Monday, June 15, 2009

Review: Deluge of Dresden

Recently I've been reading books in the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher. Our library is missing a couple of the books in the series and the others are often on hold, but I saw the 8th book in the series, Proven Guilty, sitting on the shelves when I took the kids to my local branch a couple weeks ago. I grabbed it, went and bought the 7th book in the series, Dead Beat, at my local bookstore, the Rediscovered Bookshop (a great store that I highly recommend to anyone living in or passing through the Boise area). I even got a discount on the purchase because we'd bought enough books over the past year for our buyer's credit to kick in.

I devoured the 7th book and was halfway through the 8th when I saw the 9th book, White Night, sitting on the library shelf. I checked that out and finished the 8th book and read the 9th while at a cabin by the Payette River in Garden Valley, Idaho. I came home for a day to take care of my lawn and dropped off some books--only to spot the 10th book in the series, Small Favor, on the library shelves. I grabbed that and started it this morning.

I have to think that there's some good karma involved in the timing of all of this, or at least some hints that I should be reading the series.

As for the books themselves, it's a pleasant series in that (a) Butcher has become a better writer as the series has gone on, and he was an enjoyable writer to begin with, and (b) each novel manages to be fairly self-contained while rewarding the readers who have kept up with the continuity. There are recurring characters and threats, questions seeded in one book to be paid off in the next, and an overarching, shadowy menace that began to appear in the series around book 7 (I think).

By this point Butcher is better able to pull off contemplative moments of introspection or observation than he was at the beginning of the series. He's also invested more words and energy into adding depth to his wide cast of characters. He's become particularly adept at making his recurring villains interesting and even sympathetic at times while not losing sight of the awfulness of the crimes that many of them have committed. (I think Butcher has been much more successful at keeping a balanced perspective on this issue of making evil characters fascinating without suddenly deciding that they are really okay at heart than the writers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer did in its final two seasons, where they simply looked the other way with characters like Spike and pretended they had suddenly redeemed themselves because the audience was enamored with them.) Butcher has also really pushed his characters into gray areas between purely good and purely evil, though there are still some characters who represent each moral extreme. It creates a nice continuum.

For me Butcher's calling card is his penchant for constantly increasing the crisis factor throughout the course of a novel, a tactic that would wear thin if it weren't for the frequent injections of humor into the dialogue and Dresden's self-reflections. He also makes his heroes pay a price for their heroism, which makes their sacrifices more meaningful and satisyfing than the typical action hero fare.

As for the magic and such that Butcher describes, sometimes I'm engrossed by it, but often it falls a little flat or repetitive in the actual execution, to be honest. Except for the one or two occasions in a given novel where the wizard Harry Dresden actually casts a ritual spell, which are typically well done and flavorful, the effect of most of the magic wielded by Dresden and his cohorts doesn't seem very, well . . . magical. It just feels like special effects, big blasts of energy and defensive shields, sort of like comic book superheroes dropped into an urban fantasy setting.

On the other hand, the monsters and faeries and spirits and evil magicians and assorted supernatural factions that Butcher introduces into the stories are typically a real treat, building over the course of the series into a very interesting setting full of many varied and often unpredictable characters who provide many sources of conflict and entertainment. It's good stuff that doesn't get dumped on the reader at first glance but develops over time as Dresden comes into contact with different groups and beasties.

I actually suspect that this approach makes the books more accessible to a broad audience, because even if you don't follow the rationale for the magic at first, you can still follow most of what is going on in the action sequences. And Butcher usually has at least one excellent action set piece in each novel, though the best ones are not always in the climactic scenes.

Throw in his increasing facility for sketching memorable character traits for the supporting cast and fleshing out the psychology, motivations, and personal sacrifices of the major characters, and it's no wonder Butcher has such a successful series on his hands. Not being a big mystery reader or a fan of the various multi-volume fantasy series that, while well-written, can't seem to satisfactorily end a story in 800 pages, it's rare for me to pursue a series this long without losing interest as the author begins to repeat him or herself or just runs out of steam. So color me impressed with the frequency and consistency of Butcher's Dresden novels.

After book 10 I'll be a little overdosed and happy to get a break before book 11 comes off the library's new books list, but I'm also gradually accumulating my own copies of Dresden Files books that I've already read. That's something I do only when I think an author's work is worth coming back to for enjoyment multiple times.


Aaron DaMommio said...

Nice review. I'll have to pick these up.

Doug said...

Yeah, I had never heard of them until a year or so ago when I heard that the guys who developed the Spirit of the Century rpg (which I have and which is awesome) were working on a Dresden Files rpg, and I asked on a forum what the Dresden Files were.

You'd have thought I asked what this Buffy the Vampire Slayer thing was all about from the responses I got. So I checked out the books.

I might be the only person who came to the Dresden novels from the (still in development) RPG rather than the other way around!