Mon
Dec 12 2011 10:00am

Wizards Never Get a Day Off: Side Jobs by Jim Butcher

Published by Roc, Side Jobs came out in paperback on December 6. It is a fantastic canon-fodder collection of ten previously published short stories and one brand new novellette, all bound together in 418 entertaining pages. A while back I bought the hardcover for purely canonical reasons. Short stories don’t usually float my boat — why have a bite of something yummy when I could just nom the whole enchilada? — but I’ve had enjoyed a few in the past (hello 20th Century Ghosts and Engines of Desire). More importantly, I have a fetish for reading things in chronological order (or, at the very least, the author’s preferred order) and Side Jobs is chock full of revealing interstitials bridging the gaps between earlier Dresden stories and — most excitingly — between Changes and Ghost Story. Meaning one day soon I am going to have to re-read the entire series start to finish while sprinkling in the stories in Side Jobs so I can continue existing in my Sheldon Cooper-esque geek insanity.

For years Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files books lived in the sprawling hellscape that is my “I’ll get to it eventually” library. Fringe has been occupying territory there since I gave up on it midway through the first season. That Wheel of Time series is hovering somewhere in the middle distance, popping up occassionally whenever I think of Brandon Sanderson, then vanishing back into the deeps. And one of these days I’ll finally crack open those Tolkien books and see what all the fuss is about. Earlier this summer I suddenly found myself with nothing to read and craving a new (good) series I could sink my teeth into, so I dug up an old copy of Storm Front and settled in. In three weeks I devourered five books. The Dresden Files became my literary crack. I was hooked, high, and willing to sell the soul of my first born for my next hit.

Perhaps my fangirl obsession makes me a less-than-qualified person to review Side Jobs. After all, I am fully incapable of remaining unpartisan when it comes to the great and powerful Harry Dresden (I dream of the day he and Buffy make a baby, for that kid will the most awesometastic, wit-fueled, pop culture-spouting demon hunter EVAR). But a review I shall give because we all must make sacrifices in this difficult world. Magical, thrill-seeking, glib-jiving, wizard staff wielding sacrifices. My life is so hard.

The stories in Side Jobs run chronologically, starting with a sort of prequel and ending up 45 minutes after the shocking ending of Changes, with a dollop of LARP for good measure. All except the novellette “Aftermath” previously appeared in other works. Since most of the tales take place between books 5 (Death Masks) and up, this ain’t a good start for n00bs. A lot of authors use anthologies as a back door pilot for new readers, and if you’re looking for Jim Butcher’s version of that, you’re out of luck here. Not that newbies can’t enjoy the heck out of Side Jobs, but there’s a lot of backstory they won’t catch, like why is a wizard giving a vampire a birthday present and who is that lady cop getting drunk on aphrodisiacs and what’s up with the Hermione-on-Rageahol chick? Point is, if you’re looking for an entry point into Harry’s world, don’t start here. Don’t pass go, don’t collect $200, go directly to Storm Front. The rest of us will revel in the squee of Side Jobs and meet you at Ghost Story.

It’s hard to imagine being disappointed with Butcher or Dresden: both men are so charming and geekily funny that it’s impossible to put a serious hate on them, even when they’re witholding the one thing you so desperately need. As expected, I relished Dresden’s kooky cases and nerdy wisecracks, but much to my surprise I also liked the shortness of the tales. None of the stories outstay their welcome, nor do any feel underbaked. Sometimes 42 pages is just as filling as 420 pages.

Side Jobs contains, in all its Jim Butcher-y glory:

  1. “Restoration of Faith”: Harry, in his para-professional days, must rescue a little girl from an evil troll (also published on Jim-Butcher.com).
  2. “Vignette”: Bob the Skull snarks on Harry (also published on Jim-Butcher.com).
  3. “Something Borrowed”: Billy and Georgia’s wedding goes horribly awry (first published in My Big Fat Supernatural Wedding, edited by P. N. Elrod).
  4. “It’s My Birthday Too”: Harry and Molly’s attempt to give Thomas a birthday prezzie goes, um, horribly awry (first published in Many Bloody Returns, edited by Charlaine Harris).
  5. “Heorot”: Harry and Miss Gard scrounge up a kidnapped bride: (first published in My Big Fat Supernatural Honeymoon, edited by P. N. Elrod).
  6. “Day Off”: I’m not even supposed to be here today! (first published in Blood Lite, edited by Kevin J. Anderson).
  7. “Backup: A Story of the Dresden Files”: Thomas takes center stage as he cleans up Harry’s mess (minus Mike Mignola’s awesome illustrations from the Subterranean Press edition).
  8. “The Warrior”: Everything you ever wanted to know about what happened to the Carpenters after the catastrophe on Demon Reach (first published in Mean Streets).
  9. “Last Call”: Mac’s beer is stolen and Harry goes on the war path (first published in Strange Brew, edited by P. N. Elrod).
  10. “Love Hurts”: Sexytimes with Murphy and Harry (also published in Songs of Love and Death: Tales of Star-Crossed Love, edited by Gardner Dozois and George R. R. Martin).
  11. “Aftermath”: Prepare to have your heart broken.

Alex Brown is an archivist and reference librarian by day, writer by night, and all around geek who watches entirely too much TV. She is prone to collecting out-of-print copies of books by Evelyn Waugh, Jane Austen, and Douglas Adams, probably knows far too much about pop culture than is healthy, and thinks her rats Hywel and Odd are the cutest things ever to exist in the whole of eternity. You can follow her on Twitter if you dare.

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12 comments
George Brell
1. gbrell
I enjoyed Side Jobs, though less so than the novels in the Dresden Files. You can really see how Butcher has developed as a writer as the stories progress.

Best stories in my mind are The Warrior, Aftermath, and Backup. Day Off is also quite entertaining.

I particularly liked seeing Harry and the world of the Dresden Files through other characters' eyes, since all of the novels follow an essentially first-person perspective, with Harry as the reader's lens.

Only negative, and unfortunately it's a big one, is the absence of Even Hands, the Marcone-POV short story. It's the best short story Butcher's written, IMO, and has a wonderful hook at the end that suggests the series' endgame.
Chris Hawks
2. SaltManZ
Yeah, The Warrior was easily my favorite of this fantastic collection.

And Alex, when you do do your chronological reread, do yourself a favor and find a copy of the Welcome to the Jungle graphic novel (read it between Restoration of Faith and Storm Front.)
Mouette
3. Mouette
Oh, happy Dresden love. I've been on a reread kick lately - starting with Ghost Story (which I loved, and don't understand anyone who *doesn't*), then kicking around from book to book - Death Masks, Blood Rites, and now the ever-fantastic Dead Beat.

I also am not qualified to give a review for SideJobs, as I am another obsessed Dresden fangirl, but. I haven't reread it, unlike everything else... hmmm. Next book to look at, maybe. I remembered liking it - especially "Heorot," "My Birthday Too," and "The Warrior." Getting to see more of the Carpenter family is always, always a good thing.

Oh, *Molly*. *whimper* Ghost Story. I'm painfully needing another, new fix, and it'll be most of a year before Cold Days.

As I believe someone once said about Whedon - Butcher is an evil bastard and I love him for it. :)
Emmet O'Brien
4. EmmetAOBrien
I found it sort of so-so; pretty much all the stories felt to neither quite have enough in to stand entirely alone, nor flow smoothly for people already familiar with the setting because of the amount of stopping to tell us things we'd already know, and both the non-Harry POV stories and the Marcone one also read to me as scaling the Harry-centric very oddly.

The more this series progresses, and the more we see of Harry realising he's been completely wrong about yet another thing he's believed for years, the harder it is to believe that anything he learns this time is going to hold up for the remaining half or so of the series.
Alex Brown
5. AlexBrown
@gbrell: Side Jobs definitely isn't my fave Dresden book, but still highly enjoyable - particularly, as you mentioned, in regards to Butcher's development as a writer. I also appreciated getting to "hear" what other characters had to say and how they dealt with the nuclear bomb that is Harry.

@SaltManZ: Yup, I am totally going to get in Welcome to the Jungle. I heard it's not great, but I still have to read it anyway.

@Mouette: Keeping this spoiler-free, I'm still devastated about Molly in Ghost Story. But I'm also a big believer in putting your main characters through the wringer. What kind of dramatic tension could you create if you know the hero is always going to walk away unscathed? Kill off your characters and make 'em sweat. Best way to keep things spicy.

@EmmetAOBrien: I thought the stories all worked, more or less. They felt like B- or C-stories in a larger Dresden work that we weren't getting to read. Like if Butcher cut out all the Charity and Michael stuff from Grave Peril and turned it into a short story. I can forgive the repetitive information because the stories were originally published in non-Dresden related anthologies, so without some explication those readers would have been lost (even if it's redundant for the rest of us). It's why shows like True Blood constantly have those "previously on..." cold opens: because their viewership doesn't stay tuned for each episode and they are hunting drop-ins (even though I totally hate those rehashes).

I also don't mind Harry continually realizing he's wrong. It's human to err, as the saying goes. And, more importantly than him constantly making mistakes is that he's LEARNING from them. And Butcher has been very clear since the beginning that much of what Harry thinks he knows is really just supposition - even what he "knows" about magic and his place within it. Ghost Story is all about Harry realizing that the stuff he was taught as magical/scientific fact is wrong. He can't be faulted for admitting he was wrong and attempting to right it. But I'd have a problem if he circumnavigated the globe and then kept screaming about how the world was flat.
Chris Hawks
6. SaltManZ
Alex, I actually loved Welcome to the Jungle. Obviously YMMV, but I was amazed how much it felt just like a normal Dresden story, even though the format was completely different.
Mouette
7. Mouette
@EmmetAOBrien: And see, one of my favorite things about Dresden is that he *learns* from his mistakes. In a series-based character, that's... pretty incredible. Sometimes it takes him a while, and sometimes he needs to get hit over the head (literally) with it, but he does, actually, grow and change and learn as a human being. All of his fundamental beliefs aren't being overturned all the time; he is an adult, and as an adult he learns to see the world different ways. Because that's what adults do - they learn to see more than one side of a thing. For his life form (wizard), Harry is still practically an infant; if, barring interference, he would live to 300 or 400 or older, then in his thirties-ish, he's essentially an adolescent compared to most practicioners. Is it any wonder that he has to re-evaluate his assumptions along the way? He's gone through human puberty, but magically he's got a lot of refining and growing to do.

Of course, all of his learning only leads to him getting *more* FUBARed, but that's the fun part XD

Also, Harry is *flawed*. He makes mistakes. He makes assumptions, and sometimes they're wrong, and he therefore has to go back and correct the assumptions when he learns better - both learns better of the specific assumption he made, and of how not to make the same mistake in the future (ideally). His flaws and growth are what part of make him so wonderful to read.


@Milo1313. Oh, I am too. Molly's been a favorite of mine since she first popped up, and I've adored her every step of the way. But I agree with you absolutely - it's why we love creators like Whedon and Butcher, because the characters go through difficult things, might *really* die, and are generally traumatized and then changed by that trauma. They have to go through actual pain and struggles in order for the pay-off to be satisfying. Intellectually I know Molls needs the growth; in my heart I'm just crying for her.
Alex Brown
8. AlexBrown
@SaltManZ: Good to know! I was really disappointed with the Neverwhere graphic novel (among others) and have been reluctant to pick up graphic novelizations ever since. I know Jungle is a free-standing story, but the reluctance has held. Think I'll add it back in now :)

@Mouette: I second everything you said. Cannot wait to see how Molly (and Thomas and Karin) deal with what happens at the end of Ghost Story. They are going to freak right the fuck out and once they settle they could go in a million different directions.
Emmet O'Brien
9. EmmetAOBrien
Milo@5, Mouette@7: I certainly agree that Harry being flawed and learning better, however slowly and painfully, is a thing that makes him a lot more sympathetic, and part of what makes the books addictive reading. No argument there.

My point, with reference in particular to Ghost Story and some of the major revelations therein, is that we have at this point seen so much of Harry learning better than what he thinks he knows, that it's starting to stretch my suspension of disbelief for Harry to think that the answers he gets now aren't themselves very likely to be overturned within a few years; having seen thirteen books of Harry learning better, I should be very surprised not to see at least as much further learning happening in the remaining twelve books or so, and that makes any new datum received in book thirteen feel inherently unreliable to me.
Alex Brown
10. AlexBrown
@Emmet: I get what you're saying now. Yes, I was also rather put out by that specific revelation in Ghost Story. At first I felt like it rather invalidated the whole book, and that you still could've had all the characters reacting the way they did but with someone else doing what was revealed, if you catch my drift. (Man, talking spoiler free is really damn hard...)

However, it also felt like a very Harry thing to do, that grandiose, melodramatic, impulsive behavior that charms other people into going against their personal code and morals all because they fall for his big talk about the bigger picture. I think we'll see in the next book how Harry deals with realizing he's such a charismatic monster (physically, psychologically, and magically). He's pushed people to the brink before because he "has to" (remember how long it took Murphy to forgive him, Thomas is still pissed at him, and even Charity's anger at him has spilled over into her non-Molly children), but this time he's pushed his friends too far. He's going to have to work really hard at fixing his mistake.
Emmet O'Brien
11. EmmetAOBrien
Milo@10: I think we're talking about different specific revelations.

What bugged me most in Ghost Story was the philosophical pep talk Harry receives in the penultimate chapter, and how he reacts in the last chapter based on taking it at face value, which requires both ignoring something Bob pointed out to him earlier and failing to apply a convincing assessment of relative capacities that happens during that pep talk (near the top of page 450) to the situation he's in right there and then. I really hope the point Butcher was aiming for there was how much Harry's still got to learn.

I can sort of see your point as a direction the next book could go, but I'm inclined to read Harry's problems with the bigger picture as going precisely the other way; time and again he's been taken advantage of by players who realise he is incredibly easy to push into things with bigger-picture longer-scale consequences to their advantage just by presenting an immediate short-term threat in a direction he personally cares about, and I get the impression that the combination of that mindset with significant capacity for mayhem is nigh-unique among the White Council. There are a couple of elements in Ghost Story that felt to me to indicate that one of the directions he may well be growing is in learning to think things through a bit more before going in all guns blazing.
Alex Brown
12. AlexBrown
@Emmet: Ah, yes, we were thinking of different sitches. And well-reasoned argument. Harry is definitely a pawn who thinks he's a bishop.

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