Earlier this month, the SciFi channel announced that they had decided not to renew The Dresden Files for a second season. This is a bit of a bummer, as it was a decent series. Sure, they kinda borked the airing order, which was a bit confusing, but it still wasn’t a horrible first season. A few weeks ago, I finished the ninth book in the series that the TV show was based on. To be honest, I read the entire series in about 6 weeks, so they all kindof blur together a bit.
Jim Butcher‘s Dresden Files series is in a genre that I hadn’t really given any thought to until recently: urban fantasy. It’s pretty much what it sounds like — fantasy in an urban setting. Instead of what Butcher calls “swords and horses” fantasy where there are knights and princesses and evil kings in the faraway land of Im’xel’wha’da’eff, urban fantasy asserts that you can still have magic, but in a contemporary city setting. Think Big Trouble In Little China. (Or, if you prefer, Buffy without all of the teen angst.)
Harry Dresden is the only professional wizard listed in the Chicago phone book. Each book in the series is generally a self-contained murder mystery or crime whodunnit with lots of action, as Harry’s primary source of income comes from also being a consultant for the Chicago Police Department. Along the way he runs into at least 3 different kinds of vampires, Summer and Winter Courts of faerie, handfuls of demons, and plenty of other strangeness. Don’t let that self-contained nature fool you. You could read the books in almost any order, but the continuity between the books is also excellent. The pieces of the puzzle will fit together much better if you read them in order.
Don’t be put off if it sounds like too much fantasy — the nice thing about the Dresden series is that the magic complements the story, not the other way around. If you’ve watched the TV show but haven’t read the books, keep an open mind. The TV show is based on the characters and ideas of the books, but they are really two completely different entities. The books are much less crime-drama, and much more crime-gumshoe. But if you saw the TV show and thought “hey, what a cool idea” then you won’t be disappointed by the books. They are much richer and better developed. You’re not spoiling anything if you read the books first or watch the TV show first, as they have their own completely distinct continuities.
What I’m really getting into with the urban fantasy books that I’ve been reading lately is the way they fit magic into modern times. Butcher does this especially well in his books. Harry doesn’t just cast spells that bandy about energies and completely ignore physics. If he calls on the wind, that wind has to come from somewhere. If the air is too dry, he can’t just create water from nothing. If something slams into an improvised energy shield, that kinetic energy has to go somewhere — so something is going to soak quite a bit of heat. One of the key long-term plot points of the series comes when Harry doesn’t handle the physics of a spell properly. He learns from his mistake, but several books later is still dealing with the consequences. It’s that kind of attention to detail that I really enjoy in Butcher’s books.
Another nice thing about the Dresden books, especially in relation to other urban fantasy books, is the relatively low cheesecake factor. That is, urban fantasy books seem to have an affinity for randomly dropping into estrogen-and-testosterone-spraying-Harlequin-mode at wildly inappropriate times. The Dresden books have some sexual themes and scenes, but they are well-placed and move the story along. You’ll end up doing much less eye-rolling in the Dresden books than in most other urban fantasy books.
If you do pick up the series, and I certainly recommend that you do, I would give you two pieces of advice. First, check your local used bookstore to see if they have them. Paperbacks are getting more and more expensive these days, and there are nine books out, so every little bit you save helps. They are very much worth the full price, of course, and there are also versions that collect several books into one volume. Second, be warned that the series is a little slow to really get into its stride. The first 4 books are good, but around books 5 and 6 they start getting great. Don’t be discouraged if the first few books seem like those really bad B movies you see on SciFi on Saturdays — stick with them and you won’t be disappointed.
Oh, and if you can find them and afford them, listen to at least one of the audiobooks. Why? Because they are read by James Marsters — Spike from Buffy and Professor Fine (Brainiac) from Smallville. He is dead on for reading these books. He’s got a methodical and contemplative style that work very well for the books, and hearing him read them adds quite a bit to the experience. In fact, the first few chapters of the first book are available for free download in MP3 format, so why not give them a listen? As of this writing, only through book 4 have been released. They are a bit expensive, so again you may want to check your local used bookstores.
On a final note, I wanted to mention something that gets a lot of lip service in other places. Many people, and indeed some of the blurbs on the books themselves, have drawn parallels between the Harry Potter and Dresden books. This is both true and misleading. If you’ve read and enjoyed the Potter books, but maybe felt a little silly for reading books aimed at kids and teenagers, then you’ll almost certainly get into the Dresden books.
The “Harry Potter for adults” tag line isn’t far off. The Dresden books are less fantastical, almost like what Potter’s life as an auror would be like once he got out of school and had to start making a living in the real world. While the Potter books take magic at face value, like any kid would do, the Dresden books delve into why and how magic does what it does, like an adult would do. The later books of the Potter series brought in a few shades of grey, but were mostly still black and white and good and evil. The Dresden books are murky with innumerable shades of grey, and nothing is simple. There are certainly parallels, and I know several people that have read and enjoyed both series, but the Dresden books stand up just fine on their own.