Books: The Dresden Files

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For all of my love of the written word, I haven’t actually written a review for any books yet. This week, I’m going to remedy that situation by taking a look at one of my favorites: The Dresden Files series.

A clear master of the Urban Fantasy genre, Jim Butcher has created a world that I would love to live in. Currently composed of fifteen books (of a planned twenty-three or so) and a multitude of short stories, The Dresden Files takes the genre to a level I’ve never seen before or since.

The books follow the exploits of the eponymous Harry Dresden, a wizard who lives in Chicago. Gifted with magic and considered to be one of the top few dozen wizards in the world in terms of sheer power, Dresden makes a living as a sort of private detective and police consultant. For the general public, Harry is the guy you call when your husband goes missing, or you lose your wedding ring, or you’ve got a serious ghost infestation. For the Chicago P.D., Dresden solves cases that seem impossible to those unaware of the magical world. If a mobster’s heart literally explodes out of his chest, or if a troll busts up a Wal-Mart at three in the morning, you can bet Dresden is working somewhere.

Does that sound like early 20th century pulp novels to you? Because it does to me! But I’ll be damned if there isn’t so much more behind these books.

For those uninterested in reading the rest of this (likely rather lengthy) review, you can stop here and take my word for it: read Dresden. Read all of the books. If you like things that are fun and don’t try to teach you a lesson every five minutes, you’ll like Dresden. End of story. For those true believers who want my opinion, read on.

 

Let’s talk about the world Butcher has made for a minute. The books are set in modern times, but… well, basically every story you’ve ever heard is real. Goblins, trolls, vampires (three distinct varieties shown, with a fourth mentioned), wizards, angels, demons, ghouls, skinwalkers, werewolves, faeries, God, gods (as in Zeus and such), Valkyries, and basically everything else you can imagine all exist in the Dresden universe.

You’d think that, with magic flying around, there’d end up being a bunch of Dei Ex Machinis (yes, that’s the plural conjugation) that wind up resolving every story. So what’s the point, right?

Wrong!

Butcher has gone to extreme lengths to explain the severe limitations on magic within the Dresden universe. For example, Dresden can launch a fireball, right? It’s a staple spell for wizards of every flavor. In Dungeons and Dragons, he would shoot the fireball, they’d roll for damage, and move on with their lives. In The Dresden Files, the fireball acts like a ball of freaking fire. It expands, spreads, fizzles out or just plain burns. Harry even points this out when he’s playing a game of D&D with his friends.

The point is that the magic in the Dresden universe follows rules. It behaves predictably, just as much as physics does– in fact, that’s likely the closest analogue. Dresden’s capabilities are shown to be from study, practice, experimentation and natural talent, just like any other skill.

Because that is the case, and because all other characters are bound by the limitations of magic and physics, the stories themselves can be told in a satisfying way. Seriously, you can substitute magic with anything mundane, and you’d still have a workable story in any of the books, and that is the reason why they are good; they don’t rely on gimmicks.

But you know what makes the stories really special? The characters.

We’ll start with the man himself: Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden.

A wizard, orphaned as a kid and raised under the abusive tutelage of a rogue warlock, Dresden could have gone down a seriously dark path. As I mentioned before, the dude’s got power. He could quite literally run Chicago if he wanted to. Instead, he lives in a kind of rundown basement apartment, barely getting by on the jobs he’s able to secure. He helps people when they ask, especially women. He’s the guy who stands up when everyone else is flat on their back. Basically, he’s a dark horse hero, a guy who removes temptations because he knows the allure of power.

All of that is stuff we’ve seen before. What makes him interesting as a hero is his willingness to get his hands dirty. Dresden does what’s necessary for the greater good, even if it isn’t pretty. When his Holy Warrior (and I mean that literally) companions are unwilling to question an enemy too hard, Harry is the one who picks up a baseball bat and beats the answers out of him.

But don’t think that makes Harry a mindless thug. Villains make that mistake all the time. Didn’t I just tell you that his abilities are the result of study and practice? You can’t be a good wizard and also be stupid, and Harry proves that consistently. He outmaneuvers his enemies in pretty much every book– it’s rare that Dresden wins because he just beats the tar out of the bad guy. Don’t get me wrong– he usually does that too. But the tar-beating comes after Dresden solves the mystery in question and figures out who’s responsible. Further, half the time he has set things up so that he can’t lose, even if he dies!

You can never count Dresden out. And if he decides that you’re his enemy… man, you’re screwed. Because even if Dresden can’t beat you, he’ll figure out a way to make you pay. Dearly.

Then we have the supporting cast, including consistent fan favorite, Kaarin Murphy. Kaarin works for the Chicago Police Department in Special Investigations, the ones responsible for cases that can’t be readily explained. When things get weird, you call in Special Investigations. When things get too weird for S.I., they call in Dresden.

Murphy, a five foot tall adorable blonde woman, seems like she is tailor made for a male protagonist’s love interest. Smart, pretty and tough as nails, she would have likely lasted about three chapters before a different writer had her hopping into bed with Dresden. But no, that doesn’t happen– or at least, not yet. Murphy is Harry’s friend. Starting off as a tempestuous relationship, the two of them eventually grew to respect and care about each other. When Harry’s down, he calls Murphy.

And the thing about Murphy? She’ll pick up the phone, every time. And don’t think that her defining character trait is “Harry’s Friend/ Possible Love Interest.” An entire book series could be written just from Murphy’s perspective, dealing with her experiences in S.I. This woman is a certified badass with a black belt in aikido, who throws around men twice her size, who stands resolute against a charging werewolf, and does it with a smile. Murphy is a warrior. And Butcher doesn’t let us forget that.

Don’t forget Thomas. He’s a White Court vampire– they’re vamps who feed on people’s emotions, like an incubus– with deep pockets and a frighteningly suave sense of style. Conflicted about his darker nature– I mean, the guy feeds on people, and can and has killed innocents before because of that– Thomas tries his hardest to help Dresden when he can. And he is funny. One of the highlights of the series is the banter that takes place between Dresden and Thomas, and it never lets up. The two of them are cracking jokes while literally fighting a horde of zombies. What more do you want?

Molly Carpenter is a character who becomes gradually more important as the series continues. HERE THERE BE SPOILERS:

The young daughter of Michael Carpenter, whom I’ll address next, Molly is… an exceptionally interesting character. Beginning as just window dressing for Michael, Molly develops her own personality and, as it turns out, magical talent. Forced to become Harry’s apprentice (read the book for the story), she grows up before the readers’ eyes. When we first meet her, she’s a preteen firecracker; when last we see her, she’s a superpowered bombshell capable of defending nearly all of Chicago through a mixture of bluff, reputation and determination.

Molly’s character arc is one of the more interesting things to witness throughout the series. Remember when I said that Dresden was willing to get his hands dirty? Molly is too, but out of misplaced altruism. When a friend of hers is hooked on drugs, she decides it would be a good idea to use magic to instill a paralyzing fear of heroin deep inside her friend’s consciousness. This results in nearly completely driving her friend insane. Her mistakes consistently get her in trouble, but they’re the result of her trying to do the right thing. Honestly? Her biggest problem is that she thinks, much like the reader probably would, that magic is the solution to most problems. Watching her slowly come to the realization that this isn’t the case is fascinating.

Oh, and her monster crush on Dresden is so delightfully cringe-worthy that I can’t help but love it.

There are dozens of recurring characters, and I don’t really have the space here to mention them all, but I did save a spot for my favorite: Michael Carpenter, Molly’s dad and Harry’s best friend.

Michael is a Good Man. I mean that in the literal sense; Michael is just good. A true believin’ Catholic, Papa Carpenter is the father of a brood of seven children. His name is also his occupation; the guy builds houses. One of the most reassuring presences in the whole series, Michael also happens to be a Knight of the Cross. Given a sword, Amoracchius, by the Archangel Michael, he is tasked by God to protect the innocent from supernatural threats. Largely, this means that he needs to guard against the Denarians, a sect of fallen angels which inhabit the thirty silver coins given to Judas for his betrayal of Christ.

When I tell you that Michael is Good, I mean that he is kind, and gentle, and patient. He is always willing to help Harry, or anyone else he meets who might need it. He adores his wife, Charity, and all of his children.

And he is a total ass-kicking machine. The dude shows up in a suit of armor with a holy sword and takes on an army at one point– and he wins. He has literally slain a dragon– though it happens before the series begins, and we don’t get to see it (dang it– Butcher, if you read this, that’s a short story we’d love to read). He fights the closest thing this series has to the Devil, a Denarian named Nicodemus, to a standstill. Vampires can’t even touch him– one tried, and burst into flames.

When that happened, Harry remarked, “Hands off the Fist of God.”

I can go on about how incredible Michael is for hours. I have gone on about how cool this character is for hours, as a matter of fact. Suffice it to say that everyone should have a friend like Michael Carpenter, even without the holy sword, and that the series is worth reading just to meet him.

 

The plots of the stories begin as standard noir-style detective novels. Someone comes into Harry’s office, and insists that he’s the only one who can help them. Then, alternate plots are introduced, and Harry tries to juggle everything at once. Eventually, he discovers that all of the cases he’s working on are related! 

Sure, you’ve seen all that stuff before. But, after the first couple of books, Butcher’s plotting gets markedly better, and he starts shaking things up a bit more. The stories become more focused, the characters develop more interestingly, and the dialogue starts feeling a lot more natural and a lot less contrived. And you start picking up on an underlying arc that weaves its way from the first book onward, eventually coming out into the open by book fourteen.

Do you want to know what I tell people when they ask me if they would like The Dresden Files? I tell them that the first book, Storm Front, was originally titled “Semiautomagic.” If that doesn’t sound like something made of pure concentrated awesome, then I don’t know what does.

Honestly, though, if you like supernatural stuff, but are put off by purple prose or typical fantasy settings, or you’re just looking for good stories that aren’t preachy, check out The Dresden Files. The first book, Storm Frontis available on Kindle for $1.99. That’s a steal at twice the price. If you end up not liking it, you’re only out two bucks! But I promise you, you’ll be hooked. I know I am.

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