Storm front

Storm front / Jim Butcher. Originally published 2000.

Storm front is the first novel in the Dresden files series. It’s an interesting book and an interesting series, if only because the first novel was an attempt at writing an intentionally bad, formulaic genre novel. The fact that the series went on to be wildly successful, spawning a TV series and a graphic novel adaptation probably says something both about

Brief plot summary

(spoiler-free)

Storm front inaugurates the adventures of Harry Dresden, down-on-his-luck free-lance wizard living in modern-day Chicago. Hired by a mysterious woman to find her husband, Dresden finds himself the prime suspect in a supernaturally-tinged double murder. Crossing paths with demons, fairies, the Chicago Police, the magic-regulating White Council, and the Chicago Outfit, Dresden must use all of his wits and magic to survive.

So how is it?

Perhaps understandably for a novel that was written to be intentionally bad, it’s not amazing. Still, it has lots of style, and the later books in the series improve somewhat. It’s both a gritty mystery, full of all the classic film noir clichés, and a serviceable fantasy novel about a wizard struggling to make ends meet. The classic fantasy side-kick is there, the annoying but well-intentioned Lawful Good foil, etc. etc.

It’s a fun book to read, but don’t expect to get much of anything else out of it. It’s fast, punchy, and somewhat silly. It lacks the edge of the Sandman Slim novels, or the off-the-wall zaniness of John dies at the end, and it ends up being the motel-room art of gritty contemporary fantasy. Perfectly servicable, but a little bit excessively manipulated not to offend anyone and feeling a little soulless as a result.

Still, it’s obvious that Butcher lives no-where near Chicago. If you’re at all familiar with the city, there are constant errors in geography that can end up somewhat distracting. (A later novel features a fight scene taking place in a Wal-Mart parking lot near Wrigley Field. Anyone who’s been to the neighborhood should  immediately realize the problem here) Most of these errors are related to Chicago’s highway system. It’s not just that he doesn’t use the local names of the highways, but Dresden takes some bizarre routes to get where he’s going, at one point driving south from The Loop to get to the northern suburbs. (The rent on his office is also a tiny fraction of what it should be given its location, but I’m willing to let that slide)

The bigger issue with the Chicago setting is culturally. Dresden inhabits a Chicago that is significantly whiter than any Chicago I’ve ever seen. Really, he’s taken a novel set in New York City and changed the place names. It’s not like that’s a bad thing, but if you were recommended the series as a good “Chicago fantasy” (like I was), then it’s not really going to satisfy.

I have to be honest: I have a weird weakness for contemporary fantasy. I was a huge fan of the Mercedes Lackey SERRAted edge books in middle school and high school, and am frequently willing to put up with a lot more nonsense out of the genre because I love it even if it’s plagued with incredibly mediocre work. I read the Dresden books pretty regularly up until the next volume was only available at the library in hardcover. I enjoyed the series, but not enough to have to carry a heavier book with me on my commute.

Strengths:

Blends all the classic tropes of the harboiled novel and the contemporary fantasy novel

Is a little more grounded than some examples of the genre

It’s not quite pablum, but it’s certainly inoffensive

Weaknesses:

There’s not a whole lot there

The Chicago setting is unrecognizable to anyone actually familiar with the city

There are many other research failures not Chicago-related, and the police seem strangely incompetent. Fans of superhero fiction will be right at home here

Recommendation:

I recommend this series frequently to fans of genre fiction. It’s easy to recommend as there’s very little that will disqualify someone from enjoying it, even if there’s not really anything to get extra excited about either.

Generally those I’ve recommended it to have anjoyed it. That being said, it’s really only for genre fans. Readers who like hard-boiled detective novels and are looking to branch out might enjoy it, but Butcher’s main audience is fantasy enthusiasts and anyone who doesn’t enjoy the genre is going to be left cold by this one.

If you are a fan of contemporary fantasy and don’t enjoy the first novel in the series, you might consider reading the second one and seeing if you enjoy that any more. While the quality is pretty consistent across the series, there is a noticeable step up after this one.

Other books for people who enjoyed this one:

Sandman Slim / Richard Kadrey

War for the oaks / Emma Bull

John dies at the end / David Wong

As a rule, I don’t recommend books I haven’t read personally. Still, I have it on good authority that Laurell K. Hamilton‘s books are a good match for these, so if you enjoy the Anita Blake novels then you should consider checking out the Dresden files, and if you enjoy the Dresden files it might be worth checking out the Anita Blake novels. That being said, I’ve never read any of Hamilton’s stuff and so can’t personally vouch for the accuracy of the recommendation.

I also hear that the Sookie Stackhousenovels are comparable. While I have met Charlaine Harris and she’s a wonderful person, I’ve never read any of her books and my disclaimer above applies.

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