The story is told from the perspective of Harry Dresden, an actual Wizard living in Chicago. He's so official, he's actually listed in the yellow pages as a wizard for hire. His work is similar in nature to a private detective, but of course his cases involve more than just cheating spouses. Case in point, the book begins with a woman asking for help in finding her missing husband. It appears that he has recently become rather interested (or even obsessed) with things of an occult nature and she is worried for him.
In the same day, Lieutenant Murphy of the Chicago Police Department reaches out to Dresden to help with an unusual investigation. The case involves the unusual death of a man and a woman in mid-coitus - but somehow their hearts have been exploded from within their bodies. The potential magic that could do something like this worries Dresden given he knows how dangerous it is. And if he is to figure out what had been used, he'll most likely have to gather the same ingredients and components to cast the spell. And merely being in possession of such items could risk his tenuous status with the White Council that oversees all use of magic.
As a first person perspective book, it's rather important that the central character is one that the reader can appreciate or even like. And Harry Dresden is probably not the poster boy for this given his dry humor and sardonic wit. But he's actually rather endearing in a scruffy kind of way since he's really just a guy doing his best given some pretty unusual circumstances. It takes a certain kind of nerve to publicly advertise that one is a wizard. You can imagine all the less than series job offers that he gets as part of all this. And yet he perseveres on.
Beyond that, another great part of the book is the rather well thought-out magic system. A lot of books like to gloss over this side of things and just have the characters wave their arms or say a single magic word in order to perform miraculous feats. Given this story is told directly from Harry's perspective, we also follow along the complex thought processes of a wizard and his little explanations of how magic works in this reality. Thus we have all these different cases like tapping raw forces for spells versus careful preparation of power for future use. We have potion that can do any number of things and we have artifacts of varying potency. And because everything makes sense given the clearly defined internal logic, the end result is pretty impressive.
The book combines all the challenges of a humorous but not asinine protagonist, a magic-fueled fantasy novel, and a good old fashioned detective mystery in one witty package. And just getting any one of those elements to work well is difficult. To get all of them to work together and execute a story that isn't just coherent but actually pretty compelling, well I'm all the more impressed. I've been known to dabble in writing and I can't imagine how Jim Butcher manages to get all this done.
And not only does this book establish this little world of that Dresden lives in, but it also provides a number of potential story elements that we all want to look into further. The fact that Harry Dresden is under some sort of probation with the White Council or how Chicago has a rather prominent vampire running a sort of harem are all interesting stories on their own. And you know that time and time again we're going to want to explore these side stories and thus further expand Harry's world.
Beyond a good story though, the book is really defined by the strength of its characters. And our main players like Harry and Lt. Murphy and all the others are pretty interesting in their own right. And this is just the first book - I know that there's a heck of a lot more to learn about all of them and future adventures are going to expand on these different back stories.
A whole new world has opened up for me now that I've finally gotten started on The Dreden Files with Storm Front and I'm pretty excited to read about more of Harry's misadventures. I'll still have to juggle different books that I've committed to read but it's fair to say that the priority rating of this series has bumped up several notches.