The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher began publication with Storm Front, the first novel in the series, in April 2000 through Roc Books. As of today there are 15 novels published, with Skin Game being the most recent and the upcoming novel Peace Talks TBD. When I thought about making a new style of post, a spotlight, the Dresden Files sprung immediately and irresistibly to mind as the best possible way to inaugurate it. So while I’m finishing the book I’m going to review next, I’m going to talk instead about one of my all-time favourite series of novels.
The Dresden Files follow the titular lead, Harry Dresden. He is a Wizard. He is a private investigator. He is a black sheep. He flouts secrecy, thumbs his nose at the conservative and secretive hegemony of the White Council of Wizards, and you can find him in the Chicago phonebook under W for Wizard. Harry is an antiauthoritarian in the eyes of the White Council, a thorn in their side, a potentially deadly foe. But he is also a new Wizard for a new age. He not only wields mysterious and arcane powers, he also doesn’t mind revolvers.
There are so many strengths to these books, but for the sake of brevity I’ll reduce it to a few key aspects. First and foremost would be the depth of the characters. The cast increase as the books progress but they are all well conceived and extremely sympathetic. Butcher’s world breathes on the page. The central cast become a family for Harry, who has always been a very isolated and lonely man; when you learn more about his past you will understand why.
Another success is Butcher’s treatment of the systemic structures of power within the supernatural states. The book is modern urban fantasy, but behind the scenes there are vast opposing forces that balance the supernatural world. Not many of them are friendly. Pretty much any myth, fairy tale, legend or pantheon is present in some capacity. There are balancing forces, neutral states and aggressive states all held in a tenuous stasis. But things begin happening, small and inconsequential at first, that slowly and quietly erode this equilibrium. Each book is self enclosed but with greater concerns that tie in to the continued narrative arc of the series. This is enormously appealing to me, because there is never a dull book, never a book that is mired in exposition designed to push and progress the big picture.
There are multiple styles of magic. Focus and willpower underpin everything the Wizard does. There are strengths and weaknesses; the wizard can be strong in one style but weak in the others. Harry is all brute force, no finesse. Elemental and evocation styles are most common in combat, along with illusion and force. There are quick and dirty magics, and there is also scholarly ritualised magic. Mind magic is more insidious, feared and often considered the province of dark magicians, along with dark rituals, necromancy or blood magic. It’s a vast and organic system where mastery and control can supersede raw power.
The books see Harry contend with creatures and beings that are hopelessly beyond his weight class, he is a perennial underdog, but we love him all the more for it. Jim Butcher relishes every chance he gets to lash and humble Harry; he has said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that each and every Dresden book, which take place roughly one year apart chronologically, is intended to be the worst week of the year for our hero. Given what has happened so far, that is a catastrophic understatement.
If you want a series that explores the supernatural in an urban fantasy setting, Dresden is the best I’ve ever read. If you want a series with self-enclosed and extraordinarily compelling stories that contributing to the bigger picture, this is it. If you want a series that mixes mystery, investigation, magic and the supernatural, you’re in the right place. It transposes creatures, beings and mythologies of the ancient world, old gods and the forgotten, into a modern setting and it all thrives. Jim Butcher treats it all with enormous respect; it is genuine, interesting and ridiculously captivating. If you start these books, you will not stop. What I have listed here barely scratches the surface of what Jim Butcher has created.
If you pick this series up, and I fervently hope you will, make sure you grab multiple books because if you’re anything like me you will churn through them. They will absorb you and your life and leave you dying for the next entry with the rest of us. Books like these just make me happy, they are the reason I read. They are why I love this stuff.
P.S. Despite what you see on the covers of the books, he never actually wears a hat.