It is hard to believe that Storm Front, the first book of the Dresden Files, came out more than a decade ago. Jim Butcher introduces his scrappy wizard-detective in this inaugural adventure. That was a more innocent time, and Harry was a more innocent character back then.
Harry is a working wizard in Chicago. He has an office with the word “Wizard” on the door and he advertizes in the yellow pages. (“No Children’s Parties; No Love Potions.”) Harry is the real deal, a powerful magical practitioner, but lately most of his income comes from the Chicago PD, particularly their Special Investigations or SI unit—think “X Files.” Early in Storm Front, his police contact Karrin Murphy requests his help at a shocking murder scene; a luxurious hotel love-nest sprayed with blood, a couple locked in the throes of passion with their hearts exploded out of their chests. Since this is Chicago, magic and organized crime intersect when the man of the couple is identified as a soldier of Gentleman Johnny Marcone, the city’s most powerful crime lord.
Harry must locate the murderer, a sorcerer powerful enough to control the murderous spell, and also find a missing husband who is dabbling in black magic. He confronts a powerful vampire madam, and John Marcone, each a dangerous entity, although in very different ways. He worries about the rising popularity of a new drug called Third Eye, which seems to give people paranormal powers. As if his life weren’t complicated enough, he has to dodge Morgan, a humorless wizard and Warden from the wizards’ White Council. Harry is under a Last Chance Agreement — as in, “mess up once more and we behead you” — imposed by the powerful council, and Morgan plans to do the honors. Morgan may be disappointed, though, since the sorcerer has already targeted Harry for death.
Butcher balances all of this. He gives us a few tantalizing tastes of Harry’s past, such as why he is under the order from the Council, and spends a fair amount of time explaining how magic works in this universe. In one chapter, Harry and his indentured air elemental Bob, who lives in a skull, mix potions. Harry’s potions are one of the best things of the earlier books, as he walks us through the magical ingredients; a base, an ingredient for each of the five senses, one for the spirit and one for the will.
Storm Front introduces us to characters we will grow to love. There is Murphy who, five feet nothing with curly blond hair, looks “like someone’s kid sister,” and who is a tough, practical and smart street cop with awards for marksmanship and aikido. There is the sexy, smart and dangerous Susan Rodriguez, reporter for the Chicago Arcane and Harry’s squeeze; Mac, the laconic tavern owner who may be more than he seems. There is Morgan, straight-laced, up-tight and Harry-hating. There is Bob, and a sprite named Toot-Toot who is fierce and loves pizza. In this first book we also begin to see the tightrope Harry walks between his mother’s shadowy magical heritage and his mundane father’s decency and strength.
For those who like noir, the book is plenty dark. Harry is a hard-boiled detective who can call fire out of the air, but bruises when he is hit and throws up when he has a concussion. He can mix an escape potion or a love potion to humorous and dangerous effect when the two get confused. Harry feels fear, like when he’s fighting a sorcerous scorpion the size of a golden retriever, but he masters his fear. No one pushes him around.
“No one pushes him around.” In some ways, this could be Harry’s motto. The character becomes bitter as the series progresses and moves away from the intriguing magic that is on display in Storm Front, but Harry’s stubbornness and will-power get our attention from the very first book.
Despite having missed the bandwagon by more than a decade, I am finally reviewing the opening novel of THE DRESDEN FILES: Storm Front. And not without a little caution, for the series has a hardcore fan following and is now a benchmark in urban fantasy with almost cult status. In an interview, Butcher said he was trying to write the perfect story, the one that makes you laugh and cry, and end the book with a glowy satisfied feeling. I was not left feeling glowy or satisfied, but hey — Butcher did say he’s still searching for that perfect story. Maybe it’ll crop up somewhere along the next fifteen novels in the series…
Harry Dresden is a professional wizard, as it says in his ad in the yellow pages. He finds lost items and carries out paranormal investigations, and, for more vanilla requests, consults and advises, too. Storm Front opens with his being called to a crime scene, in which a couple’s hearts have been blown out of their chests, their ribs exploded outwards (mid-copulation, I might add). Murphy, a ballsy police detective, thinks there can only be a supernatural explanation for the crime. She wants Harry to get involved.
When Harry returns to his office, a woman named Monica Sells is waiting for him with the second request to investigate the paranormal that day: her husband has gone missing, after messing around with dark magic. Though he suspects there’ll be a much more boring solution to this mystery (something seedy; an extramarital affair, perhaps) he agrees to take on the case. Apparently his bank account is as threadbare as his appearance.
So he investigates. He meets some vampires along the way (whose necessity to the plot I’m still not convinced of), some giant scorpions, a randy journalist. These things are all pretty fun in and of themselves, but my scruple was mostly with Harry himself. There just seemed to be a certain depth lacking to his character. Obviously the seeds of a back story were being planted, that will no doubt flesh him out in later books, but what does it matter if I’m not eagerly reaching for them?
I did enjoy how the two mysteries eventually intertwined, even though the reveal had pretty much been coming since chapter two. THE DRESDEN FILES probably needs a little more commitment than simply the first book, which, if I’m honest, felt like reading a more poorly-scripted version of Buffy, with a less kick-ass protagonist. And less funny too. Still, as a debut, it’s accomplished (‘an unusually well-crafted first novel’ say Locus), and by the size of the series’ fan base, the series as a whole obviously has more to offer. Just please let it be without the terrible one-liners, Harry. Please.
I wasn’t too impressed with the first DRESDEN FILES book, but I kept reading and I fell in love with the series about half way through. Bob the Skull is my favorite character. This is quite a bit better than Butcher’s epic fantasy series. Much more creative with better characters. The audio versions, which are read by James Marsters (who plays Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer) are fabulous.
Justin’s raves about THE DRESDEN FILES caused me to pick up this first book in the series, and it’s — well, okay. Not great, not particularly memorable, but a reasonably fun way to spend a few hours. I’m surprised I didn’t like it more, given that it’s set in Chicago — my hometown — but all I can really say is that I might try another in the series, but I’m in no rush.
Storm Front has been on my TBR (To Be Read) list for ages, but I’ve dawdled in picking it up, given the many disappointed to mildly encouraging reviews for this first book in the DRESDEN FILES series, a mix of urban fantasy and the noir detective genre. A lot of fans of this series say it really only picks up with the 4th book, Summer Knight. (I tried reading Summer Knight out of order last year, and doing that didn’t really pan out for me. Apparently you have to live and grow with this series, along with Jim Butcher’s writing skills.) But a couple of weeks ago I ran across Storm Front on my local library’s shelves, so I decided it was finally time to give it a shot.
Harry Dresden is a down-on-his-luck wizard trying to make a living as a magical private investigator, in a version of our world where magic has recently become more open and powerful. He’s an occasional consultant to the police on crimes with a paranormal aspect, and this latest job they call him in on ― a mobster and a call girl violently murdered by magical means in the middle of the act ― is a doozy. Unfortunately, several key players think Harry did it! It’s highly inconvenient when you’re one of the only people who have the magical ability to carry out a particular murder. Harry’s only got a limited time to prove them wrong … especially since several people would find it extremely convenient if Harry were dead.
I thought Storm Front was reasonably good for an urban fantasy and a series starter, though I suspect my lowered expectations had to do with my ending the book feeling pleasantly surprised. The subplots, including a Chicago mobster intent on keeping Harry out of the case, a woman with a missing husband who may be teaching himself black magic, Harry’s troubles with the wizardly White Council, and more, were well integrated into the overall mystery. I appreciated that Jim Butcher creates an unusually interesting backstory around Harry Dresden, fleshing out his world, without feeling the need to fully reveal all yet.
Don’t expect a whole lot ― just a fun, if sometimes quite dark, paranormal mystery with which to while away a couple of hours ― and I think you won’t be disappointed. I plan to continue with the series, although it’s not my highest reading priority.