Friday, March 5, 2010

Storm Front

Since this entry regards a selection from my book group, it will be somewhat shorter than usual, concentrating on some details rather than an expansive review.

Last summer, I wrote a review of Alex Bledsoe's The Sword-Edged Blonde (, including a little conversation about historical attempts to mix the detective/noir genre with genres generally associated with speculative fiction. But in that discussion, I ignorantly left out what appears to be a new melding of noir with urban fantasy (and when I say "new," I mostly mean to me—not sure how long this has been going on). Even more so than dystopic science fiction, urban fantasy seems an ideal partner for noir. And perhaps the most famous series that uses this melding is Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden books. Part of the celebrity of these books was an attempt to make a TV series out of them on the network formerly known as Scifi Channel. And although that series was never really given a chance to succeed, Scifi has continued to promote the books as they come out.

Storm Front is the first Harry Dresden book, and it exhibits the strengths that have allowed the series to continue for 11 books now as well as the weaknesses of first-time writers. On the plus side, Dresden is a remarkably fully drawn character, revealing elements of his personality along the length of the narrative. Dresden is charming, witty, and wry, aligned pretty closely to expectations for noir protagonists. There are hints of a deep dark secretive past, along with the unspoken promise that they will be explained eventually. And clearly, Dresden is exceptionally good at what he does: being a wizard. Butcher has written Dresden as an incredibly appealing narrator, and I suspect he is the primary reason readers return again and again to the series.

Butcher also has written some powerful supporting characters as well, starting with the ubiquitous police contact and the gorgeous reporter and filling them out somewhat more than just stereotypes. There's also the friendly tavern owner and faithful pet. Butcher is adept at his characterizations, making the interactions between these folks a joy to take part in. He also slips into the noir stereotypes like he has been writing them forever, giving them a sense of familiarity without the reader actually knowing the characters yet.

Another strength for Butcher is the infrastructure of magic that he has established for his world. In a couple of places in Storm Front, Dresden talks (usually to the audience) about the nature and source of magic. We also learn that magic has a set of Laws, enforced by a White Council. We never learn all the laws, nor do we meet the Council, but that really shouldn't be expected in the first book of a potential series. We do get to meet an enforcer for the Council, though, and in him we find the noir protagonist's helpful foe.

Unfortunately, the weakness of Storm Front is the mystery that Dresden finds himself involved in. It feels as though Butcher learned his pacing and structure for mysteries from TV movies or old episodes of Rockford Files. On the one hand, Dresden receives an odd request from a reticent client to look into what her husband is up to, since he has lost his job and has suddenly started dabbling in wizardry. On the other, Dresden finds himself drawn into the investigation of a gruesome double homicide due to his consultancy with the police department. So of course, using the law of conservation of characters, not only do the two mysteries have to be related, but they have the same antagonist.

(A tangent here—it may be unfair for me to expect noir to have really strong mystery/investigative aspects. I'm not sure noir has ever been about the uncovering of clues and determining their relevance, trying to tie them all together. But in this case, the structure of Storm Front—the introduction of the investigative aspects for which Dresden is called in—make it seem that part of the fun of this book is going to be in actual sleuthing.)

The potential is there. Having created a really good narrator like Dresden, Butcher has the foundation for a strong series, which he has gone on to fulfill. But honestly, this first book is not much more than a beach read, fluffy and fast and not requiring a large commitment of cranial resources. That said, it is an engrossing read, working hard to convince me to pick up more books from the series to see how Dresden and his relationships evolve.

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