Review: The Dresden Files (novels and television series)

In the late 1990s a writing student named Jim Butcher was urged by his teacher (author Deborah Chester) to set aside the medieval fantasies he’d been working on and try something in a modern setting. As Butcher said in a 2004 interview, “When I finally got tired of arguing with her and decided to write a novel as if I was some kind of formulaic, genre writing drone, just to prove to her how awful it would be, I wrote the first book of the Dresden Files.”

Harry Dresden lives in Chicago and advertises his services as a wizard, though he acts a lot like a private eye. He makes most of his money as a consultant for a branch of the Chicago police department that deals with weird crimes. He’s far from the only wizard around — there are whole organizations of them — but he seems to be the only one who’s out of the closet, and it’s a little vague how the others earn a living. (My guess is real estate and financial management, or possibly software development.)

Storm Front (2000), the first novel, was flawed but showed promise, especially in terms of original ideas and a good sense of fun. The writing and characterization could be better, there are a few too many private eye clichés, and not everything makes sense. But the pacing improves as it goes along, and it builds to a pretty decent climax.

The sequel, Fool Moon (2001), is better written and features yet more original ideas (including a whole taxonomy of werewolves) and better overall pacing.

Grave Peril (2001) takes things in a new direction and introduces a new major character, a sort of modern-day paladin, who helps Harry deal with ghosts, vampires, a demon who attacks in dreams, and a succubus-like being Harry refers to as his godmother. I confess I rather like the fact that the pseudo-Latin incantation to ignite a fire is something like “flickam bicus.” Unfortunately, the novel is such wall-to-wall action that it gets monotonous.

(These are just the first three Harry Dresden novels. At this writing there are a total of 16. For more information see Jim Butcher’s website.)

Besides Dresden himself, recurring characters in these novels include his girlfriend Susan, who works as a reporter for a tabloid; his usual client Murphy, a petite but tough police detective who heads the special investigations unit; and Bob, a skull occupied by a disembodied spirit with a vast knowledge of magical lore and an enthusiasm for romance novels and hot human babes.

In 2007 the SciFi Channel (now SyFy) broadcast a Canadian-produced television series based on the novels but with a number of changes, which continued to develop in the course of production, especially between the movie-length pilot (which was closer to the novels) and the rest of the episodes. Harry’s powers and the tone of the show varied from one week to the next, and the pilot was never broadcast except in a heavily edited version shown a few episodes before the end of the series.

By the end of the run, the show was starting to hit its stride, and the second season might have been quite good, had there been one. As it was, I liked the television Dresden more than I did the one in the novels.

I particularly liked what the TV show did with Bob, changing him from an invisible demon living in a skull, who’s little more than a silly comic sidekick, to the ghost of a long-dead sorcerer doomed to spend eternity tethered to his own skull and played by the overqualified Terrence Mann, a successful Broadway actor and dancer who incidentally got his professional start here in North Carolina and now moonlights as a professor at Western Carolina University.

I mildly recommend the television series except perhaps for the first few episodes. The initial three novels are also fairly readable (especially the second one), if nothing great. It really is a shame there’s no second season of the television show. I really should get around to reading more of the novels.

Update: Bruce Arthurs says in a comment on this post that it’s widely thought the novel series takes off starting with the fourth book, naturally right after I stopped reading them. Bruce is usually right, so I as I said, I really should read more of them.

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