Monday, September 28, 2009

Storm Front

Although it's not the first time I've read it, I haven't really reviewed Jim Butcher's Storm Front properly. And I just re-read it. Mostly, I think, that's because I managed to convince my public library to buy a new copy of the upcoming Dresden Files novel and put me right at the front of the list to have a copy. As soon as it's processed, it's mine for three weeks, which is way more than enough time to read through one of these. Anyway, knowing that in six months or so I'd be needing to read a new Dresden Files book, I figured I'd see what I could do about leisurely going through the series again, starting now. Storm Front is, of course, the first novel in the Dresden Files books.

It's not a great novel. It's interesting. It's got an interesting concept. Imagine Harry Potter, but if Raymond Chandler had written it instead of J. K. Rowling. "Screw this boarding school crap," he'd say. "Harry's a detective. In Chicago." Harry Dresden is also a very likeable character, which is good because the book is narrated by him, and (obviously) told from his viewpoint. Butler takes this interesting concept and manages to make it pretty fun, blending the conventions and formulae of a detective novel with an urban fantasy, with even a bit of Spiderman pathos; Dresden is the laconic, perpetually broke, magical superhero, who can't catch a break in any real-life issue, in a sense.

At times, Butcher's adherence to formula is jarring. He tries a bit too hard. A few plot elements seem really forced, coincidences strain suspension of disbelief, and a few plot holes have me scratching my head wondering why stuff happened the way it did. However, I don't mean this to be a negative review at all; Storm Front is a fun read. It's certainly good enough that the first time (and the second, and now just recently the third) time through I read it in just a few days and left it eager to pick up the next volume. Plus, obviously, I've read it a few times, which I rarely do for books unless they've got some pretty good mojo going on.

The deal with the Dresden Files series, though, isn't that it starts with an incredible bang. In fact, apparently, Butcher had no intention of writing Dresden at all; he had been trying to sell his high fantasy for some time with no success when a writing coach, or professor, or someone had convinced him to try his hand at "Anita Blake-like" since he had professed an interest in Anita Blake. Butcher thought it would suck, and actually wrote Storm Front (then titled Semiautomagic which I think it is a much cooler title, by the way) to prove a point; that it would be so bad, so formulaic, that it wasn't worth pursuing. Of course, he was able to sell it, and that's how he broke into the biz, and Dresden has been his paycheck to allow him to write some of the other stuff he really wanted to, like his Codex Alera series, which I haven't read at all yet.

Anyway, Storm Front is an interesting enough book. But the Dresden Files would only be a footnote in the vast sea that is today's urban fantasy market if Storm Front were as good as it got. Subsequent Dresden Files novels really made a quantum leap in quality from Storm Front; the next novel, Fool Moon is much darker, much stronger, and also funnier. Dresden's narration is good; he's got a cynical sense of humor, a dry wit, and it shows through in spite of what is otherwise pretty much a horror/detective story.

I highly recommend the Dresden Files, and I also highly recommend that if Storm Front doesn't completely capture your interest that you give it another shot with the second novel before giving up. I don't think Jim Butcher is for everyone, but at the same time, I'm not quite sure how anyone could not enjoy it on at least some level, especially anyone who's a fan of fantasy.

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