Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Jim Butcher's Dresden Files:
Inventive Urban Fantasy

Harry Dresden is a wizard, the only practicing wizard-private eye in Chicago. Of indeterminate age but most likely in his 30s, Dresden is a hero in the wise-cracking, tough-guy tradition of Sam Spade and the other film noir private eyes. Butcher packs each book with rollicking action, plot twists, and ensemble characters. Working with the Special Investigations team of the Chicago Police Department, Dresden is their consultant for the scary things that go bump in the night and that people prefer not to believe are real.

In the series opener, Storm Front, Dresden battles a black magician. Lieutenant Kerrin Murphy heads up the Special Investigations team. She is embattled not only by the black magic murderer but by police politics; there are those in high places who consider her work unnecessary.

The adversaries of Dresden and Murphy include giant scorpions, a demon, and a power-mad black practitioner who rips the hearts from victims while not even being present. Dresden triumphs, just barely, with potions, power objects, and occasional gunfire.

Fool Moon introduces a pack of werewolves who channel their magical powers for good. He and Murphy barely escape from the bad werewolves; it would spoil the suspense to say who’s who. Dresden also comes by an attractive love interest.

Most of the series, which stops numbering the novels after nine, is available at one library or another in my area. The vagaries of availability led me to move on to the fourth book, Summer Knight. Enough of the third book, Grave Peril, is filled in so that I can make sense of what went before without knowing so much I no longer want to read it. In short, Butcher does a good job of allowing each book to stand alone.

Charlaine Harris’s Southern vampire series remains my favorite in the urban fantasy genre. Sookie Stackhouse is a nice Southern gal, the vampires come preciously close to being human in their motivations and comport, and gore is minimized. All in all, this series is endearing.

Lori Handeland’s werewolf/nightcreatures series is heavy-handed on eroticism. She seems to be evolving in both character development and plot twists.

Kelly McCullough’s webmage series, with three books so far, is closest in tone to the Dresden files. Both feature magical heroes – one human, one nearly immortal. Both pack guns, are rebellious smart-mouths, chivalrous, clever, and honorable. One channels his magical energy through the computer web; the other blows out computers and most other forms of technology when near them.

Kate Daniels is a feminine counterpart to Harry Dresden. Magic Bites is the first entry in Ilona Andrews’s promising series. Daniels is another freelancer magic worker who polices evil mayhem at the boundary between technical reality and sorcery. Andrews’ vampires are much different than those in the world created by Harris. They are mostly mindless, blood-thirsty and evil; they are compared to cockroaches. Wizards can animate the vampires' bodies for their own, usually nefarious, purposes. There’s great potential in a romance developing between a were-lion, king of the shape shifters, and Kate. Magic Burns is the second Kate Daniels’ book.

In summary, the Dresden files are fast-paced, entertaining books in which Jim Butcher creates a magical world ruled by its own laws. Harry Dresden is an appealing and entertaining hero in the ever-growing pantheon of urban fantasy novels.