Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series is one of the most popular urban fantasy series around, currently coming in at 14 books with additional short stories, comic adaptations, and a short-lived television series. And it all began with 2000’s Storm Front.
My name is Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden. Conjure by it at your own risk. I’m a wizard. I work out of an office in midtown Chicago. As far as I know, I’m the only openly practicing professional wizard in the country. You can find me in the yellow pages, under “Wizards.” Believe it or not, I’m the only one there.
With those words, Harry Dresden introduced himself to the world. A wizard, yes, but also a private investigator in the best hard-boiled tradition. We meet Harry in the midst of a bit of a dry spell, with his rent overdue and no cases on the horizon. He’s also in a bit of trouble. The White Council, the organization that governs wizards, has a close eye on Harry because he killed his teacher. The First Law of magic prohibits wizards from using magic to kill. Normally breaking the law carries a death sentence, but Harry did so in self defense and so is under the Doom of Damocles, a kind of probation.
The case starts, as these things often do, with a woman. Or rather two. Butcher‘s facility for layering plots gives us the traditional damsel in distress—Monica Sells who wants Harry to find her husband—as well as a job for the police department and specifically Karrin Murphy, the head of the Special Investigations department of the Chicago PD, the cops who deal with things that go bump in the night. Harry’s relationship with Murphy is somewhat prickly, but respectful.
The case is a double murder, two people, in the midst of a romantic liaison with their hearts ripped out. By magic. As mentioned, wizards are prohibited from killing using magic. This is a serious use of black magic and even looking into it makes things dangerous for Harry with the Doom hanging over him.
On his way back to the office, Harry is waylaid by Gentleman Johnny Marcone, Chicago’s biggest crime lord. Marcone wants Harry off the double-murder case, but Harry refuses. He returns to his office and meets with Monica Sells. Her husband is a warlock and has gone missing. Harry agrees to find him.
As the plot unfolds, the two separate cases, of course, come together. As the mystery is slowly revealed we are introduced to the wonderful world that Butcher has created. There’s a fine line to walk in urban fantasy—drawing on familiar tropes like vampires and faeries while still keeping things fresh. I think Butcher does a great job with this. An element like wizard Sight is nothing really new, but the fact that anything a wizard sees with it will remain as fresh and vivid always, never to fade with time, is a nice twist, a price to be had for that power. Then there’s the Soulgaze, the experience of seeing into one another that happens when someone makes eye contact with a wizard.
Harry soon discovers that Victor Sells, the missing warlock husband, is the one causing the deaths the PD is investigating, using orgies and the power of storms to fuel his magic. He’s also involved in the manufacture of the drug, ThreeEye, which gives normal people (Muggles, essentially) wizard Sight for a short time. Harry has to dodge magical attacks from Sells as well as dealing with Johnny Marcone, Bianca, a vampire, and trying to prove to the Morgan, of the White Council of Wizards, that he’s innocent of the deaths in the case. In the end Sells attacks Harry, summoning a demon to kill him. But Sells is raw, untrained and Harry overcomes him, sending the demon that Sells summoned back at him. And clearing his name in the process.
Butcher’s first Dresden novel is certainly not his strongest. While his writing improves in the later books, it is a bit shaky here. What I find compelling about the series from the beginning, though, is the world that Butcher creates. A paranormal PI is nothing new in the urban fantasy genre, but Butcher’s setting elevates this above pure stereotype. I immediately loved the White Council and the Laws of Magic. The Nevernever, the spirit realm which contains all of the lands of Faerie. Faeries themselves, such as Toot-toot, a six inch tall fairy with an insatiable love of pizza. And then, of course, there’s Bob the skull, Harry’s advisor on all things magic, an intellect spirit who lives in an old skull with a love of smutty romance novels and an extremely dirty mind.
Then, of course, there’s Harry himself. As mentioned, he draws heavily on the hard-boiled tradition of the private eye—constantly miring himself in even deeper muddy circumstances—but there’s a definite heroic quality to him. Butcher has likened him to Spider-Man in interviews and I think that’s an apt comparison. Harry gets beaten up, broken, and ostracized and yet he never gives up. He just fights harder. And he doesn’t back down. Sure, he has an ornery streak, but that just keeps things interesting.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the treatment of women in this book. I know some readers have picked it up and never gone any further because of that element. Many of the women in this novel are either victims or sex-workers. Karrin Murphy, a character who is important to the series as a whole, is really the only strong female character in the book and she is often described in terms of her physical characteristics. I feel like it does get better in later books. Susan Rodriguez, who needs to be saved in this novel, and accidentally takes a love potion, becomes a stronger character later. Additionally, it helps to remember that the novel is told from Harry’s point of view, and he’s an admitted chauvinist. I’d be interested to hear what others thought of this in particular.
Storm Front is not perfect, but it’s a good start to one of my favorite fiction series. What do you think of it?