It’s a little odd to say that a story involving demons, vampires, and an honest-to-god wizard council feels like a plain old detective novel, but that’s the best description I can give of Jim Butcher’s Storm Front, the first in his long-running series about the magical private eye Harry Dresden. Replace the mystical beasts with ordinary low-lifes and the spells with bullets and you’ve got yourself a story that every mystery fan has read a hundred times, down to the sultry femme fatale and stone cold mob boss. It’s not wholly devoid of interest — there’s a reason this framework is so well known. But it feels stale.
Now Butcher (who by the way has an awesome name and should consider writing horror) does do a few nice things in this book, but most of them don’t seem like they will really bear fruit until later volumes. I’m referring in particular to Harry’s frequent intimations about his past — apparently he, like Luke, was once sorely tempted by the dark side — and also to the never seen but oft invoked White Council, which sits schoolmarm-like in judgment over wizards’ ethical choices.
Also intermittently successful are Butcher’s stabs at humor, which nearly all take the form of poking fun at traditional views of wizardry. Dresden is for example quite defensive about wearing a robe (it’s cold in his lab, he reminds us), and while mixing potions is still a thing the ingredients used wink at how ridiculous the concept is. My favorite bit by far is Morgan, an agent of the White Council, who is as hilariously tight-assed as any pencil-pushing bureaucrat at the DMV you’ve ever met, except that he carries a giant sword and materializes out of thin air to advise Harry that he’s violating such-and-such subsection of the wizard code and now must die. That’s good stuff.
On the other hand this book contains lines like “Things were bad. They were very, very bad!” Yeah, the writing is not a high point.
I did some poking around on the Internet and found that most fans of this series agree that the first books are not really good, but things pick up steam later. Seriously? I mean the books are not too long — I finished this one in a few days while taking a break from an emotionally difficult nonfiction book — but I’m not running a charity with my reading time here.