It’ s likely that even the most dedicated fantasy fan won’t recall the short-lived TV series The Dresden Files, which ran for 13 episodes in 2007 before disappearing from our screens. Which is a shame, because the Harry Dresden books they are based on are some of the most entertaining urban fantasy around – and may well convince you that there’s room for more than one wizard called Harry in your life.
The set up for The Dresden Files is an intriguing one: a wizard for hire working as a private detective in modern Chicago, dealing with those cases that are a little too ‘offbeat’ for the police. Unfortunately the show was scuppered by wooden plotting and an amiable but forgettable cast (led by Paul Blackthorne, who was likeable enough but didn’t exactly set the screen on fire – as no doubt evidenced by the fact you are probably going ‘who?’). So are the books really that much better? Hells, yes.
Harry Dresden is an utterly compelling creation: writer Jim Butcher has taken the old school charm of a Raymond Chandler detective (complete with a strong but often battered sense of decency, a tendency to get beaten up a lot and the inability to resist helping a damsel in distress) combined it with a modern, smart-mouthed geekiness that would do Joss Whedon proud and plonked the resulting character in one of the most comprehensively imagined universes you will ever read. The stories ease you in (they do follow an arc, though I read the first 8 out of order and still loved them) but as you get drawn more into Harry’s world, Butcher gradually reveals the full extent of it – which includes a council of elder wizards, a parallel universe of fey (fairies – though far less annoying here than in their insipid True Blood incarnations) and a whole assortment of underworld creatures, most of whom are keen to tear Harry’s head off. Like all the best heroes, he tends to annoy the bad guys… a lot.
Despite being a loner, Harry is surrounded by a support network that ebbs and flows as events affect them, but always feel like proper people rather than simply colourful support. They may sound like clichés – petite but feisty cop, fearless female reporter, sexy vampire, geeky scientist – but Butcher makes them into people you genuinely care about. His gift is to take established figures and make them new, so the stories always feel fresh (his take on vampires and how they feed, for example, manages to breathe new life into what can too often be a tired trope). His writing has matured as the series has grown, so that characters change and develop as they survive from one book to the next, which gives events genuine weight – there’s no reset button if things don’t turn out how we’d like them to (and they regularly don’t turn out how we’d like them to). But the books can also be outrageous, and funny – in how many other novels do you get to see your hero ride into battle against zombies on the reanimated skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Rex?
Butcher is also pleasingly prolific: there are 13 books in the series so far (plus various graphic novels, and short stories) and he has indicated that he’ll be writing nearly as many again before the series is complete – plus if you get bored between Dresden novels you can always console yourself with his ‘pure’ fantasy series, Codex Alera. So why not give them a go? You might find you’re wild about Harry, after all.
The first book in the Dresden Case files is Storm Front.