Storm Front by Jim Butcher (Book One of the Dresden Files)
Published September 2005 (UK), by Orbit UK, US 2000.
As I type here at Hobbit Towers, it is September and Autumn is coming. Usually at this time of year I start casting around for books for the longer nights and find that it is now, more than at any other time of the year, I like to read the horror stuff – Halloween’s not far away!
Jim Butcher’s Storm Front took caught my eye with some new classy understated covers here in the UK. (Our American members have had these books for a while: Storm Front came out in 2000 there. Orbit UK have been quick to catch up and, clearly to quench my thirst for more, are releasing two a month for the next three months, which should bring the UK almost up to date.) So, what are they like?
In Storm Front, the first in the series, we start in typical film noir mode. Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden is the only person in Chicago listed in directory enquiries as ‘Wizard’. Not the ‘Harry Potter’ type – No love potions, endless purses or other entertainment, it says in his advertisement. No: Harry is more of your paranormal dealing, insoluble crime-solving type of guy, and the only wizard used as a consultant by the Chicago Police Special Investigations Department when dealing with the demons and ghouls that live in the Nevernever.
Harry is in his typically detective office when a call from Chicago’s police chief, Karrin Murphy, involves him in a double murder, which clearly involves black magic. Things get really interesting when Harry discovers that it is a black mage who is behind it. And more worryingly, though Harry doesn’t know who it is, the black mage knows him. And is out to get him.
OK – you get the idea. Detective / film noir style novel, looks like Bogart or Jim Rockford, reads like a Raymond Chandler novel but with added X Files style stuff, (vampires, demons, magic), right? See also Anita Blake in New Orleans, Rachel Morgan in Cincinnati, Vicki Nelson in Toronto and so on and so on.
At first glance, the book’s premise is not that different from a number of other stories or writer’s work. Whilst in ‘detective-mode’, you could almost even write a checklist of the criteria needed for this type of book and met here – dark, urban environment; rain and wind; downtrodden detective; magic realism; spooky creatures; dirty dealings etc, etc.
But as they say: it’s not necessarily the destination, it’s the journey. Though you may have met these ideas before, I found that Jim Butcher’s version is a lot of fun. He clearly knows that he’s messing with familiar territory, yet has a great time with it. I think that’s what I liked most about the book. Unlike, say, the Anita Blake books, there’s a nice sense of humour through this book.
Which is a rare thing for me to say. I always find humour difficult in SF, Horror and Fantasy writing, and it’s rare for me to find it works. I can name no more than a handful for me that do * . Here, though, the dry, knowing humour of Butcher’s protagonist does.
To keep me further amused, Harry has an engaging troupe of assistants – there’s Harry’s cat (named Mister), whose main job seems to be to perform Garfield-like functions. There’s also Bob, Harry’s reference guide, who also happens to be a talking skull with an unhealthy interest in sex, and Toot-toot, a faerie guide who is anybody’s for a piece of bread with milk and honey. There’s also Morgan – Harry’s Warden for the White Council – his police tag, if you like, designed to stop Harry from being of any use magically, whose bumblings are a lighter counterpoise to the darker goings-on in the book. Such a wide variety of characters allow the reader to see fun in life’s difficulties, for Harry’s life can be quite difficult at times.
Using humour can be difficult when dealing with horror – it is meant to scare people, after all – but Butcher managed to make me chuckle and be creeped out at the same time. It’s not an easy thing to do and can easily go wrong, but it worked for me here.
Whilst laughing at Harry’s misfortunes with technology (being a wizard means that modern stuff doesn’t always work that well), I was also thrilled at the sheer unpleasantness of characters such as Bianca, the vampire mistress, who runs a high class brothel in the city. In my opinion, that takes some doing – to switch from humour to horror in a matter of sentences, something which Butcher manages to do.
So: it’s not deep, it’s not radically new, nor cutting edge, nor even really, really scary – but it is a great read. The pages turned very quickly and I will definitely continue with the series. (At the moment there are seven). Let’s hope they keep up to this standard!
I’ve enjoyed this one very much – and much more than the last time I read Hamilton, Harrison or Armstrong, though I liked them all.
I think this one’s going to be my recommendation for Halloween this year.
Hobbit, September 2005.
* (Oh – the five that do? In no real order – Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat (at least to start with), L. Sprague De Camp and Fletcher Pratt’s Enchanter (Harold Shea)…some of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker…and Jim Butcher makes six).