I’ve been wanting to read Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files for a while now but have been unable to get hold of Storm Front, the first book in the series. I’m not willing to start a series anywhere else as at the first book, but I decided to compromise when I spotted Side Jobs, a collection of short stories from the Dresden universe.
For those of you who have never heard of Harry Dresden (philistines!), he is a wizard. He is also a private investigator. And he lives in modern-day Chicago. So, we have a wizard/PI in Chicago (who is also a bit of a chauvinist), chasing down vampires, ghouls, faeries, and the like. He also catches regular bad guys, so he supplements his magic spells with a revolver. He has a talking skull called Bob. He has a giant dog called Mouse. He has a half-brother who’s a…no, that might be a spoiler.
At first glance it doesn’t seem like Butcher will be winning a Pulitzer any time soon. From what I’ve been taught about style it seems like he breaks several rules as he goes along. The text is full of repetition, some of the comparisons are cringe-worthy (though I loved the one by Harry’s brother, Thomas, that “Harry and e-mail go together like Robert Downey, Jr., and sobriety”) and the dialogue tags are very long and littered with adverbs.
But then you notice that the stories are written in the style of the old pulp noir detective novels, and that the language and style used is really a very good imitation of that genre (though in none of the stories does Dresden refer to any woman as a dame). Dresden’s cynical and world-weary narrative voice is perfectly suited to this style and, once you get used to it, you don’t even notice it anymore.
Butcher has managed to create a world filled with magical creatures that seems to fit seamlessly into our own. From these short snippets it is clear that he has developed a rich mythology for each of the creatures and factions found in his universe. His systems of magic are diverse but follow clear rules that both help and hinder its practitioners. I’m not crazy about the fact that he has incorporated religion into his mythology, but in the one story (The Warrior) where this was a theme it was treated with respect and the story was summarised in such a way that it becomes the one story in the collection that manages to convey a message greater than the story itself.
The characters come across as well-rounded people (which of course refers to human and non-human alike). The action scenes are fast-paced and gripping and more than once one wonders if Harry and his friends will make it. Every story has more than enough humour to make it entertaining as well as gripping, and quite a few even contain romance. Thanks to the variety of creatures you literally (Oxford-definition, not Merriam-Webster) cannot know who the next enemy will be. All of this makes for a very exciting read.
The stories are set in between the existing Dresden novels, so if this is your first foray into this world be aware that it will contain some spoilers regarding the novels. In fact, I stopped reading the last story, Aftermath, after reading only the first sentence. Dresden fans will understand if I explain that it takes place (according to Butcher’s foreword which accompanies all the stories) only a couple of hours after the novel, Changes. I intend to return to it once I have read the novel.
Because return I shall. I must read them all (in order, of course). These few stories have turned me into a Dresden fan. And if you’re already a fan and haven’t read it yet, what’s keeping you? I just hope I haven’t exposed myself to too many spoilers already…