Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Praise for Jim Butcher

I'm angry that Jim Butcher seems to be putting out about one Dresden Files book a year, when it's clear I can read at a rate much closer to one a day. It's an unfair criticism, perhaps. But to be honest, it's the only real problem I have with his work.

(He also writes a pure-fantasy series of which you can read freebie snippets.Each book in the Codex Alera supports Butcher's batting-1000 record in writing his own series.)

Butcher's Dresden Files series, starring Chicago's only Yellow-Pages-listed professional wizard Harry Dresden, offers a big canvas across which Butcher paints with clear, fresh colors: his world is internally consistent, his problems are diverse, and the works offer opportunities not only to ride along on a great adventure but to watch from the inside as Dresden confronts internal battles that resonate with real life. The Dresden Files offer a three-dimensional world, augmented as it is by various paranormal elements. Since the paranormal things are subject to limits and rules, the existence of "magic" and "faeries" doesn't so much produce a deus ex machina as produce a new class of problems by which harry can be outclassed, and more rules against which poor Harry can run afoul.[1]

But Harry is a good guy, and we like seeing him pull it together enough to stay alive, win the prize, and save the girl. Or ... be saved by the girl. Oh, yeah.

Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden is a great way to consume all those endless free hours you've been worrying will spoil your otherwise nicely occupied life. There are at present
teneleventwelve novels in the series (now that
Turn CoatChanges is out). Butcher does a great job of showing you the gun over the mantle in order to set you up to believe it's there when it's finally used, and some of these setups span several books. It's a well-crafted series and I look forward very much to following it wherever it leads.

And it leads somewhere. Jim Butcher has announced the titles to the three novels that will cap the series, meaning that the series has a known conclusion. This, in turn, means that fans have protection against the author being waylaid and lead into the weeds while the pen is still in motion. Expect The Dresden Files to continue its excellence the whole way through.

A little free snippet, serving as a prequel to the series, appears on Jim Butcher's site. The works, in chronological order of occurrence in Butcher's world, are:
and the final three, which are not expected to follow immediately but after some undetermined number of intermediate volumes, have unannounced release dates:
  • Hell's Bells
  • Stars and Stones
  • Empty Night

There's a DVD series of the Sci-Fi Channel's adaptation.
There's a graphic novel series Welcome To The Jungle.

Romance. Harry has a love interest. He also has allies with a love interest. These love interests don't always work out. Love interests in the series seem to be recurring opportunities for people to be threatened by adversaries, or needled by rivals. The bad news is that since Butcher only shows on-camera the things that seem very directly related to the story and the characters and where he is going, there aren't lots of love scenes even while Harry has relationships that in theory would support them. The good news is that the romance angle isn't absent, and he does have conflicts involving his love interests, and it's all a good read. If you want graphic details you need another author, however. Of some interest might be Romantic Times awarding Jim Butcher the Career Achievement Award in 2007 for the Urban Fantasy category. Apparently there's enough romance to get a mention, but not enough to win a romance category :-)

Television. The Dresden Files television series on the Sci-Fi channel was, before it was canceled in favor of a performance-wrestling show, a really good hour of fiction. However, there is no guarantee that things depicted on the screen are consistent with the books. For example, the Red Court vampire Bianca is depicted onscreen as a love interest (at least in flashback) to a Harry Dresden that otherwise isn't really connecting with women. The books have Harry meeting her for the first time on poor terms (eventually depicted on SciFi when he approached her about a murder victim in the SciFi version of Storm Front), and their relationship doesn't do much better than formal tolerance before it's cut off for good in an episode in which Harry hotheadedly (but sympathetically) touches off a supernatural war. Details like the hair color of Harry's cop friend change, but the atmosphere is similar. Other instances of variance committed in the spirit of interpretation rather than rewrite include that Harry's "blasting rod" is replaced with a drumstick which he uses like a magic wand, and Harry's wizard's staff is replaced with a symbol-carved hockey stick. These things make Harry stand out less in Chicago, and help the audience believe what they're seeing. In the books, it's clear folks either believe he's a crackpot or are "in the know". To make the story work better on television, the skull "Bob" was given the ability to project the image of the human body he had in life (which is different in SciFi series than in the books, because in the books Bob was never a human, but a supernatural construct designed for archiving and retrieving data, which became sentient, slickly raising some AI ideas in a fantasy environment). The SciFi series created a backstory for the once-human "Bob" and built an episode around it and Bob's loyalty to Harry, which again runs against the situation established in the books, in which the possessor of the skull commands the entity housed in it irrespective of personal loyalties, a fact Harry exploits in Dead Beat once the bad guy sets down the skull to do some hard work. And yeah, we should expect the skull Bob to be a bigger deal now that it's clear what class of entity it really is ....

Philosophy. Butcher's personal background in Christian activities shows through in the values of his protagonists, and in the details of some of the characters' powers. This doesn't come off preachy; Dresden is a non-Christian and this seems to work fine (thus far). The fact Harry is swept up as the series progresses in a conflict involving divine forces and the damned is just part of the scenery, and serves to frame the conflict in place among the Big Forces Shaping The Universe so readers can infer cosmic significance as the conflict develops. The occasional scriptural exegesis (e.g., on what suffering a witch to live really meant) doesn't subtract from the story, but like the love scenes is added only when it actually advances your understanding of the characters and the story and will make what follows more believable. You can enjoy the series without accepting particular religious views, as they're presented in a world that's also discussing as if seriously the politics among faeries. The upshot is that specific sources of character values offer color and dimension, but they don't offer the kind of in-your-face attack as in some other authors' stories.

Quality. Jim Butcher isn't the only author writing crossover fiction that tries to combine fantasy, real-world, mysteries, romance, and so on. However, he's doing one of the most sophisticated jobs of it that I've ever had the pleasure to discover. I mention Charlaine Harris at this juncture not to rate one over the other, but to point out that there's more than one author still doing urban fantasy properly in the Southern Vampire series, which stars Sookie Stackhouse as a mind-reading small-town waitress. (I've not read Harris' other series, Aurora Teagarden, Lily Bard, or Harper Connelly.) Enjoying either of these quality authors to the utmost is best with some grounding in fiction and pop culture, as both authors throw jokes that resonate against what you know from the rest of your literate life. It's possible to miss references and not feel too lost, but to get every giggle you need to have lived a bit, and brains enough to recall the references.

Others play in this space, but Butcher works in it.

[1] Also, a potential spoiler, depending what you've read so far: Butcher has been building over the course of several books the premise that Outsiders, against which magic mostly fails to work, are pulling the strings behind a large number of problems that have occupied Harry over the course of the series, so we are being led to expect confrontations in which Harry's wizardry won't be the answer. Some relationship exists between Outsiders and the King of the White Court Vampires, who's used rituals to direct Outsiders against victims, and the King himself seems unable to be targeted by wizards' attacks, suggesting the sort of immunity Outsiders might possess once they appear onstage. The setup thus far is that Harry's family -- a complete mystery when the curtain opened on Storm Front -- is somehow integrally interconnected with the problem that will materialize with the Outsiders, and will presumably offer both the reason they're causing the problem and the solution to it.

1 comment:

J. Cope said...

Thanks for the detailed review as well as the few tid-bits of information I had missed. I tend to spend most of my free time off-line with my little one so I had no idea that Jim Butcher had already given us the title for the last three books once the time comes for them to be published.