04 February 2011

"Storm Front" by Jim Butcher

The 2000 edition cover. Source.
My first foray into contemporary urban fiction begins with Storm Front, Jim Butcher's first novel of the bestselling Dresden Files series.

I remember hearing in a class on characterization (led by horror author Scott A. Johnson) that The Dresden Files was definitely top-notch and worthy of exploration. I was happy that we were assigned to read the first book in the series, because then I could see if this was true or not. I never expected to have this much fun with a novel, let alone an urban fantasy. What a pleasant surprise!

I think the most important thing that kept me on my toes is that this book is hard to classify. This work is what we would term as not only genre-bending, but genre-blending. And if I'm rhyming, you know I'm excited about it. I could call Storm Front (and likewise the Dresden Files) a mystery, fantasy, thriller, horror, and detective novel in one. Bottom line: Storm Front is funny, creepy, suspenseful, and more importantly, it held my interest.

The first thing I learned at Seton Hill was that genre fiction is a contract between the author and the reader. Dr. Michael Arnzen brought this idea up in a genre class whose topic happened to be romance, but this unspoken law is applicable to all literary genres. Since Storm Front is genre-crossing, it has a lot of promises to keep.

It meets the fantasy part easily--we have magic (complete with Latinate spell-casting vocabulary), fairies (Toot Toot), elementals (Bob, the air spirit who resides in an empty skull), etc. We have the horrific and supernatural--the Sight (the third eye reference of the occult), monsters (giant gooey scorpions and toad demons), etc. And we have the urban--hooray, Windy City of Chicago!

But if we had to pick apart the layers of genre for Storm Front and settle on one, we'd have to call it first and foremost a mystery. I don't read a lot of mystery myself, so I got some help from a great (but now defunk) blog, "Book Diva," to help me understand the contractual obligations Storm Front had to meet for mystery readers. In summation, a good mystery:

· Has a believable, sympathetic protagonist
· Has a smart bad guy who still manages to get caught by the protagonist
· Gives clues for the reader to make an educated guess as to "whodunit"  
· Provides authenticity with details
· Continues on through sequels and series

Of course, all rules are debatable. I for one don't always dig sequels and series, but I know as a reader that if you love a character enough, you don't want to see them disappear, hence Book Diva's note that sequels and series are best for mysteries.

I would however agree with everything else she listed. At lot of these rules carry over into other genres as well, especially when it comes to heroes and villains, and the goal to provide authenticity to the reader in order to make a connection that makes a work relevant to its audience.

Let's talk about the protagonist. It's important that you like the hero enough or you're done with the book. I usually give up on a novel if the hero is annoying or fake, and I have issues with many genre novels creating an inauthentic, always wise-cracking, ever-knowing protagonist. Nobody in real life is ever that funny or smart or annoying, nobody.

Harry Dresden is the hero of Storm Front, and he also serves double-duty as our narrator and point of view, so there's extra pressure for him to be a likeable character. The author, Jim Butcher, accomplishes this by giving Harry a pleasant tone and realistic voice. Harry Dresden is immediately personable, and he wastes no time in telling us exactly who he is:
My name is Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden. Conjure by it at your own risk. I'm a wizard. I work out of an office in midtown Chicago. As far as I know, I'm the only openly practicing professional wizard in the country. You can find me in the yellow pages, under "Wizards." Believe it or not, I'm the only one there. [ . . .] You'd be surprised how many people call just to ask me if I'm serious (3).
Right off the bat we get a friendly, straightforward, conversational tone. Harry Dresden is a great narrator of his tale--he's nonchalant, and cuts to the quick. He also admits openly to some vulnerability and weaknesses. The first case the reader experiences in Storm Front is a double-murder of the supernatural kind. Someone or something has killed a man and woman in the midst of their sexual throes, by exploding their hearts from their chests during the act. Dresden is called in by the cops to consult, since he dabbles in the otherworldly.

It's a grim picture painted--a passionate act desecrated by horrible violence. The victims' rib cages were lifted up, pushed outward, and hollowed out from an incredible force, leaving an empty cavity where the hearts used to be.

Dresden has the proper reaction to it:
[... I] then walked past him and into the bedroom. And regretted it. I looked, noted the details mechanically, and quietly shut the door on the part of my head that had started screaming the second I entered the room. [ ...] I stepped closer to the bed and walked around it. [...] The little screaming part of my brain, safely locked up behind doors of self-control and strict training, continued gibbering. I tried to ignore it. Really I did. But if I didn't get out of that room in a hurry, I was going to start crying like a little girl (15-17).
I liked that Dresden is so blunt with his emotional reactions. I never felt like Dresden (or the author) tried to hoodwink me with his character. I knew I could trust and like Dresden.

It also helps that Dresden has a fun sense of humor. One of my favorite tidbits: Harry Dresden owns a t-shirt with a drawing of tombstones on it that reads, "Easter has been cancelled--they found the body" (209). I have friends who wear dorky t-shirts like that! Or the educational pamphlets Dresden has helped write to explain magic and the paranormal, such as Real Witches Don't Float So Good (286). It's nice to have a hero with a sense of humor, and a relatable one at that.

Next stop--the bad guy. Butcher has littered Storm Front with plenty of interesting "villains"--the mobster Gentleman Johnny Marcone, and Bianca the vampiress, for example. The main villain of the novel is the "Shadowman," Victor Sells. Victor sells used to be an everyman but got caught up with drug racketeering (a hallucinogen called ThreeEye), weird sex magic rituals, and the dark arts in general. We don't know all of this information right away until we get the "reveal" in the penultimate chapters of the story. Until this point, we only learn of the villain through the trail of bodies and artifacts he leaves behind.

So the key mystery of Storm Front is "whodunit." Obviously Victor is smart enough because he is a self-taught magician. He read a few books and experimented around a bit. His power is greater than many of the wizards Dresden ever encountered, and that's why Victor is a scary villain, who is capable of harnessing the elements (in this case, storms) to blow someone's heart out of their chest. An amateur! That's frightening! However, because Victor is veiled until the very end, it's difficult to get an idea of the thought processes behind him as a character. He seems intelligent "enough"--enough to keep Dresden on his toes, enough to confuse the White Council (the Wizard Security/Governing body) as to who is doing the spells, but his actual lines of dialogue are that of a traditional Scary Bad Guy: "You bastard! Why don't you just die?" (327) or "A cute trick, Dresden, [. . .] but pathetic. There's no way you can survive this. Give up" (333).

You get the idea.

Anyway, Dresden outsmarts Victor because of a simple principle--Dresden is schooled in magic, and Victor is not. It doesn't matter that both of them have wizarding power (even Dresden admits that Victor may have more of it than he does), what matters is the ability to harness it, to control it...it's a case of who has actually mastered the craft. In the war between style and substance, substance wins.

The other tenets of good mystery--including the clues, authentic details, and satisfactory conclusion--were fulfilled with this work. The details that lent itself to authenticity were present in characterization, dialogue, and the setting, as well as in pop-culture references that easily suited the work (all nods to the Godfather, Batman, etc., were appropriately timed and referenced). I'm not the best judge of clues and "guessing" at who did it...I have an amazing ability to overlook the obvious by focusing on mundane details, so suffice it to say that I didn't have an idea of who the villain was until about the last quarter of the novel. It's great that I didn't figure it out earlier, but then again, when I did, I was a bit like, "oh well," just because we got to hear the truth in an extended monologue via Monica Sells, Victor's wife. But the conclusion was still appropriate--bad guy destroyed, mystery solved, hero still alive, hero absolved, and for the most part everybody is happy.

And even better, the story goes on (at the time of this posting, the Dresden Files series is on Book #15 out of what will be 23)!

Works Cited

Butcher, Jim. Storm Front. New York: ROC, 2000. Print.

Thompson, Stephanie. "What Makes a Good Mystery Novel?" The Bookdiva. Blogspot, 04 July 2007.

2 comments:

  1. This was a great post, I too am not a fan of mysteries but this sounds like a great cross-over from old-school mystery films like the Bogart Classics with a healthy mix of sci-fi fantasy! this is a definite add to my list if must reads!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great post! I like your Arnzen quote!

    ReplyDelete

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