Tag Archives: mystery

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
Storm Front on Wikipedia
Jim Butcher on Wikipedia
Harry Dresden on Wikipedia
Storm Front on Amazon.com
Jim Butcher’s homepage

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Filed under detective fiction, Dresden Files, fantasy, Jim Butcher, murder, mystery, wizardry

Review 08: Watchmen

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

What with the movie on its way, I thought it’d be time to go through the book again. And, as always, it was a great pleasure to read.

This is a graphic novel that has an immense impact on comics history. It’s considered to be one of the most important works in the genre in, well, ever. Read any analysis of Watchmen and you’ll read that it revolutionized comics. It changed everything, they say.

They’re right.

Before I get to the actual story – and it’s a formidable story – I want to address the immense technical achievement that is evident in this book. Look at any panel, any page and you can spend a long time just admiring the artistry that has emerged from the Moore-Gibbons partnership. The words and the images fit together like the finest puzzle pieces, each one reinforcing and supporting the others. There are no unnecessary words, and there are no unnecessary pictures.

Goddamn it’s good. It’s a fantastic piece of work.

Just as much as the technical aspects of the book are a marvel, so is the story. It was written in – and set in – the mid-80s. It took the core genre of the comics industry, superheroes, and bent them to reality’s will. These were not the iconic, ageless figures of Batman and Superman, people whose hearts and intentions were pure and who never aged. The superheroes – or “costumed adventurers,” more appropriately – were very, very human. Not only did they age, but they made mistakes. They lied, they failed, they gave up. They were, with one notable exception, human, and their reasons for doing what they did were also very human.

It’s tempting to say, “These characters are us,” because they’re not, but they’re still a lot closer to us than traditional superheroes are. And this was especially true in the mid-80s. The Darkening of comics hadn’t begun yet, and it was probably Watchmen that kicked it off. Suddenly, after decades of two-dimensional storytelling and Manichean moral codes, the idea of heroes with ethical failings, personality problems and a faulty moral compass flooded the market. Unfortunately, they were inferior copies of an exceptional original.

Anyway, the story. The world in 1985 is a different place. The rise of the costumed adventurer had a big impact on the social fabric of the United States, and the Cold War has reached levels of tension that nearly break the world in two. America owns a superweapon in the person of Jonathan Osterman, also known as the nearly godlike Doctor Manhattan, but even he can’t stop the political super-powers from the intractable mess they have created. Everyone can feel it, the great burning and the end of the world. Everyone knows it’s coming.

And then someone kills The Comedian.

The death of this adventurer-turned-mercenary sets off a chain reaction that leads to the discovery of a horrific plan to save the world. People who believe themselves to be heroes have to decide what it means to do good when there are no good choices left to make.

It starts off as a murder mystery with hints of conspiracy and ends with a bang, as well as a deep moral quandary – do the ends justify the means, and if so, how far can we take that argument?

There are points to criticize the book, if you want to. One that my friend Joe mentioned is that, for all that the main characters are supposed to be heroes, they’re utterly un-heroic. They’re the antithesis of what a comic-book hero is supposed to be: morally sure and above reproach. Any mistakes that they make, even the ones that result in tragic consequences, should make them more heroic in the end. That’s what makes characters like Spider-Man and Superman such a pleasure to read. We know that, even if they screw up, they’ll ultimately do the right thing.

The same can’t be said for the people in this book. Rorschach is a homicidal existentialist, Ozymandias is a megalomaniac, Doctor Manhattan is a detached nihilist, sort of, and Nite Owl is a pudgy guy in an owl costume. These people are not, by and large, people that you can cheer for. They’re not people you can look up to, mainly because they’re just like us. They’re flawed, very deeply flawed, and we expect our heroes to be better than that.

So, it is possible that you will dislike each and every character in the book, and I can’t blame you for that. Still, it’s worth your time to read, even if it’s just to admire the technical ability of Moore and Gibbons. As for the movie, I can only pray that they do it right. I have a high tolerance for adaptation – and I know there’s no way the entire comic can be fit into a movie – so I will give the filmmakers some leeway. But I pray that they do it right….

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“Somebody has to do it, don’t you see? Somebody has to save the world…”
– Captain Metropolis, Watchmen
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Watchmen at Wikipedia
Watchmen at Wikiquote
Watchmen annotations
Watchmen movie website
Watchmen at Amazon.com

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Filed under Alan Moore, apocalypse, comic books, Dave Gibbons, DC Comics, ethics, graphic novel, made into movies, morality, murder, mystery, super-heroes, terrorism