Minding the Gaps: The Dresden Files Books 1 – 6
Author’s Note: This is the first in an intermittent series of articles covering fantasy series that I probably should have read much sooner. As I cross a particular series (or part thereof) off my “to-read” list, I’ll share my thoughts here. Hopefully these articles will shed a little light on what some of us have been missing.
Confessing to having what I consider to be some inexcusable gaps in my fantasy repertoire in last month’s article[link] was not a proud moment. But shame is a great motivator. I decided to start rectifying the situation by diving into Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series. Over the course of the last month, I’ve managed to read and/or listen to the first six novels in the series. I’m happy to report that the books have been very enjoyable. I certainly wouldn’t classify the series as a “must read,” but if you’re a fan of urban fantasy, Butcher definitely has something to offer.
Harry Dresden—Butcher’s main character and keeper of the titular files—is the only publically practicing wizard in the United States. Having set up shop in Chicago, IL, Dresden ekes out a meager existence as a wizard-for-hire. Dresden’s nominal wheelhouse involves retrieval of lost articles, locating missing persons and general paranormal investigations. Being a wizard with a conscience, Dresden refuses to trade in potions, hexes and curses. He also serves as a special consultant to the Chicago Police Department Special Investigations Division.
Dresden also has a nose for supernatural trouble.
Over the course of six books, Dresden has fought black wizards, evil vampires, rabid werewolves, the Fallen and everything in between. While the Big Bads certainly don’t break new ground, Butcher has managed to put his own spin on many of the common tropes found in any urban fantasy. Dresden’s interaction with supernatural beings—good, evil or indifferent—is rife with mystery, mayhem and a healthy dose of (often ham-fisted) wit.
Dresden is a man with a conscience and a highly developed sense of duty. He abhors violence against women and children, and is chivalrous to a fault—arguably to the point of chauvinism. He very much sees himself as a protector of the people, and takes his responsibilities seriously, despite outward displays of indifference and downright boorish behavior. Dresden’s awareness and wry acceptance of his faults, coupled with his near-absolute refusal to change, makes up one of the more humorous and entertaining Man vs. Self conflicts I’ve stumbled across in the fantasy genre. The series is served with a nod, a wink, and a wry smile.
Dresden’s past is a mystery that is slowly unraveled over the course of each book. Born of a broken home, Dresden’s journey to Chicago was apparently one filled with heartbreak and intrigue, and he has the baggage to prove it. His relationship with his past—and it’s bearing on his potential future—are recurring themes in every novel thus far.
Butcher has surrounded Dresden with a host of interesting supporting characters. Karrin Murphy, the officer in charge of the CPD-SID, is one of Dresden’s two main foils, along with a Bob, a human skull possessed by an air spirit of intellect that provides Dresden with information in exchange for trashy romance novels and occasional jaunts to gentleman’s clubs and sorority houses. Joining Murphy and Bob are Susan Rodriguez (a gossip columnist and love interest for Dresden), Michael Carpenter (a Templar-esque Knight of the Cross) and Thomas Raith, a curiously helpful vampire of the White Court. Dresden has his share of enemies as well, including a powerful Chicago crime boss, the Red Court of Vampires, some less-than-reputable Sidhe and various other nasties.
The characters of the Dresden files are diverse and, if not exactly three dimensional, at least passably interesting. Every character has an “A” and “B” plotline, and things are very frequently not what they seem. Sure, some of the swerves Butcher offers are predictable and cliché, but it doesn’t take away from the sheer enjoyment of it all.
The novels are all written in the first person, with Dresden himself narrating the stories. The POV works. Butcher can be almost pulpy in his delivery, and the first person perspective lends itself well to Butcher’s tone. Dialogue, however, tends to range from hokey to cringe-worthy. With all due respect to Mr. Butcher, much of the dialogue sounds as if it was intentionally dumbed down. Perhaps I’m missing out on some nerd-hipster ironic in-joke, but I can only read dialogue like “Hell’s Bells, Murph!” so many times before I start to let out audible groans. Curiously, I’ve come to find the dialogue endearing, in that so-bad-it-is-funny kind of way. I chalk this up to the fact that the novels thus far have been, for lack of a better term, pure fun.
Butcher has stated that the books were inspired by his enjoyment of Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series. While the two series do share some common themes and tropes, Butcher has (through six books, anyway) largely steered clear of the psychosexual fang-banger melodrama prevalent in Hamilton’s work. By eliminating the heaving-bosom twaddle and bad-boy mystery, Butcher has managed to excise much of the typical urban fantasy cliché that turns men off and women on. What the reader is left with is a goofy, semi-predictable but thoroughly entertaining journey through alt-Chicago’s supernatural underbelly.
This certainly isn’t a comprehensive review, and I’ve only covered the broad strokes of the series. The novels themselves are short and sweet, and to delve any deeper would do a potential reader a disservice. Part of the fun of this series has been discovering the world Dresden inhabits, in all its ragged, awkward glory. If you’re a writing snob, this series isn’t for you. I’d compare The Dresden Files to the Evil Dead series of movies. If you can appreciate a good laugh and an entertaining set of stories and characters, the Dresden Files are definitely worth a read. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of mindless fun every now and then.
The 14th novel of The Dresden Files, Cold Days, will be published by ROC, a division of Penguin Books, on November 27, 2012.