REVIEW: Storm Front by Jim Butcher

Friday , 17, April 2015 16 Comments


Jim Butcher is the author of the bestselling urban fantasy series The Dresden Files.  “Skin Game”, his latest addition, was nominated for a Hugo in the Best Novel category.

As much as I wanted to dive right into “Skin Game”, my chronological compulsion got the better of me and I was forced to start at the beginning of the series with “Storm Front”.

Harry Dresden–Wizard

Lost Items Found. Paranormal Investigations. Consulting. Advice. Reasonable Rates. No Love Potions, Endless Purses, or Other Entertainment.

So we’ve got a wisecracking P.I. wizard who moonlights for the Chicago homicide division when the crimes involve the likes of vampires, sorcerers, and other supernatural beasties.  The plot involves a series of grisly murders linked to the criminal underworld.  In true pulp fashion, Dresden himself becomes the prime suspect.

The novel was Butcher’s first, and while it’s an entertaining read, there are the expected rookie mistakes.  Chief among them is the character of Dresden himself.  The big problem is the guy that is on the cover is not the guy that we get in the book.  He’s neither as physically or mentally capable as one would expect in either a wizard or a private eye:

Wizardry is all about thinking ahead, about being prepared.  Wizards aren’t really superhuman. We just have a leg up on seeing things more clearly than other people, and being able to use the extra information we have for our benefit.  Hell, the word wizard comes from the same root as wise.  We knew things. We aren’t stronger or faster than anyone else.  We don’t even have all that much more going in the mental department. But we’re godawful sneaky, and if we get the chance to get set for something, we can do some impressive things.

Of course the nature of the plot requires our hero to be surprised at every turn.  He spends a lot of time desperately grabbing onto his enemy’s legs.  But if he’s not physically strong, or mentally strong, or even prepared, what are his heroic qualities?

Is he tenacious?  No, at one point he refuses to enter a locked house…because he doesn’t want to break and enter.  What kind of private eye won’t enter a locked house!  Phillip Marlowe he ain’t.

Is he resourceful?  Not any more than the reader.  We become very aware that Dresden’s second case is related to the murder case way before he puts it together.

Still, it’s hard to rag on a story that is so tongue-in-cheek.  The dialogue and the prose was excellent.  The magic was evocative and well-described.  There’s some great action-packed sequences, and I was never bored.

I’ve heard that the series doesn’t gain steam until after the fourth book.  Since I really want to read “Skin Game”, I hope it happens a bit earlier than that.  My chrono-compulsion doth continue.

  • Tom says:

    I too suffer from chrono-compulsion. It is a dread disease that afflicts too many. Unfortunately, since most sane people don’t encounter series of books where they might just start in the middle, it goes undiagnosed far, far too often.

    For the longest time, I couldn’t stop reading a book once I had started, even if I didn’t like it at all. Then, one time I got the idea to skip ahead to the end and see how it finished. Reading the last page or two released me somehow from the compulsion of reading the whole stupid thing. It was nice.

    I’ve used the trick when I’ve found a book that looked pulpy but interesting and I didn’t have the free time to read it. Defuses the compulsion right away.

    But, I haven’t been able to defeat the desire to start at the beginning of series and go in order.

  • I’ve heard that the series doesn’t gain steam until after the fourth book.

    Although technically true as phrased, up until “Changes” (book 10 or 12, I forget), each and every book continues to improve. Butcher has publicly stated that he’s continually trying to become a better writer and so far his books generally back this up. The main reason he stops getting definitively better around then is that the gulf in quality between book 1 and book 10 is pretty big, so he’s hit a point of diminishing returns.

    Also, book 3 sees the introduction of Michael Carpenter, one of the best characters in modern fiction.

    • John Rose says:

      I pretty much agree. “Storm Front” was probably the weakest of the “Files” novels. I thought it picked up nicely in book 2, “Fool Moon” (with its dissertation on the many varieties of werewolf — who knew?). However, I do agree that, for me (I admit to being a practicing Catholic) the introduction of Michael Carpenter in book 3 was INCREDIBLE. And when, later in the series, Charity Carpenter puts on the chain mail to rescue her daughter, well, suffice to say the Carpenters are a family I’d love to meet.

  • nodeworx says:

    You sort of have to see the first two/three books as setting the scene with a very loooong introduction, but once it really gets going… what a ride…

    • Scooter says:

      Does Dresden become a more compelling hero as the series progresses?

      • Expendable Henchman says:

        Oops, above reply is in the wrong spot.

        Yes, he becomes extremely heroic. So much that his enemies start to use it against him.

        Harry is really a good guy down deep, is very loyal to his friends, genuinely cares about others, and will walk through hell to save a damsel in distress.

        He’s very alone, and even his own team (the good guys) are literally waiting for him to break any wizarding rule and chop his head off.

        Harry also seems to forgive pretty much anyone who apologizes, and tries pretty hard not to kill anyone. I guess that in his universe, there are many ways to effectively become immortal, and lots of other things are already immortal. And they all seem to remember insults forever.

        Anyhow, there are good reasons that many, many people will buy any Dresden book sight unseen.

    • Expendable Henchman says:

      He started the series in a writing class, where the prof said to outline the whole plot.

      So Jim did. 25 novels worth, before writing the first book.

  • In fairness, his hesitation to break into a locked house is partially due to the fact that he will leave much of his wizardly power at the threshold. Given the things that he often combats, this is not such a trivial concern.

    • Scooter says:

      He gives four reasons for not breaking in: that it’s bad juju, impolite, could impair his magic, and that it wouldn’t glean any information related to the case. The first two are lame, the third reasonable but also lame, and the fourth totally idiotic.

      The ‘it-would-impair-my-wizardry defense also raises the question of what exactly he was planning to do when he returns to the house for the final showdown at the end of the book. ‘Lucky’ for him the door was unlocked then and ‘unlucky’ that it wasn’t earlier.

      Of course, the whole thing was just a contrivance. The plot demanded that Dresden not open the door at that point in the story or the jig would be up.

      When the reader is more curious than the protagonist, you’ve got a problem.

      • Expendable Henchman says:

        Most of the cops think he’s a conman and fake. Breaking and entering will get him thrown in jail like anybody else, and he can’t afford bail.

        That is a very real consideration for a private detective.

      • Expendable Henchman says:

        Early on, when he doesn’t want to break and enter, he’s investigating a guy running around on his wife, for $50/day. That doesn’t cover arrests and risking losing his PI license.

        Later, when he does go in, he’s racing the clock and will die if he comes in second. He’s after a murderer who is acting in the evilest possible way. And then lots of others will die too, because Harry is the only one who can do anything about it.

        That will become a common theme.

      • Yeah, one and three are pretty much the same thing.

        Vis a vis ‘reasonable but lame’ – I have to disagree in this case; I think that this is an interesting extension of the ‘vampire must be invited in’ trope in older literature. This idea is developed much further in later books. As for why he could enter later in the book, the ‘luck’ is that the thing that he has to fight caused the ‘breaking of the barrier’.

        Note – I agree with you that this was one of the weakest in the series; however, he does stick with these tropes and further codifies in the later books. There are no sweeping retcons or anything like that.

        You are absolutely correct that in isolation some of the decisions here make less sense considered by themselves. One of the strengths that is also a weakness of Dresden files is that it is Babylon 5-like in its story arcs. That makes individual books sometimes less solid considered by themselves.

  • GKChesterton says:

    I was not thrilled with the first book. I am on the fifth, it does get better. It will have to be _significantly_ better to take the Hugo. That being said the man is a modern day fixture and deserves some recognition for being so.

    His biggest problem is he hadn’t worked out the system. It seems as things go on the Dresden is strong and is very strong magically if not talented (as of book 5). This is back story he really needed in 1.

  • luagha says:

    The first book I picked up was ‘Changes’ because it was left available in my condo clubhouse gymnasium library. And just to read what’s above, the character has changed an incredible amount through the series of books.

    As a general Puppies comment, he would be worthy of a Hugo just for giant shepherd’s crook his books (and the television series) were to drag people into bookstores and onto Amazon where they would also see other things.

  • Joshua Dyal says:

    This is probably the weakest in the series. Butcher is definitely finding his footing here. That said, it engaged me enough that I very quickly moved on into the rest of the series (as it was published at the time.) I think he had a few mis-steps here and there–neither Proven Guilty nor Ghost Story had engaging plots, Proven Guilty felt like a bunch of stuff that had to happen for the meta-plot of to advance being hung on a too-weak plot for the specific book, and Ghost Story felt like a high-concept novel that was always looking for a plot that it never really quite found.

    But it’s an excellent series. I think there’s even a significant increase in quality as early as the second book.

  • TRX says:

    I’ve finished the first four in one binge. They’re engaging… but infuriating as well.

    Mostly, there’s no backstory. Some is slowly being revealed by the fourth book, but we’re basically shown 21st-century Chicago, except with magic, and nobody knows or cares. Most people, not even the policemen Dresden works with, believe in magic; most think he’s a faker. That would be easy enough to fix with a couple of fireballs or something. But no… and Dresden can’t think of any better way to make a living than as a PI… and even then, with just the abilities revealed so far, he could get a lot better paying clientele.

    What I’ve read so far reads like it was written as “Anite Blake Lite” and intended for the YA market. I don’t have any problem with that, but the “willful suspension of disbelief” thing has been pretty hard even without the air-cooled VW leaking antifreeze in the fourth book.

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