Fantasy Round 22.1: Dresden Files
Note: This post was written jointly by both Michael and Rachel
The Dresden Files is Jim Butcher’s long-running urban fantasy series, combining detective fiction with a Fantasy Kitchen Sink, a bit of a noir style, and shout-outs to a lot of current scifi and fantasy fan culture. Butcher started the series as part of a writing course, and wrote it in deliberate contrast to the sword-and-sorcery stories he had done before. He’s described the series as a happy accident, “like penicillin”, and has been putting out a book a year on average since 2000 – along with a large number of short stories, novellets, and novellas set in the same universe. The franchise has developed to include comics, a table-top role-playing game, and a short-lived TV adaptation.
One of Butcher’s particularly successful strategies with the series has been how the various episodes stitch together to form a larger narrative. He does have plans for ending the series, apparently with “an apocalyptic trilogy”. If he sticks to plan, there will be a total of something like 24 novels in the series – of which 14 are already out. This gives a lot of material to talk about.
Given that there are a lot of books, there’s a lot of material to cover, so we’ll be breaking this up over several posts, and hitting some of the major themes as we go. For the first post, we’ll cover the first three novels — Storm Front, Fool Moon, and Grave Peril.
One of the fun parts for this series is that the magic system is fairly consistent, even as new elements appear.
The wizardry done by our main character, Harry Dresden, is naturally at the center of this. Magic (at least of the human wizard variety) is fueled by willpower and emotion, and channeled using… well, whatever the practitioner thinks will work. This typically involves words borrowed from a language the person doesn’t speak (like Latin) so as to avoid any issues with diluting the meaning to the wizard of the spell word he’s using. Of course, there are also big rituals, which are necessary if you want to do any serious magic… and for extra mojo, you can do scary things. Like orgies or animal sacrifice.
When making potions, the basic “recipe” is always essentially the same. Similarly, the principle of a magic circle — drawn to keep magical forces either in or out — shows up repeatedly. Another critical concept that develops through the series is the idea of a threshold — a home maintained by mortal humans has a natural mystical barrier against everything that goes bump in the night. This consistency, blended with various ideas drawn from myth, helps hold the whole setting together.
The snark. So much snark.
Dresden is a wizard so interested in thumbing his nose at the more senior wizards that he puts an ad in the Chicago yellow pages for his services. As a wizard private investigator. He does not do parties or love potions. (The one time he does make a love potion, it goes horribly awry.) It’s awesome.
And this continues throughout — as Dresden encounters threats above his weight class, he quips and provokes until he can find a way out of trouble. Sometimes including provoking the antagonist into doing something rash. He references Star Wars and popular culture. And make the most amusing complaints when matters go awry.
This is really annoying.
Especially since it happens more than once.
For instance, in the very first book, he refuses to explain exactly what’s going on to his cop friend Karrin Murphy when she keeps finding bodies with their hearts exploded out of their chests. This eventually ticks her off enough to suspect he might be behind it all… and her investigations result in her getting attacked. (Don’t worry, she survives it.) His refusal to explain the workings of a potentially dangerous magic circle (whose purpose was to contain a particularly dangerous and uncontrollable kind of werewolf) to a sometime-student of his resulted in her not being able to complete it… not asking for further help from him… and ultimately getting killed when the spell fails. And later, his refusal to explain what he was doing to Susan Rodriguez, his love interest, resulted in her sneaking in to a party run by vampires without a proper invitation to follow up a lead of her own… and ultimately rather severe consequences to her health.
Dresden eventually learns from this… well, mostly. It’s a regular failing of his, which results in some interesting events and character development later in the series.
But it’s quite infuriating when a little explanation would help so much.
We’ve got vampires. And werewolves. And faeries. And demons. And ghosts. And a dragon (although the dragon just stands there smoking ominously). Just in the first three books! And, of course, our monsters are different.
To keep things interesting, there are three (or four…) kinds of vampires, five kinds of werewolves, and an unknown number of kinds of faerie, with differing degrees of power and different kinds of evil. The monsters are generally a blend of what is familiar from myth and what Dresden needs for the story. For instance, Black Court vampires are most well known… because this book by Bram Stoker was a propaganda piece to help mortals kill them – but they don’t act exactly like Stoker said they did. And, best of all? Butcher’s fairly consistent with the capabilities and weaknesses of different monsters throughout the story. Demons can be summoned by saying their name three times… and that detail becomes an important plot point in Grave Peril, for instance.
Doing Some Research
Another item that’s often fun is that for many things, Butcher does the research — on items real and mythological. For instance, in Grave Peril, he describes the nastiness of a certain poisonous mushroom fairly accurately, as well as its partial antidote and the need for immediate hospitalization after eating it, antidote or not. (Serious, don’t try this at home, kids. Or anywhere else, for that matter.) He covers the myths pretty well, too. Leanansidhe is an example of this — she’s clearly based on Leanan sidhe, a beautiful muse from Celtic folklore.
On the other hand, he either doesn’t do all the research, or the world of Dresden is significantly different from our own. In Fool Moon, one character explicitly notes a large increase in crime rates over the preceding several years. Given that the story is set in roughly the early 2000s, this can’t actually be true: crime rates in the US have been dropping steadily for a long time. But, speaking of breaks with reality…
Yup, we’ve got that. Maximum-strength version.
Evil wizard (technically an unlicensed warlock) kills people by making their hearts explode out of their chests from across the city. No evidence of entry into the place, no defensive wounds on the victims, no signs of any struggle or violence. Guy who did it is found dead in his burned-down house, with lots of occult paraphernalia, and a supply of a drug that’s been killing people and giving them bizarre visions in a way that is entirely impossible by the normal rules of biochemistry. Publicly-accepted conclusion? Drug ring gone bad.
Super-sized wolf-like monster is blasted out through the wall of a police station and entirely through the building across the street – after mauling everybody in the holding cells and fighting its way through a large number of cops (and one wizard). Later, a grainy low-light video is sent to the media by a reporter, showing one of those cops and the wizard taking down the monster. Copied and airs on several networks before being “disappeared”. Publicly-accepted conclusion? Hoax.
Wizard torches building full of vampires, burning it to the ground. Forensic examination shows that there are a large number of humanoid but non-human remains mixed in with normal bodies in the debris. Said remains have large canines, large tongues, distorted and elongated limbs, large stomachs that were partially filled with blood, and a tendency to catch fire when exposed to sunlight or to full-spectrum bulbs. Publicly-accepted conclusion? “They’re normal bodies, damaged by the fire. And get that medical examiner to a therapist – he must be seeing things”.
And that’s just the single most outrageous masquerade failures that aren’t acknowledged from each of the first three books. None of those make sense. The first one might be swept under the rug, if the drug task force didn’t take samples of the drug to figure out exactly what people had been poisoning themselves with. In reality, unambiguous forensic evidence is nowhere as pervasive as CSI would lead you to believe (we may do a post on that at some point). But the other two don’t wash, especially the last one where a bunch of dead vampires are sitting in the morgue. Butcher tries to handwave it by saying that the Red Court is well-connected and arranges the bodies to disappear, but like the higher crime rate that’s inconsistent with the rest of the like-reality-unless-noted atmosphere of the series.
So the Dresdenverse has an Industrial Strength Masquerade, for no adequately explained reason – other than the obvious of it being necessary for the stories that Butcher wants to tell. And, as you’ll see in the other posts about the series, the lack of consistency in the Masquerade’s being maintained only gets worse as we go.
And yet, the series is awesome.