak cower. I'd rather make a place where things are a little quieter. Where trolls stay the hell under their bridges, and where elves don't come swooping out to snatch children from their cradles. Where vampires respect the limits, and where the faeries mind their p's and q's.
My name is Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden. Conjure by it at your own risk. When things get strange, when what goes bump in the night flicks on the lights, when no one else can help you, give me a call. I'm in the book."
- Harry Dresden, Storm Front


The Dresden Files. A series of noir thrillers, that happen to be about a wizard. While that's a massive understatement - there's a huge background mythology to the series - it's also the core of the books. Harry Dresden, wizard at large, investigates and solves a mystery. Over the course of the series, he's gone from investigating a magical murder to solving treachery in the ranks of the wizarding 'government'. Make no mistake, while it may have started as a series about a Chicago based PI, Butcher has turned it into a series that likes to play it epic.

I should start by acknowledging that 'The Dresden Files' will never be great works of literature. However, to expect this would be wrong; they are books that have their roots in pulp noir and fantasy, genres that rarely lend themselves to high art, whatever their respective merits (and I personally believe that there is much merit in both genres). The books have drifted ever more towards fantasy as the series has progressed - the turning point probably being 'Summer Knight', where Dresden's client is the Faerie Queen Mab, rather than a citizen of Chicago. However, the series has maintained that clever mix throughout, and done so intelligently, which obviously works in its favour - supernatural noir is hardly a unique genre, with many book stores stocking more of this flavour of work than classic literature. 'The Dresden Files' has to be special to stand out from the crowd, and for the most part this is easily achieved.

For a start, Dresden himself is a hugely compelling character. He is an old-school hero; the chivalrous knight in shining armour (well, leather duster) with a serious case of Chronic Hero Disorder. Although he's been sliding steadily further and further into anti-hero territory the darker the series gets, he's still driven primarily by honour and chivalry, and he is never quite as much of an anti-hero as he believes himself to be, a neat subversion of the trope by Butcher. The typically noir-ish first person perspective aids this immeasurably, allowing us a keen insight into his mindset and emotional state. Dresden may be big and tough, but he has no problem sharing his feelings (in fact, he arguably agonises too much over certain issues). Happily though, the main persona he uses is that of the wisecracking detective; unusually for such a character, he is geniunely funny, albeit in a supremely geeky fashion.

Next, and most famously, there is the action. Of course, no supernatural detective series would be complete without a few intense bust ups; Butcher seems to have made it his aim in life to supply at least seven of these per book. In at least one, 'Changes', he does tip the scale, with certainly one action scene too many, but most of the time you will be having far too much fun gawking at the insanity of what you've just read to complain. Action has been arguably the main attraction of the series since the second book, where Dresden (relatively) calmly throws a werewolf through three buildings.

However, action by itself does not a good series make, and where Butcher really excels is the mythology to the series. A lot of this is based on old myths and fairytales, whether reworked or otherwise - as mentioned, there are several appearances by faeries, and at least one Norse God has cropped up. Mixed in with this is a lot of Butcher's own mythology - there are intriguing twists on vampires (who are also pleasingly - well, vampiric and monstrous, rather than brooding sex objects), werewolves, demons, magic and God. More importantly, everything is important. Everything. Butcher has implied that there are things in book 1 that will be important in the final book (he estimates around 23 books by the finale). The way Butcher blends all these elements together is what really lifts the books. A blend of good characters, thrilling action and a fasciniating universe.

There are problems, of course. Certainly at the start of the series, the books, particularly 'Storm Front' and 'Fool Moon', are a little bland - partly because Butcher didn't want to write them in the first place, although one assumes he's learnt to love them a little more these days. Butcher's writing is never exactly stellar, although equally there's nothing actually wrong with it, bar a tendency to constantly repeat some of the same details. By the time you get to 'Changes', chances are you will have heard the same summary of the White Council, the same ruminations on magic, the same opinions at least once per book. In fairness to Butcher, I should acknowledge that on both occasions when I have read the series, I have read straight through without pause. I suspect that this would be less of an issue were I reading them as they were realised, at which point I might appreciate a little memory refreshing.

Ultimately, 'The Dresden Files' is a supremely entertaining series; it may not change your world dramatically, and it probably won't go down in history in the same way as 'Lord of the Rings', but that is the public's loss. They are fine reads, and highly recommended.

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