Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Dresden Files: Book Series Review

Yesterday I finished reading Side Jobs, the collection of short stories and novellas/novelettes set in the Dresden Files universe, and with it the series to-date. Fourteen novels and the short story collection, and I'm finally done. For now. Unfortunately, the series is far from over - Jim Butcher is apparently planning around 23 books total, which means I'll be reading The Dresden Files books for many years yet. At least I got in to the series halfway through - the first book, Storm Front, was first published way back in 2000. This review is also a general introduction to the series and its concepts. I'll try to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, but I'm sure there will be minor spoilers. You have been warned!

The Dresden Files Series Review, Books 1-14 plus the Side Jobs Short Story Collection
Firstly, genre. The Dresden Files is hard to categorize. I've previously categorized it as "a modern-fantasy-supernatural-detective series", while Wikipedia calls it "a series of contemporary fantasy/mystery novels". It fairly successfully blends all those genres to produce something with wide mass-market appeal. The first book was written for a writing class Butcher was taking, and deliberately written to be as formulaic as possible - but that doesn't mean it's bad: so was Star Wars. The Dresden Files books are easy to read and entertaining, and if you like reading fantasy/modern fantasy, or supernatural/paranormal, or mystery/detective novels, you'll probably like The Dresden Files.

All the stories in The Dresden Files (with the exception of two in Side Jobs) are written from the first-person point-of-view of the titular character - Harry Dresden, Wizard. Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden is the only Wizard listed under "W" in the yellow pages. He works as a private investigator, using his magic abilities to supplement his standard PI skills. Harry starts out ragingly chauvinistic, but while he retains some "old-fashioned" values throughout the series (such as a weakness for helping "damsels in distress" that is frequently exploited by his enemies), he does gradually learn deeper respect for women and their abilities. Harry is a smartass with a big mouth and a penchant for sarcasm, which frequently gets him in to trouble. Harry's magic specialty is fire magic, but he develops skills with other schools of magic as the series progresses. Magic tends to interfere with technology, which means that Harry can't use common technology like cellphones and computers, and has no electricity in his apartment.

In the "Dresdenverse", magic is real, and so are all the mythological creatures you used to hear about in bedtime stories. The most powerful supernatural societies, and the ones with the most page-time, are various types of vampires and faeries.

Butcher describes multiple "flavors" of vampires, split in to at least 4 Courts: the White Court are the most human-like, similar to standard succubi and incubi, and feed on emotions; the Red Court are like bats wearing human "flesh masks"; and the Black Court are the "Stoker-standard" vampires vulnerable to crosses and garlic. The fourth Court, the Jade Court, is mentioned only in passing and has received no page-time so far. As far as I'm aware, this gathering of various vampire archetypes into one universe and splitting them in to Courts is unique to the Dresdenverse.

The Sidhe (faeries) are also split in to Courts - Summer and Winter, plus the Wyldfae. Summer and Winter are each ruled by three queens representing the classic maiden/mother/crone trichotomy, and are responsible for the turning of the seasons. The Sidhe control most of the Nevernever, a kind of parallel world that lies close alongside our own world, and that can be stepped in to and out of through gates created with magic. The Nevernever's geography does not follow our world's geography, and it therefore gives travel shortcuts between far-flung places, if you know where to go.

With each book, Butcher introduces more mythological creatures: fairy tales, gods, and beings of mythology from all over the world. One of the great things about the Dresdenverse is that it borrows from everywhere, mashing familiar beings into the Dresdenverse mythos in such a way that they are immediately familiar and understandable (because you already know the story of the Three Billy Goats Gruff, for example) but also aren't at all out of place. There's also plenty of pop-culture in-jokes and references.

One problem I had with The Dresden Files early on is the women. Like I said before, Harry starts out a raging chauvinist, holding open doors even when the woman he's holding them for has told him not to, keeping secrets from all the women he meets to "protect" them (which, SPOILER, doesn't work out too well for anyone),  dropping everything to run off to rescue damsels in distress, underestimating the abilities of women to either kick ass or be total evil baddies, and so on. Also, 99% of the women in the Dresdenverse are smoking hot, by traditional western beauty standards. Pretty much every female Harry meets is described in terms of his physical attraction to her. At first I thought this was a Jim Butcher thing, but as Harry grows and learns and changes, the female characters around him are fleshed out (pun intended) and become more well-rounded (ditto). Karrin Murphy, for example, while still retaining her "five-nothing, one-hundred-and-nothing, cute button nose" description becomes more and more badass as the stories progress, and her motivations and character become more complex. Because the stories are written from Harry's first-person point-of-view, and he spends most of the story line single and celibate, describing every woman he meets along the lines of "10/10, would bang" is more of a character flaw than an author flaw (although of course, as the author creates the character, it still flows back in his direction).

However, in Aftermath, a novella published in Side Jobs and written from the first-person point-of-view of Karrin Murphy, I was astounded to read this gem:
It’s another in a long list of things that Martians [men] hardly ever think about: Almost any woman knows that almost any man is stronger than she is. Oh, men know they’re stronger, but they seldom actually stop to think through the implications of that simple reality - implications that are both unnerving and virtually omnipresent, if you aren't a Martian. You think about life differently when you know that half the people you see have the physical power to do things to you, regardless of whether you intend to allow it - and even implied threats of physical violence have to be taken seriously.
Rape Culture 101 right there, folks. It seems that Butcher, at least, is aware of some fundamental differences between how men and women live their lives. It would be great if he could extend this awareness to Harry's point-of-view: Harry is tall, imposing, and intimidating, with a bit of an anger management problem, and is generally unaware of how intimidating he can be to women without even really trying.

There's also problems with cultural representation. Even though The Dresden Files is set in Chicago, one of the USA's most populous and multicultural cities, the vast majority of the characters are white. When they aren't, they tend to be nearly caricatures. Susan Rodriguez, a reporter introduced in Storm Front is Hispanic and always described as "exotic". On the White Council, the organizing body of wizards, there are several non-white Senior Council members who are all remarkably clichéd: Ancient Mai, "the Asian one"; Rashid the Gatekeeper, "the Middle Eastern one"; Martha Liberty, "the Black one"; Joseph Listens-to-Wind (AKA "Injun Joe" (seriously)), "the Native American one". And while the Dresdenverse includes beings from many mythologies, they are predominantly European mythologies. Even the supernatural beings are eurocentric.

The Dresdenverse is also overwhelmingly heterosexual. There's several occurrences of faux-lesbianism or female bisexuality (including a "lesbian-until-graduation" fling between two minor female characters), and an overload of women using their "sexual powers" to manipulate men. There's no gay male characters, unless you count Thomas (a White Court vampire) in his "fake gay flamboyant European hairdresser" phase (hint: this DOESN'T count). Harry frequently takes pains to reassure the reader (and himself, I suppose) that he's 100% straight, and is clearly uncomfortable when he pretends to be Thomas' fake gay lover to gain access to his apartment. There's one scene in the most recent book (Cold Days) that takes part in a park that is apparently also a place where gay men go for "unapproved liaisons". Harry takes a moment to reassure the Summer Queen, Titania, that he has no problem with gay people as long as they're not being gay at him:
Titania nodded, her expression turning thoughtful. "What think you of the men who come here to meet with one another?"
"Uh," I said, feeling somewhat off balance. "What do I think of gay guys?"
"Boink and let boink, more or less."
"Meaning it doesn't have a lot to do with me," I said. "It's none of my business what they do. I don't go over in their living room and get my freak on with women. They don't come over and do whatever they do with other guys at my house."
"You don't feel that they are morally wrong to do so?"
"I have no idea if it's right or wrong," I said. "To me, it mostly doesn't matter."
"And why not?"
"Because even if they are doing something immoral, I'd be an idiot to start criticizing them for it if I wasn't perfect myself. Smoking is self-destructive. Drinking is self-destructive. Losing your temper and yelling at people is wrong. Lying is wrong. Cheating is wrong. Stealing is wrong. But people do that stuff all the time. Soon as I figure out how to be a perfect human being, then I'm qualified to go lecture other people about how they live their lives."
"An odd sentiment. Are you not 'only human'? Will you not always be imperfect?"
"Now you're catching on," I said.
"You do not see it as a sin?"
I shrugged. "I think it's a cruel world. I think it's hard to find love. I think we should all be happy when someone manages to do it."
"Love," Titania said. She had keyed on the word. "Is that what happens here?"
"The guys who come here for anonymous sex?" I sighed. "Not so much. I think that part's a little sad. I mean, anytime sex becomes something so...damned impersonal, it's a shame. And I don't think it's good for them. But it's not me they're hurting."
"Why should that matter?"
I just looked at Titania for a second. Then I said, "Because people should be free. And as long as something they want to do isn't harming others, they should be free to do it. Obviously."
"Is it?" Titania asked. "It would not seem to be, judging from the state of the mortal world."
"Yeah. A lot of people don't get that," I said. "They get caught up in right and wrong. Or right and left. But none of that stuff matters if people aren't free."
Hardly a ringing support speech for LGBTQ rights. He has no problem with gay guys as long as they're not "doing whatever they do" in front of him; he has no opinion on if homosexuality is "right or wrong" but then goes on to compare it to drinking, smoking, etc; and he also throws in a dash of generic slut-shaming to boot. But oh, as long as people are "free" to do what they want, everything is okay.

But while the series has some issues (and it's rare to find mass-market fiction that doesn't), it's still a great read. Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles...No wait, that's The Princess Bride. But it's an apt description, nonetheless. Each book in the series builds on the previous books, but they're also all standalone stories in their own right - you could easily pick up Cold Days not having read any previous books, and be not *too* lost. Something that annoyed me reading the books back-to-back - Butcher's tendency to describe recurring characters and items and concepts as if they are brand new in every single book - means that new readers can dive in without reading 13 previous books, and old readers don't have to do a series re-read every year when a new book comes out. Which is great, because I've been reading pretty much nothing but Dresden for the last four months. Because Butcher generally gets a new Dresden book out annually, they're close enough together that they should still be familiar. I enjoyed the series overall and am looking forward to the next one, Skin Game, which has no release date yet but I guess will be published some time in the second half of the year, given Butcher's track record.

Recommended for: lovers of the fantasy/modern fantasy, paranormal/supernatural (unless you're looking for romance), or mystery/detective genres; Star Wars or Spider-Man fans; pop culture junkies; anyone with an interest in world mythology (especially European mythology and fairy tales.

Avoid if: you're looking for romance; you prefer your fiction "Oprah's Book Club" style; you require cultural or LGBTQ representation; you can't look past the chauvinism.

Trigger Warnings: for rape/sexual assault/pornography, gun use, psychological manipulation/torture, and violence (especially against women). The trigger warnings are blanket warnings for the whole series - pretty much every story involves at least one of those.

General Content Warnings: plenty of sex, violence, swearing (although mostly of the Dresdenverse variety like "Hell's bells", "stars and stones", and "empty night"), drinking, and drug use. Also ambivalence towards Christianity - there's a lot of Christianity references and mythology (including angels and demons) that are treated respectfully, but also jokes against the Bible and faith. I don't think that Christians would find them anti-Christian, but as I'm an Atheist I'm not the best judge.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars for the series to-date (Book 14, Cold Days, is the most recent at the time of writing).


  1. I, for one, was interested in reading this review!

  2. I'm not sure I understand your problem with the part where Harry expresses his ambivalence to homosexuality. Is it necessarily wrong for a person to say "I won't think less of a person for it, but I'd prefer not to be in the room when they engage in their activities'? Heck, I'm heterosexual, and I don't want to be around people like me doing their 'stuff'. And as for your argument about a character's faults bleeding back to the author, I'm sorry, that doesn't work. He also wrote a passage as another character in Side Jobs where the narrator rapes a girl, that doesn't mean he condones it. I think this was a well-rounded review, and I do understand how the chauvinism can rub people the wrong way, but some of these arguments just don't make sense to me. I'd be happy to have them explained and be proven wrong, but until then, I just don't get it.

    1. Hi Anonymous, whoever you are - thanks for reading my review of the Dresden Files and for your response.

      First, the homosexuality thing. The lengthy quote I included from Cold Days I think is a good example of the series' overall attitude towards non-heterosexuality: it's okay as long as it's happening "over there". This is more of a general representation problem (as I mentioned elsewhere) than an accusation of homophobia. I did point out that I found the parallel with smoking and drinking an uncomfortable one though.

      Regarding the flow back to the author - this is the case for every single fictional character and every author, and is pretty widely taken as the norm, so I'm not sure what's not clear about this point? What I'm saying here is that Butcher's personality and experiences will show through in his writing, like everyone's do. You write what you know, after all. I'm not saying that Butcher must be a vampire-fairy-werewolf-PI in real life because he writes about them so much, either.

      Overall I really like the series and feel it has improved on many of these issues over time. I'm impatiently waiting for Skin Game which is out in a couple of months. I hope that you can see that me having some issues with some aspects of the series doesn't mean I don't like it at all. Being a fan doesn't mean you can't constructively criticize.

      Ultimately my review is also written from my own perspective and experiences and so my interpretation will certainly differ from yours as we are different. That's the great thing about art though. Appreciation of any art form is deeply personal. I shared my review because I had had difficulty finding a review of the series from a perspective similar to mine, and hoped that people would find it useful if they were considering picking up what is quite a long series. It seems like you're already a fan, from your comment about reading Side Jobs, so I probably don't have to convince you to read the series :)

  3. The thing with books is that people forget that the characters are characters. They are not meant to be perfect. Harry is written the way he is written to make people think. It would be boring to read about an unflawed character. Harry puts a large stock in love. Real love. It has power in DF. Remember, the book is written in his perspective. He isn't one to go around sleeping with anything that moves (and since he doesn't and hasn't had sex since he was with Susan, it isn't hard to realize why all the women - especially the fairy-non-human women - are so beautiful). Why wouldn't this opinion be revealed in his conversation about sex becoming "So damned impersonal?" If he said anything else, it would be disingenuous to the character and to the universe of the books. You can call it slut shaming if you want, but it is just a narrative that makes sense with the character.

    Honestly, I still think that Ramirez is gay and we just don't know it yet.

    1. Hi, and thanks for your comment! I love how passionate people are about Dresden.

      I have no problem with Harry being "flawed", and I think I did cover some of your points in my reply to a similar comment previously. But a couple more points:

      "You can call it slut shaming if you want, but it is just a narrative that makes sense with the character" - sure, it's Harry talking and Harry's attitude but that doesn't mean it's not slut-shaming. Harry can be slut-shaming people, he's not immune to having that kind of attitude. The fact that it's Harry talking doesn't mean he's not slut-shaming while he talks.

      As the protagonist, Harry is the main representative of the series. It's overwhelmingly his attitude that we get to see. I have no problem with Harry's own, personal view on love and sex. I have a problem with him judging others for their choices on those matters, because his is the main perspective we get and so represents the attitude of the series as a whole. I'm not saying that Butcher shares the same view, just that the Dresden Files series overall has a perspective on love, sex, and homosexuality that is different to mine and that makes me a little uncomfortable. Like I said above, you can be a fan and love something and still constructively criticize.

      If Ramirez is gay, that would be great, and it would be even greater if that didn't become an issue or a plot point, that he just turns up somewhere with a boyfriend at some point and no one bats an eye. Sadly, given his history of telling tall tales about his exploits and (SPOILER) the fact that he's a virgin, if it does turn out that he's gay I suspect it would a Thing.

      The Dresdenverse is so huge and diverse in so many ways, I think Butcher has missed an opportunity to have more characters of colour and more gender/sexuality diversity. Especially with a setting like Chicago.

  4. I found out about the Dresden Files about 6 months ago and I've fallen completely in love with this series. Harry is an extremely fascinating character, his wit gets me the most, and I love the depth of the world he lives in. I can't agree that Harry is a chauvinist, though, despite what Murphy says in their moments of banter. He has old-world sensibilities, and often explains himself as a believer in great chivalry. I don't see wanting to protect and save women as a negative trait. He doesn't look down on women and believe that he is stronger or superior. He knows Murphy is strong and not to be messed with. That doesn't make him a chauvinist.

    1. Thanks for the comment! It's certainly a great series. Harry definitely improves as the series progresses but he definitely starts out a chauvinist. The very fact that he thinks women need protecting and saving means that, even if its only subconsciously, he thinks that he is better than they are - because he can do a better job at protecting them than they can himself. Like I said, he definitely improves, but he starts with a huge blind spot which his enemies use to their advantage.

  5. Actually Butcher did take a homophobe to task. The guy talked about how oh it offends my faith....Butcher pointed out that it's rather hypocritical since according to the bible we ALL stink and are ALL sinners. He's certainly not thinking they should be denied marriage.

    1. What book was this in? Do you have a quote? I don't recall that conversation.

      But in any case, I'm not sure exactly what your point is? I never said he thinks that gay people should be denied marriage, or even that Butcher or Dresden are homophobic. I was complaining about the lack of representation of LGBT people and the general attitude of "it's okay as long as its over there".

  6. The issue is that Harry's an emotionally damaged asshole (he never had a normal family). Even Lara has redeeming traits that make her more fletched out.