Harry Dresden is a private eye in Chicago . . . and he’s also a wizard, in a world where magic is not so much hidden as uneasily ignored. But his friend on the police force, Lt. Karrin Murphy, does believe him; so when a pair of people are found gruesomely and mysteriously murdered as if by magic, she knows just whom to call. Harry is strapped for cash, so the case seems like a great oppotunity. But as he gets involved in the race to stop a black mage before he strikes again, he becomes the enemy of a mob boss and a vampire madam, and suspect number one in the eyes of both the Chicago PD and the White Council that governs wizards.
Storm Front is the best example I’ve seen lately of something mediocre done well. There’s nothing really new about its premises, but it has snappy pacing, a tight plot, and a narrative voice that’s distinctive without being over-the-top. Harry is Ye Olde Man With A Dark Past, but he also has a sense of humor, and though he’s plenty cynical, he also cares about the people he helps and he likes to hold open doors for ladies. Butcher constructs a fairly logical magical system; he avoids relying too much on glowing white energy fields, and while the magic is largely a mechanical, sometimes goofy throw-these-things-in-the-cauldron affair, there are a few evocative moments.
What really made the book for me, though, was that it had a couple aspects of realism that I really was’t expecting. Harry is a Lone Wolf Who Cares kind of hero, and in classic style he spends a good portion of the book lying to all his friends in an attempt to protect them. Only–not like a lot of other stories–there are actual consequences to his lies. People do unfortunate things because they don’t know what’s going on, and in the end Harry loses some people’s trust and doesn’t get it back automatically.
This alone would have won me over, but there’s an even better aspect to the book: Butcher actually realizes how creepy and apalling it would be to magically mess with someone’s mind. In fact, mind control–or even mind influence–is explicitly the big first step to the dark side, and the White Council usually executes people who do it. I really have to applaud Butcher for not following the trend of so many urban fantasists, and actually thinking through the consequences of Jedi mind tricks.
Morally, the book is mostly okay–it’s pretty much a standard good guys vs. bad guys fantasy, with the bad guys killing people and the good guys not. Like a lot of urban fantasies, there are vampires and demons running around with no really defined powers of goodness; Harry himself is vaguely agnostic. The only really objectionable part of the book is where it’s implied that he sleeps with his girlfriend.
Content warning: this book contains sex and violence. And by that I mean it opens with Harry examining a crime scene where a prostitute and her client were killed by having their hearts exploded in the middle of having sex. The deaths really don’t get any prettier, and while there are no actual sex scenes, there are a lot of sexual references (especially from Bob, Harry’s magical advisor, who is a sex-obsessed talking skull. I told you the magic was goofy.)