Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Dresden'd for Greatness

About two years ago, I was perusing the Sci-fi/Fantas section in a local bookstore when a description caught my eye; "Think Buffy the Vampire Slayer staring Phillip Marlowe." I may have been aware that the quoted book's title was Small Favor, though I didn't devote much attention to the cover, or who wrote it. The statement crackled with such potential that I snatched up the hardcover, and proceeded to the checkout, only dimly aware of the possibility that I was stumbling into the latest installment of a long running series. If somebody told me I was about to start on Book Ten of the Dresden Files, I may have tried to start at the beginning. A glad thing I didn't know any better. It was one of the best impulse buys of my life. Starting out late didn't hamper my enjoyment of the earlier books in the series, in fact, knowing what was in store made me more charitable toward Jim Butcher during his "warm up period."

The first two books are enjoyable enough, but things really start to pick up here.

Needless to say, the book delivered on the promise of Entertainment Weekly's one liner. The Dresden Files are a helluva lot of fun. The series isn't for everybody; grandma probably won't get it, and fans of "higher literature" including Tolkien devotees will probably look down upon it as low-brow genre fiction. I've even heard people, or at least internet people, refer to it as the Y-chromosomes' answer to Twilight. There is a shred of accuracy to this statement, insofar as the books are clearly written for a male audience, just as Twilight is obviously written for women folk, but the parallels stop there. Unlike Meyer, Butcher can write. The pacing is fast, the plotting starts out serviceable and gets increasingly tighter as the series continues, and the characters, while archetypal, are memorable and believably developed. And most importantly, Butcher doesn't take himself, his protagonist, or his series too seriously. On the contrary, self-deprecation runs high in the Dresden Files. Each book has an element or two which rib's the fantasy genre in one way or another, be by featuring a Billy Goat's Gruff as an antagonist, or a subplot involving a pack of teenage LARPers who gain the ability to turn into were-wolves.

If you do not find this even a little bit awesome, The Dresden Files is probably not for you. Also: seek medical attention.

Despite the fantastic trappings and occasional absurdity of the situations, the action in the Dresden Files is typically driven by very real issues; chiefly, responsibility and relationships. I don't mean the spider-man sort of responsibility about using your powers for good either. There is a bit of that here and there, but usually, the books are concerned with the responsibilities of us mere mortals: sticking to your principals as much as practicality will allow, asking for help despite putting other people out or putting them in danger. These are universals, even if they are broadly drawn, and the fantastic elements of the narrative make them far more interesting and enjoyable than they are in real life.


Not everything that is Dresden Files is golden however. The Syfy channel (or Sci-fi Channel back at the time of productions) mangles the original series something fierce. Some people liked it well enough, though it tried my tolerance with rather weak writing, and a host of totally unnecessary departures from the source material. Harry Dresden wears a leather jacket as opposed to his signature duster, negating the wild-westish aesthetic of the series. His wizard's staff is now a hockey stick; was this modernization supposed to make him seem hipper some how? Bob, the wisecracking, randy skull that serves as Harry's sidekick is anthropomorphized as a British dandy, and not the good kind like you want. Karen Murphy is now inexplicably a mother. Michael, and the rest of the carpenter family are completely absent. There's really only one way to sum up my feelings about these changes. But like I said, some people really dug it, and it's on Hulu, so you might as well give it a go if you're interested.

The books however, are definitely a must for modern fantasy fans. If you've completed your term at Hogwarts and are wondering where to head next, spending some time in the windy city with Harry Dresden would be a good call.

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