Thirsting for a bit of magic based in our own world? Want a detective mystery along with your fantasy, where the stakes are raised in almost every chapter? Storm Front by Jim Butcher has all this, as well as a wonderfully quirky main character. I found it a quick and enjoyable read, and any problems I came across were tiny and overshadowed by the good stuff.
Harry Dresden is the only private detective wizard in Chicago, and all he wants to do is help people. Unfortunately, his desire doesn't pay the rent. Even at the beginning, everything isn't rosy for Harry--aside from his money problems, the White Council is waiting for him to slip up, so they can throw down a death sentence, and most people have an aversion to magic. Butcher does a wonderful job setting up Harry's character, dragging the reader in right away with Harry's problems.
Once the police ask Harry to help with a murder investigation, and a shy client procures Harry's services, money trouble is the least of his worries. A big-time mobster attempts to convince to ignore the case, a reporter tries to drag the story out of him, the wizard committing murders marks Harry next for execution--not to mention all the little things thrown into his path. When we talk about a writer torturing his or her characters, this is a prime example. Butcher throws everything at Harry, upping the suspense almost in every chapter. And it's great. I felt for Harry, wanted to know how he was going to get out of each situation, knowing that once he did there would be yet another roadblock in his way. Even near the end, when Harry is finally off to face the bad wizard, something happens to thwart him from his goal. This is the way to bring suspense into a novel, by pushing your protagonist to his limits and beyond.
Even though this is a fantasy, readers feel that it's rooted in our world. Butcher drops in references that are clearly from our time--most of these references develop the main character. Since this is first person, we're in Harry's head the whole time, so the particular references he thinks of reveal who he is, and therefore, in essence, do double duty. The one that made me laugh is when a storm whips up outside, and Harry gets up, his apartment dark, the rain battering on the building, and then, "There came a knocking, a rapping, at my chamber door" (176). The Poe reference is priceless, and it fits Harry's character to a tee, since we learn at the beginning he spends most of the time in between cases reading paperbacks.
The biggest thing I noticed, though, when first delving into Storm Front was the magic system. As with many of the things in this novel, the base is from our own world--Harry's magic is rooted in pagan belief systems. I know not everyone will notice this, but I definitely did, and it's one of the things that drew me in and made me smile. Some of the instances that stood out for me were Harry's talk about magic as life, his mention of "As above, so below" (20), the pentacle used as a talisman because of his faith in magic, and the energy direction utilized in his spells, especially drawing from the storm itself. Since the magic system is derived from some ideas of magic in our own world, it made me comfortable and accepting of the use of magic in the novel.
Those little quibbles I mentioned earlier? Well, I felt the word "just" was overused, and that might be because I've been scrubbing it from my own manuscript lately. The only other thing was a small plot hole slip with the pentacle. When he visits Bianca the vampire, he puts it on the table when he stands down. Yet, when he leaves, there is nothing in the text that says he picks it up again and takes it with him. It's later around his neck, one of the last things he has left to fight against the bad wizard. Tiny hiccups, yes? The novel more than makes up for it.
Character, suspense, and a magical detective story set in our world, Storm Front has a lot going on to draw in many different types of readers. I fully intend to continue reading this series to see what Jim Butcher has in store for Harry Dresden next.
Butcher, Jim. Storm Front. New York: New American Library, 2000.
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