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Storm Front is the first in Jim Butcher’s series about Harry Dresden, private detective and urban wizard. Harry combines the qualities of a modern man – sensitive, with pacifistic tendencies and a belief in sexual equality with some very old world characteristics. He is uncomfortable with technology and with good reason; it tends to malfunction around him and the more modern it is, the worse it gets. His respect for women frequently clashes with their readiness to behave badly and it has to be said, their intentions towards him are more likely to be murderous than amorous. This tends to pitch him into encounters with women (human and otherwise) of a decidedly pre-modern nature. His desire to avoid bloodshed is more likely to get him into trouble than out of it and the trouble generally comes from those who don’t care about his good will, along with their demons, giant scorpions and other assorted minions.
In spite of the problems his gifts and his chosen profession give him, Harry does his best to avoid self-pity and has an acute sense of the absurd:
‘Paranoid? Probably. But just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that there isn’t an invisible demon about to eat your face.’ (P7.)
Harry is an ambiguous character, in a constant battle between the dark and the light in himself as well as others and this tends to draw equally complex individuals his way. His favourite sparring partner in this first volume is Lieutenant Karrin Murphy of the Chicago police, a thoroughly modern young woman whose by-the-book approach to her job is frequently undermined by her need for the help Harry can give her. Generally speaking, even murder victims don’t die the way hers do. This is Harry’s territory, but involving him means that certain boundaries get crossed, not just once but many times over.
Readers of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter novels among others will be familiar with the idea that although the magical world operates outside the assumptions of civilian/muggle law, this does not mean that wizards operate without limits. Wizards are, after all, only human and are therefore driven by a desire for orderliness. The rule of law matters in its own right and also because it offers a framework for contact with non-magical people, who need to know that they are not dealing with a species of supernaturally inclined sociopaths. Wizard law in Harry Dresden’s world is embodied by a powerful governing body, the White Council and the unpleasantly bureaucratic Morgan, Harry’s Warden. Harry has a Warden, because he has a background the White Council don’t approve of. Jim Butcher gives us some of the details, but only enough to keep us eager for more. As this is the first of thirteen books to date, no doubt there is plenty of Harry’s backstory to come.
Having set his central character up with plenty of realistic props, the writer makes sure he doesn’t neglect the things that make Harry magical. Other private investigators tend not to share their accommodation with a magical skull called Bob, or have informants who are pizza-loving faeries. Telephones tend not to malfunction around them for no apparent reason, nor can they earth a thunderstorm and manipulate it for their own use. Harry Dresden might be a diffident figure, but he’s also a very dangerous one.
However, he is at least aware of the power he has and tries to be scrupulous in how he uses it. Not all practitioners are so careful; sometimes they can’t channel it, or maybe they don’t want to. The description of a house that is totally fouled with random magic makes for chilling and compelling reading, possibly the best part of the book. It also underlines the difference between Harry Dresden, who is as flawed as any other man, but has a moral core that makes him question everything, including his own motives and those who are less disciplined and less thoughtful, whether they are magical or not. If lust, whether for power, money or sex, is our own driving force, we become our own species’ worst enemy.
I really enjoyed this first novel of what is already a lengthy series and am looking forward to getting to know Harry Dresden better. He and the characters around him are wonderful inventions and well worth the reader’s time.
This edition: Hatchette Digital. 2009. London ISBN: 978-0748116065.