I have now, as of two weeks ago, read the first three books in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series and thought it would be an apt time for some reflection of the series, which I have described as pulpy, but fun.
Harry Dresden is the only publicly-listed wizard in America, with his advertisement appearing in the phonebook. He doesn’t do love potions or the like, but works as a supernatural private eye, with most of his income from a standing retainer with the Chicago police department. Lanky and dressed in a duster, with a silver amulet, staff, and hammer-action pistol, Harry strides into battle against vampires, were-wolves, ghosts, demons, and evil wizards; in this line of work he has seen–and done–some stuff that would make most people flinch. Around him are his cat Mister, the spirit Bob, the knight Michael, Detective Murphy, and the reporter Susan. Most people, including Susan and Murphy, don’t really know what is going on and Harry goes out of his way to shelter them from the worst of it.
Butcher has created a magic system that is simultaneously well thought out and ill-defined. For instance, magic has a tendency to cause technology to fail, so Harry uses the simplest guns, cars, and other technology available, but neither is there a guarantee of failure, so it can just happen to happen at the most inconvenient points. The rest of the system is built along similar lines where there are rules to how various sight abilities (eye contact, etc.) work, and how spells are constructed (circles need to be completed, potions use three ingredients that are linked to the outcome), but the specifics are often unclear even to Harry, who always wishes that Bob, the ancient spirit, was around to tell him how to make something. This mix gives a consistent feel to the books, but also allows for a great deal of variance based on the story. I also assume that Harry is leveling-up, as it were, but the general lack of specifics in that regard make it a little hard tell.
The first three books each dealt with one particular case Harry investigates, but their greatest virtue is that they serve to populate the world of the story with a growing cast of characters. This is something that typically happens as series develop, but one of the things that stood out in the first book was how few actual characters existed. Sure, there were plenty of things that needed to be attacked or dealt with and a number of individuals standing around in the background of the story, but there were really only about four real characters [plus Bob and Mister] and only Harry was actually central. Part of this falls back to the noir frame for the story, since Harry is the detective out on a dark night in a city that knows how to keep its secrets, so to speak. I got the impression early on that urban-fantasy, noir procedural was actually what Butcher was setting out to write, what with its observant first person narrative and shadowy investigations, but in the next few books noir has become more garnish than substance. In the same span, Butcher has begun to flesh out a slightly, and I do mean slightly, larger cast of characters, both those who are meant to be heroes and those who are villains in order to build a multi-book story-arc.
I like this series, but, after three books, I am still not sure how much. There was enough foreshadowing in the most recent book to suggest that they may be ready to transition into something a little more substantial than procedural, but I really don’t know. They are fun and easy to read, in contrast to some of the denser things I either have to or choose to pick up. At the same time, I am three books into a very long series and the number of actual characters is very small, particularly given how close the point of view is to Harry himself. I will probably read the next book in the series, but I can’t say when. Right now, these are feeling like change of pace books–fun, but not insistent enough to demand to be read.