Tag Archives: detective fiction

Review 37: Dresden Files 03 – Grave Peril

Grave Peril by Jim Butcher

“Hell’s Bells” count: 26

If you’re reading this series in sequence (which you absolutely should be, or things will stop making sense very quickly), you’ve got a good handle on how the world of Harry Dresden operates. He’s a lone wolf, so to speak, standing up to the Occult Forces of Chicago with only the support of his contact in the Chicago PD, Lt. Karrin Murphy. There’s also intrepid investigative reporter Susan Rodriguez, for whom Harry’s feelings are slightly more than professional.

There’s also the mysterious White Council of Wizards. While you may think that belonging to a worldwide magical fraternity might be a good thing, Harry Dresden would most certainly disagree. To be fair, he has a history – he did kill his mentor using black magic, which is something so bad that it’s number one on their list of Things a Wizard Must Not Do, which comes with one free beheading. His associates in the White Council barely tolerate him, and make it very clear that he’s worth more to them dead than alive. But more about this in other books….

The point is that Harry so far has been a fairly small-time operator. Yes, he takes down evil sorcerers and vicious werewolves, but mostly on his own. In this book, the camera pulls back a little and we learn more about his world and his connections, and a broader story starts to emerge.

The most interesting of these additions is Michael Carpenter, an associate of Harry’s whose view of the world comes from a very different place. Michael is a religious man, a committed Christian who sees Harry’s use of magic as impure and sullied, but associates with him anyway because they have a shared goal: the elimination of evil. Michael Carpenter is the Fist of God, one of the three Knights of the Cross. As such, he wields a faith powerful enough that even Harry can feel it. Oh, and he also wields a giant sword. With one of the nails from the True Cross worked into it. Amoracchius is a powerful weapon against evil, and a prize that anyone would be glad to have.

In this book (as in all his books), Harry is given more trouble than he can handle. It begins with ghosts, as so many things do. The ghosts of Chicago are being stirred up by something – they’re acting out in ways they would never act, causing an above-average amount of chaos and disorder in the city. And when there’s ghosts around, tearing up the pediatrics ward of your local hospital, who is it you’re going to contact telephonically? That’s right – Harry Dresden.

The ghosts are the least of his worries, however. The force behind them, the malicious entity that is driving the ghosts mad, is of far more concern to him. There’s something out there, a Nightmare, that is out for blood. It’s attacking Harry and his friends, and doing it through their dreams. Not just Harry’s friends who are in good with the supernatural, but some of his Muggle buddies as well. This thing is angry, evil, and can tear a person’s soul apart, leaving an empty husk that does nothing but try to scream.

As if that weren’t enough, the Red Court of Vampires is having a party, and they want Harry to come. Sounds lovely, right? A costume party with the vampires, a promise of protection to all invited guests – how can you have a better night? Myself, I’d start by not hanging around a house full of vampires and their allies. Especially when the hostess, a high-ranking member of the Court, has a serious personal grudge against me. The vampire Bianca wants Harry deader than dead, and she manages to set off a complex series of events to make sure it happens.

This book, as I said, expands the Dresden universe a bit. It assumes that the readers are fairly comfortable with what we know, and gives us a lot more to think about. The world-wide spread of vampires, the hide-bound White Council, and the ramifications of having a Faerie Godmother. In the previous books, we saw Harry come out on top against small-scale foes – now the camera pulls back to show us how he goes up against larger institutions.

In this book, Dresden is almost always out of his league – although I can’t imagine who would be in their league while facing a hoarde of really pissed off vampires while being on the brink of death already. Buffy, probably. Or River Tam. Anyone written by Joss Whedon, I guess. But Dresden makes it through. Not in the “Finding reserves of strength you never knew were there” style found in the Whedon Supergirls, but more in the “This just might be crazy enough to work, unless I kill myself doing it in which case it might not go so well after all” style.

Plus, it has my favorite trope of modern fantasy fiction – even if the hero wins, he doesn’t actually save the day. In fact, things get a whole lot worse. Which is all gravy for Jim Butcher, because it means he has all the more material to work with for the rest of the series.

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“There should be some kind of rule against needing to kill anything more than once.”
– Harry Dresden, Grave Peril
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Review 33: Dresden Files 02 – Fool Moon

Fool Moon by Jim Butcher

“Hell’s Bells” count: 9

When a book about werewolves has a joke taken directly from Young Frankenstein (“Werewolf? There! There wolf! There castle!”), you know you’re in very good hands. That’s the kind of joke that a very small percentage of readers is going to get, but it’s guaranteed that those readers who do get it will be very appreciative.

Once again, consulting magician Harry Dresden has gotten himself into trouble. A few months ago, he nearly got himself killed taking down a drug-pushing warlock who wielded disturbingly strong levels of dark magic. Now, he has a different… hairier problem to deal with.

People are being ripped apart in Chicago. Not normal gangland killings, or even comfortable, familiar drug shootings, no. People are being literally torn apart, limb from limb, guts for garters, that sort of thing. The killings are violent and frightening, and both the Chicago police and the FBI would really like to know who’s behind them all. Unfortunately for Harry Dresden, all avenues point towards the supernatural.

If that weren’t bad enough, his talent for being in the wrong place at the wrong time has made Harry an object of suspicion almost any time something weird goes down. He’s used to that, though. What with just being relieved of the Doom of Damocles (a rather pretentious-sounding magical probation), and still being in the bad books of the White Council of Wizards, to say nothing of the powerful mobsters, Harry has more enemies than he can really keep up with. He doesn’t need any more, and he most certainly doesn’t need enemies that are red in tooth and claw.

For that matter, it would probably be simpler if it were just one werewolf. But it isn’t. Of even if it were just one kind of werewolf. Which it isn’t. Or even if all the werewolves in question were relentless, evil killing machines. Which, of course, they aren’t. Not all of them.

So now Harry has to throw himself into the fray again – to the wolves, as it were – and risk life and limb for people who don’t quite appreciate all the hard work he does. At least, not until a ravaging loup-garou nearly kills them all. But that would help anyone through a crisis of faith, I think.

As with the first volume in this series, I really enjoyed this book. Jim Butcher has an excellent sense of humor, and it really shines through in Harry’s narration. Dresden often breaks the fourth wall in his narrative, acknowledging to both himself and the reader that he’s about to do something that most people would consider to be insane.

One of the things I really enjoy about reading these books is the multi-sensory experience of reading them. Butcher knows that we have many senses, and also knows that a great number of writers only engage a couple of them. So he throws as much sensory information as he can at us, engaging our senses of touch and taste and smell to make the scene that much more convincing. What’s more, he has a gift for an economy of description – what’s the most important sensory input for each scene? He knows it, and focuses our attention on that.

Plus, he’s put together a very well-ordered magical universe. The rules are clear and binding, letting us know exactly what Harry can and cannot do in order to get out of his troubles. The work that Butcher has done in preparing the world of Harry Dresden shows up very clearly.

Of course, werewolves are fun monsters to play with, mainly because of their symbolic significance. Man and beast in one body, a loss of control and a joy in doing so – the werewolf is the beast we all fear to become. And this is important to Harry as well – as he tells us in this book and most of the others, he has a dark side to him. He knows what it’s like to reach into the bleak recesses of his soul and to use magic towards evil ends. He’s done it before, and the understanding that he could do it again is a shadow that constantly follows him. When he sees the various werewolves that are terrorizing the city, he sees himself in them. He sees the monster he could become, and he rejects it. Or at least holds it at bay for as long as he can.

It’s great to watch Harry, because he’s such an underdog. He gets beaten up, outsmarted, outclassed again and again, but he keeps coming back. He keeps finding that one little way through his problems that allows him to come through victorious. As far as he’s able to, anyway.

And in the end, isn’t that true for all of us?

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“Well, we’ll just have to hope that this wasn’t a loup-garou, I guess.”
“If it was a louper, you’d know. In the middle of this town, you’d have a dozen people dead every time the full moon came around. What’s going on?”
“A dozen people are dying every time the full moon comes around.”
– Harry Dresden and Bob, Fool Moon
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Review 29: Dresden Files 01 – Storm Front

Storm Front by Jim Butcher

“Hell’s Bells” count: 3

Back in 2006, I made a trip to the States for a wedding. It was good fun, and I figured that while I was there, I’d go and see some other friends and family up and down the East Coast. While in the Albany Area of New York, I was taken to a fantasy/science fiction bookstore so that I could fill up on books – a precious commodity, given their expense and rarity here.

What I found when I walked in was shocking – I had no idea what to buy. I was so far out of the loop of SF/F news that I didn’t know who was good, who was terrible, which mammoth mega-series were worth investing in and which were better off avoided. So I did the perfectly rational thing – I asked my friend for advice.

With very little delay, he picked this book out for me and said, “You need to read this. But,” he warned, “you’ll want to read them all.” I hemmed and hawed a bit, did some mental calculations of suitcase volume and density, and purchased the first three books of the Dresden Files series.

My friend was right. I plowed through those books like nobody’s business and then fumed that I couldn’t go right into the next one. Any series that makes you practically itch for the next book has definitely got something going for it, and it all starts right here.

Harry Dresden is a wizard for hire in Chicago. He is, as far as he knows, the only wizard for hire, and this is both good and bad. Good in that he gets all the weird cases that only a wizard can really handle, plus the bonus of being a standing consultant for the Chicago police department. Bad in that he’s pretty much on his own, wizard-wise, in a city that is just aching to go supernaturally crazy.

As this book opens, Dresden is trying to scrape enough together for the rent, and he’s hit with two cases at once – a woman looking for her missing husband and the police looking to find out who made two people’s hearts burst from their chests. Chasing either lead means danger, but he can’t afford not to take either one. He needs the money, and he needs to keep a good relationship with the police….

Someone, somewhere is breaking the most sacred laws of magic. Binding, killing, coercion and destruction, all uses of magic that are utterly forbidden by the White Council, the mysterious council who oversees the world’s wizarding community.

In the best traditions of gritty detective fiction, the two seemingly unrelated cases eventually merge into one very dangerous investigation, one which challenges Harry and his allies to do more than they’d ever done before.

Butcher has done some fantastic work here for a debut novel, and set the stage for a long and fruitful series. He sets up his world in an efficient fashion, giving us everything we need to know in order to get the story he’s about to tell, and dropping little hints of what’s to come. I really have no complaints.

Well, maybe one. But it’s small, all things considered.

As Dresden tells us in his narration, the world he lives in is one that has seen magic pushed back for the better part of a century in favor of Science. “The largest religion of the twentieth century,” he calls it, and that kind of set off a little red flag in my head.

I’ve heard the old “Science is just another religion” canard before, and I know that it’s nonsense – science doesn’t require faith, it doesn’t require any kind of leaps or hope or suspension of disbelief. Religion certainly does – no one prays with absolute certainty that their prayer will be answered – there’s always a chance (and often a good one) that nothing will come of it. But hold a stone a few feet off the ground and drop it, and that stone will damn well fall to the ground. Moreover, it’ll fall at the same speed when dropped from the same height, no matter who drops it. Every time. No praying, no intercession. Just science.

What makes Dresden’s comment even more interesting is how scientific he is in his working of magic. He has a work space in his basement that he refers to as a lab, and explains to the reader the way that magic works. The principles of Circles, and the necessary elements that constitute a potion. When Harry talks about the power of True Names, he tells us about a known effect of using someone’s name for spellcraft, one that will work for any wizard, so long as he knows how to say the person’s name the right way.

As an interesting aside to that, Harry gives us his full name – Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden – right at the beginning of the book, on page two. This would imply an interesting level of trust between the narrator and the reader, as the character knows full well the dangers of letting one’s full name get out of your hands.

He talks about rules and laws, cause and effect, as things that he’s studied and remembered because they work. If magic were truly non-scientific, there would be no way for Harry (or any other practitioner) to predict what would happen when a spell was cast. But when he draws a circle and gives it a bit of a charge, Harry knows exactly what will happen. This alternate world may have sources of energy that ours doesn’t, and certain physical laws that vary from ours, but science is no less present in Harry’s magic than anywhere else.

So, that one little nitpick aside, I found this to be a very enjoyable book. What’s more, it was an excellent introduction into what has turned out to be a fantastic series. I can’t wait to see how it all turns out in the end….

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“There is no truer gauge of a man’s character than the way in which he employs his strength, his power.”
Harry Dresden, Storm Front
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The Dresden Files on Wikipedia
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Storm Front on Amazon.com
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