There are story concepts, and then there are story concepts. Jim Butcher’s venture into a modern Chicago where a magical P.I helps to solve crimes of an otherworldly nature is definitely in the second category as far as I’m concerned. Reviews concerning this particular text have proven to fall into two camps; those who are enchanted by it, and those who are mortally disappointed. Given the nature of the work, it’s easy to understand why.
On a technical level, there doesn’t seem much to rave about. Butcher takes a gamble with a narrative style similar to the narration of old detective movies, strewn with unnecessary description and cliche characters with little to no focus on the workings behind them. Even the novel’s protagonist, Harry Dresden, doesn’t present readers with anyone to connect with; there are individual aspects of him alloted to create feelings of sympathy, but they’re cheap and short-lived, and don’t tap into real emotion. Where Butcher tries to incorporate tension, he only succeeds in introducing unimportant plot devices lost later in the storyline.
Mysteries have to be carefully crafted; personally I only find them engaging if I can follow them with my own investigation, taking the delicately placed clues as they join the bigger picture, and being surprised by red-herrings and false steps. This is hard enough on TV, but in writing, where it’s easier to follow a characters line of thought, this is particularly challenging. Butcher doesn’t pull it off, by a long shot. The storyline isn’t terrible, it’s a sound crime story, but it doesn’t encourage participation. The mystery doesn’t so much unfold with the introduction of clues, as it does break in all at once nearer the end. It’s a shame, because even taking into consideration the other technical let downs, if he had managed to thread together a realistic and careful magical mystery, utilizing modern forensic and deductive devices alongside magical ones, Butcher would have created something bewitching.
So, why have I graced this work with three stars? Because there is one thing the novel has in spades, and that is charm. The novel doesn’t attempt to be more than it is, and by that I mean it knows it’s not a serious contender in the urban fantasy world, and it’s happy to be a frivolous, stylistic story about a man with a serious hero-complex. And it’s funny. The kind of funny fringed with a dark edge like splendor in coffee, mixed with sarcasm, puns and smack talk, and gangsters and vampires and even a talking skull. Butcher redeems the afflictions of Dresden’s design by making him amusing; not something to be overly proud of, but great fun to read in any case. The book is an easy-read, simple in structure and language, if a little repetitive at times, and reads like the voice-overs in film noir like The Big Sleep. Moreover, the magic aspects of the world make sense, everything has a design and a clear-cut explanation as to how it works and why. This is rare in some of the most popular fantasy-fiction, but Butcher takes special care over the physics behind his magical interpretations, and it’s nicely done.
I’ve heard that the books improve as the series progresses; I hope this is true. I hope Mr Butcher, with such an ambitious idea, has managed to do his concept justice later in the series, but I’m not disappointed with this first installment.