Book Series Review: Dresden Files by Jim Butcher

I’ve previously read the first 3 volumes in the Dresden Files, then let it lapse for a while. This year I’ve been binge reading the rest of the series in order, and reviewing individual volumes on Goodreads and Amazon as I go. Below are my thoughts about the series as it stands to date.

My reviews focus on setting readers’ expectations, rather than summarising plots. The most important aspect a new reader needs to know is that the series has several over-arching story arcs, with roots starting at book 3 (Grave Peril) but only becoming visible as more and more of the series unfolds. (The first two books are more or less stand-alone; after that, multiple long term arcs are being built by Butcher). I highly recommend reading the books in order.

What to expect

The series is the gold-standard of detective urban fantasy. It’s written at a thriller-pace, with fast moving intrigue, action, and dizzying plot twists. Butcher continually expands the wonderful world-building, and doesn’t shy away from meaningfully impacting Dresden’s life. Harry in the meantime spouts his own brand of flippant humor in the face of the supernatural, even as events around him turn darker as the series progresses.

Starting with book three: Grave Peril (or, rather, the consequences of events therein), there are over-arching story arcs that run throughout the series. One such is the war between wizards and vampires; another are the fallen angels. All actions have consequences, the supernatural world’s politics move all around and regardless of Harry, and recurring encounters are not just moulded repeats but an evolving, living history in the making.

What I liked

I like Harry’s wise-cracking attitudes towards life, and in dealing with supernatural horrors. I like the supporting characters in general, and I find Butcher is doing excellent job in characterising and building recurring cast and introducing new characters. The long-running support cast are especially complex, and one can see them maturing between books. The borderline characters, especially those with an ‘evil’ side, always make the best ones. All the characters work together to deliver emotional payoffs for dedicated readers, with their lives and deaths having meaning.

On the plot side, I love the complex world-building and pace of the stories. Butcher continually explores new aspects of the supernatural world he built, with successive volumes exploring new areas or expanding on previously revealed ones. The depth and breadth of Dresden’s world are staggering.

The plots are moving at breakneck speeds, with dizzying twists and dramatic reveals. Dresden suffers blow after blow (luckily he’s got more-than-human wizard’s constitution, or else we’d be in Alistair MacLean’s territory), and things continually get worse as the book progresses. This leaves the reader turning the pages without a break, trying to find out how Harry can get out of this one.

Be aware

The series really needs to be read in order. While Butcher tries to fill in details with Harry’s recollections about history when they come up, it’s best to read properly.

Butcher has Harry’s mental dialogue providing a recap of previous events for those who read the series in breaks, which can feel like he’s talking too much (and also may grate on some reader’s nerves as a “telling” style, or simply for being repetitive). It’s just a function of a long-running series, but as entering the series mid-way is not recommended anyway it doesn’t offer much to new readers while could be distracting to fans.

Also, some readers may find Dresden attitudes chauvinistic and misogynistic, though that is a both a trope of the genre and something of a flaw of Dresden.

Felix’s thoughts

All things considered, I thought I’d ask Felix about the series. As one professional paranormal investigator to another, so to speak. First, Felix is duly impressed with Dresden’s power and dedication. All adulation to those who use obscene amounts of power, while still acting responsibly to oppose tyranny,

But on a personal note, Felix would like to point out that Dresden just talk too much. Yes, we get that in his world magic is fueled by emotions and willpower (read: pure pigheadedness), and that using it will just get you tired (as opposed to an early grave, in Felix’s Egretia), but that’s not a reason to delve deeply into describing his emotions in the midst of a battle scene. Felix himself, he’s willing to admit, may stretch the truth on occasion – but he does so with the dignified understatements, and generally getting on with the action.

Summary

‘Changes’ is probably my favourite volume in the series, but most of the books are excellent. I love the characters’ evolution, the world building, the thriller pace, the balance of geeky lightheartedness and dark themes. While the first two volumes have signs of early writing, Butcher’s writing craft improves consistently throughout, and delivers an emotional satisfaction to readers.

It’s a great, fast-paced, emotional, urban-fantasy thriller. If you want a blend of modern-day thrillers with dark fantasy, this is the series to read – just start at Storm Front.

 

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