Thoughts on Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files

This isn’t a traditional review, more just a loose overview of the Dresden Files series as a whole, because the series is so long-running at this point that reviewing a book that’s been out for several years and has more than a dozen books preceding it seems pointless. The Dresden Files are very much a series, not standalones set in the same world, and as always, I wouldn’t recommend jumping in at book fifteen (or even book five) as a lot of the world-building, character development, and long-running plot threads will be lost on you. This overview is likewise for people with at least a passing familiarity with all books in the series, because spoilers are inevitable to talk about characters with 15 books worth of history behind them, and I don’t want to make this discussion any longer than it will no doubt already be.

I re-read several books in the Dresden Files in preparation for the release of Peace Talks (it came out on July 14th, I had it pre-ordered but there’s been a delay and I have yet to receive my book). Well, I re-read Skin Game (book 15, the book immediately preceding Peace Talks, and a personal favourite of mine) in preparation for Peace Talks. And then, when I did not receive Peace Talks, I re-read Death Masks, Proven Guilty and Cold Days instead, because much like I did last year with Kelley Armstrong’s Otherworld LINK series and Ilona Andrews’s Hidden Legacy—I really wanted to spend more time in the world. I should note at this point that receiving my pre-order a little late is not an issue for me, receiving absolutely no updates on the order is a little annoying, but there are far larger concerns for everyone right now, and this is not a rant, just an explanation for why I read books 15, 5, 8 and 14 of a series that’s existed for 20 years now.

So! That long-and-unnecessary-even-for-me pre-amble was telling you why I’ve been thinking about this series, let’s talk about why I like it. Because I do. Between the Dresden Files, Codex Alera, and Aeronaut’s Windlass Jim Butcher has covered every genre I routinely seek out, and I am absolutely a fan.

Harry is a pretty standard hero, but urban fantasy is my favourite genre, so the blending of noir-detective and magic-practitioner/creature is obviously one I enjoy. Harry’s non-stop thirstiness towards any woman with a pulse (and a fair number without) can get a little ridiculous, but it’s balanced out by an old-school chivalry that makes it a personality quirk, rather than an actual flaw in the writing. The series also includes some really nuanced and strong female characters, including Charity, a stay-at-home mother who is also a badass, and it’s not a ‘thing’. A lot of the time, authors will write ‘strong women’ like Lara Raith—Thomas’s sister and a classic femme fatale who uses her sex appeal as a weapon and crushes men under her heel. Lasciel and Hanna Ascher also fall into this character, and very often Maeve.

Or, they write characters like Karrin Murphy, a police detective who rides a motor bike, does martial arts and doesn’t take crap. All of the characters I’ve just mentioned are far more than the rigidpicked stereotypes I just laid out though, and that’s the point I am (very slowly) making. Yes, I’m sure it’s easier to give a nuanced representation of femininity when your series has had fifteen books to reveal character traits, but Jim Butcher’s representation of women is genuinely enjoyable to read.

But there are also characters that don’t fit into either of these camps. Susan is strong, but good with people, successful at her career (which she values), while also maintain a variety of social connections. Mab and the other Faerie queens are strong, yes, but they also value family highly without this ever undermining their power.

I do have to mention the sexual way Molly is presented in this book, because I wish she’d been older before it happened. I don’t know why she had to be seventeen when Harry started noticing her physically, and even though it’s made abundantly clear that he would never act on it (for multiple reasons, her age and his relative authority over her chief among them) I find the situation distasteful and would prefer it hadn’t been included. She could have at least been eighteen, her age and his role in her life up until that point would still have been just as relevant, and that is one thing I wish had been different.

Diversity is also somewhat of an issue, the series does include characters of different races, but the majority of recurring characters specifically are white and straight. In Cold Days it is made explicitly clear that Harry isn’t homophobic however, which is a step in the right direction.

Back to the topic of characters I really enjoy though, I have to mention Michael. Actually, all of the Knights of the Cross are really fun to read. I’m not religious, but I love reading fantasy that doesn’t feel the need to put down people of faith, and I think Jim Butcher and Brandon Sanderson do a great job of creating fantasy worlds that co-exist well with religion.

Nicodemus is another great character as far as I’m concerned, I’m always a sucker for evil characters filled with conviction, and this quote from Nicodemus in Skin Game is genuinely one of my favourite from the series—

“Turn aside from my path? I have blazed it through ages of humanity, through centuries of war and plague and madness and havoc and devotion. I am my path, and it is me. There is no turning aside.”

Villains always get to be so damn sure of themselves. It’s less relatable, sure, but it makes them seem so cool until they go and do something unforgiveable again.

Found family is probably my favourite trope, so when Harry literally finds out he has family, and also just adopts and helps misfits, it’s always a big plus for me. The series is fun, and has a lot of poignant moments that reflect on human nature, and it also has lines like this—

““I’m doubling your pay.”
“You don’t pay me, Harry.”
“Tripling it, then.””

Ridiculous banter is also something I seek out and indulge in whenever possible, and Jim Butcher, Ilona Andrews, Seanan McGuire and Derek Landy are stand-out champions in my regard.

The magic system of the Dresden Files is an interesting mix of hard and soft, in that various systems exist for gaining/possessing power, and the source of such power varies. The world-building is done so well, and Harry as a character is so immersed in the paranormal world of the Dresden Files, that even when power has no obvious source (such as that of the queens of Faerie, or the various magical creatures who are magic rather than simply performing it), it never seems overly convenient or ruins the willing suspension of disbelief that is key for enjoying a fantasy novel. I think this goes doubly so for urban fantasy, because when a character is using routinely using machines that act predictably, if magic is written inconsistently or poorly, it shows up in even harsher contrast.

As I said though, that isn’t the case for the Dresden Files, and I believe the cost paid for power or favours on Harry’s part (and the part of other characters, particularly in the latter books) keeps magic from coming across as a ‘get out of consequences free’ card.

The depiction of morality, and particularly the chance for redemption and morality even in truly dark scenarios, is one that occurs repeatedly in the Dresden Files series, and one that I am absolutely a sucker for. I know I’ve said that several times, but Jim Butcher’s writing is some of my favourite to read.  I like that while Harry’s friends and family are supportive, they also call out his behaviour when he’s acting like an idiot, and I’m glad that he genuinely grows and improves throughout the series, without becoming an untouchable paragon of virtue. A lot of the time, Harry succeeds only due to the help of the people he likewise helps, and while it’s an old cliché to have a hero succeed because he’s a good person, it’s done well, and backfires often enough to still seem realistic.

I’m not sure whether this came across as anything but a disjointed ramble—but if you’ve read the Dresden Files I’d love to know what you thought. Do you enjoy the series like I did? If so, was it for the same reasons? Maybe you don’t like the series, I’d be just as interested to know why that is, and how many books you read before you got sick of them. Let me know!

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