Fiction Review: Storm Front
With the Dresden Files Accelerated RPG in preview release, I decided to take a break from the rather lengthy Alexander Hamilton audiobook to re-listen to Storm Front, the first novel of Jim Butcher's urban fantasy Dresden Files.
I've heard people suggest that the series really picks up in the third and fourth novel, with some people outright disliking Storm Front. I'll agree that the series greatly improves with time but to be honest, I really enjoyed the first book. In audiobook form the entire series is narrated by James Marsters, best known as Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He does a splendid job as the first person narrator.
I'm not a major urban fantasy reader - I enjoy the genre but most of my reading is in other genres. In the 1990s I was a big fan of Charles de Lint's Newford series and I tend to enjoy most of Tim Powers' works (such as Declare, Last Call).
So with all that out of the way, what can you expect from Storm Front? It introduces us to Harry Dresden, a wizard operating openly in Chicago (the only wizard in the yellow pages). It's not that people believe in magic in this universe - almost nobody does. However, Chicago does have its share of problems with evil sorcerers, vampires, etc. Police Lieutenant Karin Murphy is head of Chicago's Special Investigations (SI) Unit, dedicated to dealing with various weirdness that no one really believes in. She was exiled there due to making some enemy or enemies in the police force but making the best of it she makes use of Dresden as a consultant.
The novel has Dresden juggling a private missing person case and working with Murphy on a murder. In the course of the novel the two cases are slowly pulled together. We are introduced to faeries, vampires, and various laws of magic, both physical and legal. The legal ones are established by the White Council, a wizard organization. Dresden is in trouble for violating the first law - using magic to kill. The punishment is supposed to be death, but his sentence was reduced due to it being a case of self defense - a justification not all on the council agree with. If he violates the laws again, he faces death under the Doom of Damocles.
Physically, magic has issues with advanced technology. Computers tend to crash in Dresden's presence. It's almost impossible for him to own a modern car, forcing him to make do with an old VW Beetle. We learn there are different kinds of magic - evocation, for quick and dirty stuff (like blasting things) and traumatically (ritualistic magic). Harry has an skull with a spirit of air linked to it - Bob - who serves as a sort of assistant/encyclopedia for him. Though an incorporeal spirit, Bob has a rather strong libido.
The novel has a fair amount of exposition it needs to get across to the reader. It does a good job of this, giving the needed information in pieces and for the most part keeping thing linked to the plot. Perhaps the most annoying part of the novel is an undercurrent of mistrust between Murphy and Dresden, something present in the first few novels which tends to get annoying after a while. Dresden keeps things about magic from her and she tends to mistrust him, believing him involved with various crimes. Butcher takes us past this fairly quickly, but it is a definite annoyance for a while.
That caveat aside, I found I still enjoyed the novel on a reread (or re-listen). Some elements of the mystery plot were more obvious the second time around (so maybe a more clever reader than I would have caught more on his or her first read) but I enjoyed being introduced to Harry Dresden's world. A strength of the series is an interesting array of heroes and villains and supporting cast and Storm Front begins building this strong stable of characters.
I'd definitely recommend Storm Front, but I do agree with those who say the series greatly improves in the third and fourth novels. That may make it sound bad which I don't think is the case at all. On a 5-star rating, Storm Front would probably be a 3.5 or 4-star novel for me.