Wednesday, April 09, 2008

BOOK REVIEW - Storm Front

Storm Front (Book 1 of the Dresden Files)
Jim Butcher
ROC, 2000
322 pages

Like many I came to the Dresden Files by way of the short-lived television show on Sci Fi. Actually I did not even bother to watch the show on Sci Fi but rather downloaded the pilot episode via iTunes (for free) and watched it while processing data at the office. While there were some interesting concepts in there I felt the show pretty much sucked out loud and thus was done with the Dresden Files. Then I stumbled across an off-handed comment in a post* on Ragnell's Written World which indicated the sucktacular TV show was actually based on a series of books. This piqued my interest a little bit as Lisa (Ragnell) indicated she liked the books and as she has good taste in these matters I thought they might be an interesting read. Ultimately I did nothing about it because my life is already choked with tons of reading I am not getting done and the last thing I needed were more books around the house. Some time after that I ended up discussing the series with a good friend of mine who tends to have impeccable taste. (This statement ignores his love for premium tequila which will forever remain a mystery to me as all tequila, I don't care HOW good it is, tastes like ass.) He highly recommended both the Dresden series and, even more enthusiastically, Butcher's Codex Alera series. This made me even more interested in the books but again I came back to the point that I already have way too much media around the house waiting for me to consume. Finally as I was scouring the Murder By the Book website for any news of a Barry Eisler signing I noticed that Jim Butcher was going to be doing a signing in the immediate future. As I am callow and all about getting stuff signed so I walked over to the store and picked up Small Favor, the most recent Dresden book, as well as Storm Front, the premiere Dresden book. My objective was to read Storm Front on Sunday so I could know SOMETHING about the man and his writing before getting the chance to meet him.

Thanks to a late night and a somewhat liberal attitude towards what some call working hours I managed to succeed in my appointed task.

A task, as it turns out, which was very pleasant. After reading the first novel I could see why people are such fans, but I am getting ahead of myself here. For those of you who do not know, the Dresden Files all feature the adventures of wizard Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden in his capacity of wizard-for-hire and occasional consultant for the Chicago PD. In his novel debut Harry is called in to look into a grisly double-murder where the victims hearts were ripped from their chests while they are in the midst of making the two-backed beast. At almost the exact same time he is asked to track down a missing husband who might have been monkeying around with dark magic before he went AWOL. Along with all that Dresden becomes entangled with "Gentleman" Johnny Marcone, the capo di tutti capi of the Chicago underworld who is interested in keeping Dresden on the sidelines for this particular investigation. Above and beyond all this Dresden labors under the Doom of Damocles, a stricture handed down by the White Council which puts Dresden in a precarious place when researching magic of this magnitude. Having burdened our hero with enough baggage, Butcher then allows the true fun to begin.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, so much so that I went ahead and purchased the second and third book in the series at the signing and am already WELL into the second book and I am probably going to be a little Dresden-centric until I can tear through the series. I find I really enjoy long series as it allows me to move in to the author's world, become acquainted with it and then settle in comfortably. Many series reach this point and then POOF you reach the final book and the characters and world with which the reader has become so familiar with are never heard from again. Having said this, there are plenty of series and worlds which have over-stayed their welcome (I'm looking at you Dragonriders of Pern). Keeping an ongoing series interesting, challenging, and yet comfortable for the reader has to be an enormous challenge, part of which Butcher trims away by firmly grounding his novel in the mystery/thriller tradition which has become more prevalent in fantasy novels as the genre sometimes called urban fantasy. By utilizing the police procedural as a broad setting for the Dresden novels, Butcher gives the problems faced by his characters a sense of urgency which goes beyond that conveyed in his prose as well as providing readers who may be unfamiliar with fantasy tropes an easy way in to the world he has created.

Boy howdy this place needs an editor. That last paragraph was pretty much everywhere. Let's try again, shall we?

I highly recommend the book. Butcher seamlessly blends elements from several genre's in these novels and them dips them in a coating of geek-friendly wit. If you dig my sense of humor than I think you'll dig these novels.


1. To illustrate how much of a geek Mr. Butcher is I can only offer this. He showed up to the signing wearing a Sunnydale t-shirt. In fact it was THIS Sunnydale shirt, or its cousin.

2. During the Q&A session, which ended up being the entire thing as Butcher does not have a little spiel he gives and foregoes a reading in the hope his fans can read***, he told the story of how Bob came to be. Before this story is funny you have to understand two things. First Bob is some sort of spirit that has been imprisoned in a skull. Bob has been around for several centuries and provides Dresden with an immense library of magical knowledge and experience from whence Dresden can draw when needed. You may find yourself wondering WTF Dresden is doing with a talking head and why doesn't he use a computer like a normal person? Well he's a wizard, you twit, and this brings us to my second point, that being that wizards cannot use electronic devices without wrecking havoc upon them. The secret origin of Bob, who is nothing more than a floating head, is a bit funnier and demonstrates the level of smart-assery Butcher likes to embrace. There comes a time in every story where you need to drop some exposition on your audience. This is done with varying levels of competence but it almost always comes off as a bit boring. Perhaps the worst way exposition happens "on screen" is when one character begins with, "As you know..." The audience is immediately thinking, "If the character already knows then WHY THE HELL ARE YOU TELLING HIM AGAIN YOU NINCOMPOOP?" Often there will be one character whose entire point is to offer the exposition necessary to advance the plot, or, as I like to call it, whip a little science on the audience's collective ass. The Austin Powers movies handled this character by naming him Basil Exposition and thus poked fun at the characters which seem to be particularly prevalent in the spy genre. During the writing of what was to become Storm Front (its original title was Semiautomagic which just reeks of teh awesome) Butcher had to find a way to explain the rules of the magic system he was developing for the novels without having a character revert to the Basil Exposition School of Exposition. Butcher already had the character of Bob in his head when he was discussing this problem with his writing teacher at the time whose advice was to be sure to not make the character just a talking head, or a character who does nothing but spout exposition and leave. Butcher's mind being what it is took that and gave us Bob as he appears in the novels. A literal talking head. Named Bob.

* I am too lazy to track down the post but I believe Lisa was discussing the Arthurian overtones present in some of the books. It has been a while since I read the post.

** I can't believe I just did that.

*** While I understand where he is coming from, I actually really enjoy hearing an author read their own work. It gives me an idea of how the characters talk in the author's head which adds a layer to the character the next time I am reading.

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