Top positive review
series is off to a good start
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on June 24, 2014
I've previously read and enjoyed Jim Butcher's "Codex Alera" series, and the Dresden Files came highly recommended from some online acquaintances (whose opinions I trust in such matters), so when I saw the Kindle deal for the first seven Dresden books, I took the bait. I'm glad I did.
I've read a number of hardboiled detective novels (from back in the day) and I could see some of that influence here. Actually, that influence was stronger in "Storm Front" than it was in some of the later Dresden books (I'm up through #4 right now). I think Butcher was still trying to find his voice in this book. He's decent at the detective novel thing (clues planted in appropriate places, red herrings, etc.), but I found later books -- where there's more of a character focus, as well as more supernatural elements -- more fun to read.
One detail I like is Dresden's interference with electronic devices. The hardboiled detective style doesn't work as well, I think, with modern conveniences like the internet, cell phones, etc. But Dresden exists in the modern world and so the existence of technology has to be addressed. And I appreciate the choice that was made. Plus, it makes things more difficult for Dresden (unreliable car, making bargains with Bob the skull to get information, etc.). He's got wizardly powers but he's still sometimes at a disadvantage.
The first-person narrative works, in my opinion. I already knew that Dresden was going to make it out of the whole thing alive, because there are more than a dozen additional books in the series (a lot of times, first-person narration suffers from lack of tension because authors don't kill off the POV characters). But even if Dresden isn't going to die, there could still be consequences. In this first book, we know Dresden is already under a cloud of suspicion/distrust from his fellow wizards, plus he has mundane allies who could suffer. So there's still tension, despite the first-person POV.
There are a lot of what you might call tropes of the hardboiled detective genre in this book (house by the lake, mysterious woman coming to Dresden's office to offer him a job -- that he needs to take due to monetary reasons, mobsters, pesky reporters, etc.). I can't decide if Butcher is paying homage to the genre or just recycling ideas (or maybe a little of both), but he manages to keep the plot moving so you don't have a lot of time to focus on such details. Honestly, the same can be said for the supernatural side of things -- a wizard with a staff, potions, fairies, vampires, etc. In this case, I think the mash-up generally works.
One thing I will definitely say for Butcher's books (both "Codex Alera" and the four Dresden books I've read so far) is that they're very easy to read -- they're over before you know it! (I mean that in a good way. Also, the books are not terribly long.) Early on, I noticed a tendency for Butcher to use too many "-ly" adverbs, but these either became less noticeable or were dropped. The first murder scene is described in such a way that makes it anatomically impossible, but I'm willing to let that slide.
I'm not so sure how I feel about Dresden's attitude towards women -- these stories definitely have their sexist moments. Nary a female character is introduced that we don't hear about her build, her clothes, etc. Dresden also has something of a protective hero complex. On the one hand, sexism is a longstanding feature of the hardboiled detective story. On the other hand, I wonder if it's a little bit of the author's personality coming through. There's something of a fixation on cheerleaders (and one reference to a football team), suggesting certain difficulties during the teenage years for one or both of them (i.e., Dresden and Butcher).
One thing I wished for was more focus on the characters in this book. (That does come in later volumes and I'm glad for it.) It is clearly established that Harry Dresden is carrying around a lot of baggage from a not-too-pleasant past, but he doesn't want to talk about it. In this volume, we *are* introduced to the supernatural world, including fairies, vampires, various magical tools, and more. It is possible that this introduction took the place of some of the characterization that would normally be involved in a series like this. And we did need an introduction to those elements because they come back again and again in later volumes.
The book is set in Chicago, a place I've never been. I'm not all that sure it matters that I haven't visited there; Butcher keeps it pretty generic other than some broad references to neighborhoods, the Great Lakes, etc. It probably would have been just as easy to set these books somewhere else. On the other hand, there's nothing that leads me (admittedly, with my lack of knowledge of the area) to believe this *couldn't* have taken place in Chicago (geographically-speaking, anyway). At any rate, the setting is believable enough for my purposes.
I've been told by a couple of online acquaintances that you can skip the first two Dresden books and start right in with the third. However, I think to do that, you'd be missing out on some key early worldbuilding. I feel like this book contributes less to the ongoing storyline about Dresden's past than books 2-4, but I also think that Butcher was setting things up for later. Also, of course, he had to provide something that was basically self-contained because he wouldn't have been able to predict the reaction/popularity of the series.
All-in-all, I'm glad I took the plunge to get into this series. I expect I'll finish the books I got on promo in a week or two and have to pay full price for the rest of them. I'd say this was a decent effort but also that later books show definite improvement. 3.5 stars.