Thursday, July 30, 2009
Storm Front by Jim Butcher
"Hell's Bells" count: 3
Back in 2006, I made a trip to the States for a wedding. It was good fun, and I figured that while I was there, I'd go and see some other friends and family up and down the East Coast. While in the Albany Area of New York, I was taken to a fantasy/science fiction bookstore so that I could fill up on books - a precious commodity, given their expense and rarity here.
What I found when I walked in was shocking - I had no idea what to buy. I was so far out of the loop of SF/F news that I didn't know who was good, who was terrible, which mammoth mega-series were worth investing in and which were better off avoided. So I did the perfectly rational thing - I asked my friend for advice.
With very little delay, he picked this book out for me and said, "You need to read this. But," he warned, "you'll want to read them all." I hemmed and hawed a bit, did some mental calculations of suitcase volume and density, and purchased the first three books of the Dresden Files series.
My friend was right. I plowed through those books like nobody's business and then fumed that I couldn't go right into the next one. Any series that makes you practically itch for the next book has definitely got something going for it, and it all starts right here.
Harry Dresden is a wizard for hire in Chicago. He is, as far as he knows, the only wizard for hire, and this is both good and bad. Good in that he gets all the weird cases that only a wizard can really handle, plus the bonus of being a standing consultant for the Chicago police department. Bad in that he's pretty much on his own, wizard-wise, in a city that is just aching to go supernaturally crazy.
As this book opens, Dresden is trying to scrape enough together for the rent, and he's hit with two cases at once - a woman looking for her missing husband and the police looking to find out who made two people's hearts burst from their chests. Chasing either lead means danger, but he can't afford not to take either one. He needs the money, and he needs to keep a good relationship with the police....
Someone, somewhere is breaking the most sacred laws of magic. Binding, killing, coercion and destruction, all uses of magic that are utterly forbidden by the White Council, the mysterious council who oversees the world's wizarding community.
In the best traditions of gritty detective fiction, the two seemingly unrelated cases eventually merge into one very dangerous investigation, one which challenges Harry and his allies to do more than they'd ever done before.
Butcher has done some fantastic work here for a debut novel, and set the stage for a long and fruitful series. He sets up his world in an efficient fashion, giving us everything we need to know in order to get the story he's about to tell, and dropping little hints of what's to come. I really have no complaints.
Well, maybe one. But it's small, all things considered.
As Dresden tells us in his narration, the world he lives in is one that has seen magic pushed back for the better part of a century in favor of Science. "The largest religion of the twentieth century," he calls it, and that kind of set off a little red flag in my head.
I've heard the old "Science is just another religion" canard before, and I know that it's nonsense - science doesn't require faith, it doesn't require any kind of leaps or hope or suspension of disbelief. Religion certainly does - no one prays with absolute certainty that their prayer will be answered - there's always a chance (and often a good one) that nothing will come of it. But hold a stone a few feet off the ground and drop it, and that stone will damn well fall to the ground. Moreover, it'll fall at the same speed when dropped from the same height, no matter who drops it. Every time. No praying, no intercession. Just science.
What makes Dresden's comment even more interesting is how scientific he is in his working of magic. He has a work space in his basement that he refers to as a lab, and explains to the reader the way that magic works. The principles of Circles, and the necessary elements that constitute a potion. When Harry talks about the power of True Names, he tells us about a known effect of using someone's name for spellcraft, one that will work for any wizard, so long as he knows how to say the person's name the right way.
As an interesting aside to that, Harry gives us his full name - Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden - right at the beginning of the book, on page two. This would imply an interesting level of trust between the narrator and the reader, as the character knows full well the dangers of letting one's full name get out of your hands.
He talks about rules and laws, cause and effect, as things that he's studied and remembered because they work. If magic were truly non-scientific, there would be no way for Harry (or any other practitioner) to predict what would happen when a spell was cast. But when he draws a circle and gives it a bit of a charge, Harry knows exactly what will happen. This alternate world may have sources of energy that ours doesn't, and certain physical laws that vary from ours, but science is no less present in Harry's magic than anywhere else.
So, that one little nitpick aside, I found this to be a very enjoyable book. What's more, it was an excellent introduction into what has turned out to be a fantastic series. I can't wait to see how it all turns out in the end....
"There is no truer gauge of a man's character than the way in which he employs his strength, his power."
Harry Dresden, Storm Front
The Dresden Files on Wikipedia
Storm Front on Wikipedia
Jim Butcher on Wikipedia
Harry Dresden on Wikipedia
Storm Front on Amazon.com
Jim Butcher's homepage