It should be mentioned right away that it is rare for me to make it through an entire book series in any reasonable amount of time. Inevitably, I get bored, and when I get bored, I move on. Such is the plight of the all-empowered consumer of the 21st century. There are millions and millions of different sources of content for us humans to enjoy, and it takes a special kind of writer to make a book series that is worth reading from start to finish.
Jim Butcher has done exactly that. His first book Storm Front came to us in the wily and unimportant year of 2000. I wasn’t actually introduced to this series until 2015 when a coworker begged me to read Storm Front. I was taken aback by Butcher’s quick paced yet easy to follow style. They’re very clearly adventure novels, as you’ll come to understand. Protagonist Harry Dresden is Chicago’s only ‘Professional Wizard.’ Listed in the phone books, even. In many ways he’s a supernatural private detective, taking on jobs for the police, fairy queens, fallen angels, and fellow wizards often enough. Harry is often stuck with the ‘it’s always something’ literary technique. Conflict drives a story, and Butcher knows this. No one would want to read a book about Harry sitting at home, sipping coffee and petting his thirty pound cat Mister. Well….I shouldn’t say no one.
Butcher knows that things need to happen in order for more things to happen. Some plot lines are more interesting than others, sadly. I won’t spoil anything, but Ghost Story struggled from a lack of direction as well as a dearth of meaningful decisions. Butcher learned his lesson on that, though, as Cold Days that followed was full of important decisions, epic conflict, and mystery.
There is always a mystery to be solved in these books, and for those of us that want to use our minds when reading, the world of Dresden Files delivers every single time. There were times when I didn’t know who the villain was for the entire book until the last few pages. It’s not usually cut and dry, evil vs. good, light side vs. dark. One of Harry Dresden’s most hated enemies is a man of considerable stature in the criminal world. He has been responsible, directly or indirectly, for some of the more heinous crimes in recent history. And yet, Harry is forced to work with, for, or begrudgingly alongside this man dozens of times. There are even a few solitary snippets to be had where this man is seen to be doing something wrong for a good reason. Stealing a cure to save a child. Something like that.
Harry has a healthy (and sometimes unhealthy) amount of inner monologue on display. He is clearly at odds with himself over many past, present, and future decisions. Above all else, he’s very much a human. Full of fears, doubts, suspicions, failures, hopes and desires. These books don’t play the philosophy or psychology cards, yet they are so very much full of such concepts. It’s just more subtle than most. Harry has an ability that is unique to wizards in this particular universe. He can attempt a soulgaze of another entity. It amounts to looking into the other person, thing, or creature’s eyes and maintaining eye contact. There’s only a brief window in which to drop out of a soulgaze. Once you’re in, though, it’s quite the ride. Dresden Files goes from a action-on-the-run mystery thriller to something more. For those few brief instants, you’re directly transported into a sort of…abstraction, usually in the form of an elaborate metaphor that captures the essence of the person Harry is gazing into. (For those people in the comments: Harry is not the only one who can Soulgaze. Reread my words)
In one particular soulgaze, Harry finds himself seeing a young associate of his in a sort of crossroads in front of several mirrors. She, herself, is barely old enough to have made any lasting decisions, and is standing still, ready to take that plunge into one of those mirrors. Each mirror holds a possibility of her future self. One is happy, working on a farm somewhere in Missouri. Another is sitting at home with her family, looking quite bored, but secretly working magics upon them. The most pressing of them is the form of a ragged witch-like creature who is emanating waves of evil and treachery.
The thing about soulgazes is that they’re two-way. She saw just as much of him and he did of her. Butcher never tells us exactly what they see, but it’s almost always not good, even terrifying to some. Being given insight into the people around Harry is just as important as gaining insight into his own mind.
Butcher is careful not to divulge too much, too quickly, lest we may become bored with our flawed hero. In the dozen or more years that these books cover, Harry changes quite a bit. Some of his own doing, some not. We are very much the product of the company we keep, so it’s heartening that his allies are some of the most interesting side characters I’ve ever witness.
There’s Michael the Holy Knight of the Cross, a man of faith and abilities who provides a sharp contrast with Harry’s more…nonreligious perspective. Then there’s Lieutenant Karrin Murphy, of the Chicago Police. She works dozens of cases alongside Harry and becomes a much-needed confidant and back-up in times of peril. In the words of Sanya, “Small, yet fierce.”
All of these characters come together to make for an ensemble cast that gives other fantasy novels a run for their money. Add in the complex nature of the forces that be in his world, and the compelling, usually morally gray conflicts that arise, you have yourself one of the finest book series we’re like to see. I’m now headed onto his Codex Alera book series. I’ll see you soon.