Storm Front by Jim Butcher
Storm Front is the first in the Dresden Files series, which so far comprises fourteen novels (added to at a rate of roughly one per year), 10 short stories and an abortive TV series. I’m not actually sure where I even heard of the Dresden Files. They are pretty big sellers, as fantasy books go, so I guess it’s just a name that’s been popping up now and then over the last few years and I just decided to take the plunge.
The series following the exploits of the eponymous private investigator and wizard, Harry Dresden. Harry claims he’s the only person listed in the phonebook under the category “wizards” (certainly the only one in the Chicago phone book). But despite having the market cornered, his business isn’t exactly booming with his rent overdue, and his only jobs for the morning consisting of finishing reading his book, deciding what to have for lunch, and dealing with the new postman.
Obviously, 300 pages of that would make for a dull book, so Harry quickly gets into a new case, after fielding a phone call from a woman who has misplaced something (her husband), before taking another call from his main source of income: Chicago Police Department, for whom Harry is the “psychic consultant”. That means he gets paid to aid their investigations into any essentially unsolvable crimes which may or may not have been commissioned with magic, and which get assigned to the Special Investigations unit.
The police case comes first, which takes Harry to a grisly scene at a hotel room, where a pair of lovers have had their hearts torn out of their chest mid-coitus. It’s quickly established that this would have to have been done by magical means, by a powerful dark wizard, using a spell that Harry has no clue how to perform.
Things quickly get worse for our hero Harry, as there’s a gangland connection to the murder, with one of the victims being an enforcer for the head of Chicago’s underworld, “Gentleman” Johnny Marcone, who quickly threatens Harry about investigating the case. If that wasn’t enough, it turns out that the White Council (the governing body of wizards) suspect Harry was the murderer, and given that he’s already under the Doom of Damocles (essentially one more strike and he’s out – “out” here meaning “summarily executed”) for previous infractions, in their eyes he’s guilty until proven innocent, and investigating the spells used will only cast more suspicion onto him.
So pretty quickly Harry is set up to be fucked in any number of ways. He’s fucked if he doesn’t investigate, because he won’t be to pay his rent, and, more pressingly, the White Council will think he did it, and he’ll be executed. He’s fucked if he investigates, because the White Council will think he did it anyway, and even if he convinces them he’s not, Marcone will be less than pleased with him and may try to kill him through less magical means. And then of course if he avoids all that, he might be fucked if he figures out who’s behind it, and they are a wizard who is too powerful for him to handle.
Again, obviously, not investigating a murder doesn’t make for much of a book (and won’t pay Harry’s rent), so Harry investigates anyway. The plot is good enough, if fairly standard for a 300-page detective novel. It has twists and turns, is pretty suspenseful, has some decent action scenes and is told with a decent amount of wry humour. In the style of the genre (detective novels, not fantasy novels), red herrings (of course) aren’t.
The characters are a pretty decent group too, with a good amount of depth. Beyond Harry there’s a bunch of interesting folks. Karrin Murphy, a lieutenant in the Chicago PD, head of Special Investigations, and probably Harry’s only friend (although even she doesn’t like him that much). Susan Rodriguez, a reporter for an occultist newspaper and potential love interest for Harry (they have a first date. It does not go well). Bianca, a brothel owner and vampire. Johnny Marcone, the Chicago hood with a set of morals (or at least business sense). Morgan, the White Council’s equivalent of a policeman, constantly convinced Harry is up to something and determined to see him punished. Mac, the taciturn owner of Harry’s favourite bar.
And Bob, a spirit that lives inside a human skull and serves as Harry’s encyclopaedia.
That’s seven supporting characters (well, six and a skull), all introduced in about 300 pages, all of whom feel like they have depth, nuance, secrets, and all of whom feel like they’ll be appearing in future books. To be honest, I’d be interested in reading further books in the series just to find out more about most of them, because they are, mostly, pretty fun to spend some time with. Especially Bob.
Obviously Harry is the star of the show, and if anything he’s more interesting than the rest. He’s fun enough, although he is a bit close to what now feels like an archetype: the wry, world-weary, lonely but talented detective. I think what is most interesting about him is his backstory. Most of this isn’t explained to you, it’s just alluded to or mentioned in passing. Whole swathes of it: as mentioned, he’s under the Doom of Damocles; his former master was a dark wizard who he killed; he murdered his first girlfriend; he’s more powerful than the White Council actually realises (but at the same time, maybe not as powerful as he’d like to think). And so on.
These all feel like pretty rich topics for investigation in future books, and are interesting enough to get me wanting to read more of the series.
Which annoys me a bit. I’ve got far too many series that I have made a commitment to read, so I’m not sure I want to sign up for another 13 books. Last year I read about 40 books, and five books into 2013 I feel like I could hit that number just by reading the rest of this series and the Culture series (I couldn’t quite, I’d be about ten short). On the other hand, if they continue to be tightly plotted, high-paced 300 page batches of fun, I’ll be happy to keep plowing through them. Even if the rest of the series is at least 3,900 pages of fun. I had to force myself to not just jump straight into the next in the series after I’d finished this one.
The obvious comparison for me with Storm Front is the Rivers of London series (which is basically Harry Potter, if Harry Potter was a mixed-race Metropolitan Policeman, an incredible nerd, and allowed to swear). Currently, I prefer Rivers of London, largely because it’s English and has the distinctive sense of humour running through it. And lots of jokes about the Metropolitan Police. If you’re British I’d recommend you read the Rivers series first, but if have the sad misfortune to be born anywhere else, currently I’d say you can’t really go wrong with either.
Read if you like: the Rivers of London series, vaguely private detective stuff (like the Jack Reacher novels or films like Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang), whatever you call fantasy that is set in the real world (I think it’s “low fantasy”), magic and the like, humour.
Don’t read if you like: having all of the loose ends wrapped up and no further books in a series to read.
Next up: Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor.