Today I Read…Storm Front

Storm FrontToday I read Storm Front by Jim Butcher, the first book in The Dresden Files series.

Harry Dresden-Wizard. That’s what the sign says.

Most people think he’s a kook, a crazy, a few wands short of Tinkerbell–Harry knows that he is the only openly practicing wizard with a detective’s license. He also knows that the rent is overdue. He needs a case–fast.

Enter ‘Monica’, a woman who wants Harry to find her missing husband–and doesn’t want to tell him her husband’s name, where they live, or anything that could help him actually find the missing man. Well, beggars can’t be choosers when the mail contains nothing but overdue bills.

Then Harry gets a call from his occasional ally Karrin Murphy, the head of the Special Investigations Unit of the Chicago Police Department–Special Investigations being what the police call anything they refuse to call magic. Someone has been ripping out people’s hearts and leaving behind some very messy corpses, and Harry is the chief suspect. Not to mention the doom hanging over his head, and the trigger-happy Warden Morgan watching his every move and hoping that he’ll step just the tiniest bit out of line.

Add in angry mobsters, vampires, and a new magical street drug that drives users insane, and you get a wizard who’s really about to earn his  fifty dollars an hour. Plus expenses.

************************************************************************************************************

I started this series because Jim Butcher was a guest at Ad Astra this year, and I wanted to attend before work got in the way (yes, I still have a backlog of reviews that dates back that far, but the list is slowly shrinking. I read faster than I write). I’ve read the first book in the series before, but it’s been some time and I’ve never read the rest of the series, so I decided to restart it from the beginning.

Harry Dresden is torn between his attempt at a self-image as a classic noir detective and as a powerful wizard, but unfortunately he can’t forget his reality of being broke and in trouble most of the time–he’s more magical working stiff than awe-inspiring all-powerful mage or hard-boiled tough-talking hard-living private dick. The answers to all of his problems don’t come easily enough to him for him to really fulfill the image he wishes he had. Though you do have to admire his ability to take a punch, considering how often it happens, and he doesn’t stop his investigation for anything or anyone, even when it would be in his own best interest to just walk away. Harry Dresden is in many ways the living embodiment of Murphy’s law–anything that possibly can go wrong for him will, and it only gets worse in the later books. He considers himself gallant and a bit of a throwback to chivalry, though he’s fairly good about acknowledging that Karrin Murphy could kick his ass and fire him as a police consultant.

I wouldn’t call this book brilliant, but it is solidly entertaining. Butcher has said in an interview that he wrote Storm Front in a writing class, and “I fought my writing teacher tooth and nail for the longest time, flatly rejecting a lot of very good advice she was giving me. When I finally got tired of arguing with her and decided to write a novel as if I was some kind of formulaic, genre writing drone, just to prove to her how awful it would be, I wrote the first book of the Dresden Files.” I certainly wouldn’t call Storm Front awful–I quite enjoyed it, and the others from the series that I’ve read so far. And considering it was Butcher’s first professional sale, and that so far he’s published 14 novels and a book of short stories based on Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, as well as one season of a television show, I guess a lot of people don’t think it’s awful.

Chicago makes an interesting scene–how would a modern wizard work in the real world? As Harry worries so often, he would have rent to pay. Other wizards work behind the scenes, instead of advertising in the Yellow Pages, and most people think that Harry is crazy or a con man, but there are enough people who believe or are at least curious enough that he can make a living. Then there are those who don’t care if he’s magical or crazy or a con or anything else so long as he gets results, and he can do that. Harry educates those who want to learn, without going into too much detail (which becomes a problem as the series goes on, when Murphy and others are put into danger through ignorance of how the magical world, the Nevernever, works), but he also doesn’t really feel the need to flaunt what he is in front of people who are not prepared to believe. As long as their cheques don’t bounce, he doesn’t care what people think of him (plus, if Warden Morgan catches him revealing too many secrets to outsiders, he might decide that that’s enough to cut Harry down to size–about a head shorter should do it).

This series should appeal to fans of modern fantasy and noir mystery who don’t take the conventions of the genres too seriously. Harry is a man who would like to fit into the formula a little more tightly than he does, but his life just keeps getting in the way. It’s entertaining to watch, but man am I ever glad I’m not Harry Dresden. I don’t think I could take getting beat up so often.

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I heard the mailman approach my office door, half an hour earlier than usual. He didn’t sound right. His footsteps fell more heavily, jauntily, and he whistled. A new guy. He whistled his way to my office door, then fell silent for a moment. Then he laughed.

Then he knocked.

I winced. My mail comes through the mail slot unless it’s registered. I get a really limited selection of registered mail, and it’s never good news. I got up out of my office chair and opened the door.

The new mailman, who looked like a basketball with arms and legs and a sunburned, balding head, was chuckling at the sign on the door glass. He glanced at me and hooked a thumb toward the sign. “You’re kidding, right?”

I read the sign (people change it occasionally), and shook my head. “No, I’m serious. Can I have my mail, please.”

“So, uh. Like parties, shows, stuff like that?” He looked past me, as though he expected to see a white tiger, or possibly some skimpily clad assistants prancing around my one-room office.

I sighed, not in the mood to get mocked again, and reached for the mail he held in his hand. “No, not like that. I don’t do parties.”

He held on to it, his head tilted curiously. “So what? Some kinda fortune-teller? Cards and crystal balls and things?”

“No,” I told him. “I’m not a psychic.” I tugged at the mail.

He held on to it. “What are you, then?”

“What’s the sign on the door say?”

“It says ‘Harry Dresden. Wizard.’ ”

“That’s me,” I confirmed.

“An actual wizard?” he asked, grinning, as though I should let him in on the joke. “Spells and potions? Demons and incantations? Subtle and quick to anger?”

“Not so subtle.” I jerked the mail out of his hand and looked pointedly at his clipboard. “Can I sign for my mail please.”

The new mailman’s grin vanished, replaced with a scowl. He passed over the clipboard to let me sign for the mail (another late notice from my landlord), and said, “You’re a nut. That’s what you are.” He took his clipboard back, and said, “You have a nice day, sir.”

I watched him go.

“Typical,” I muttered, and shut the door.

My name is Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden. Conjure by it at your own risk. I’m a wizard. I work out of an office in midtown Chicago. As far as I know, I’m the only openly practicing professional wizard in the country. You can find me in the yellow pages, under “Wizards.” Believe it or not, I’m the only one there. My ad looks like this:

HARRY DRESDEN-WIZARD

Lost Items Found. Paranormal Investigations.

Consulting. Advice. Reasonable Rates.

No Love Potions, Endless Purses, Parties, or Other Entertainment

You’d be surprised how many people call just to ask me if I’m serious. But then, if you’d seen the things I’d seen, if you knew half of what I knew, you’d wonder how anyone could not think I was serious.

**********************************************************************************************************

Blood smells a certain way, a kind of sticky, almost metallic odor, and the air was full of it when the elevator doors opened. My stomach quailed a little bit, but I swallowed manfully and followed Murphy out of the elevator and down the hall past a couple of uniform cops, who recognized me and waved me past without asking to see the little laminated card the city had given me. Granted, even in a big-city department like Chicago P.D., they didn’t exactly call in a horde of consultants (I went down in the paperwork as a psychic consultant, I think), but still. Unprofessional of the boys in blue.

Murphy preceded me into the room. The smell of blood grew thicker, but there wasn’t anything gruesome behind door number one. The outer room of the suite looked like some kind of a sitting room done in rich tones of red and gold, like a set from an old movie in the thirties-expensive-looking, but somehow faux, nonetheless. Dark, rich leather covered the chairs, and my feet sank into the thick, rust-colored shag of the carpet. The velvet velour curtains had been drawn, and though the lights were all on, the place still seemed a little too dark, a little too sensual in its textures and colors. It wasn’t the kind of room where you sit and read a book. Voices came from a doorway to my right.

“Wait here a minute,” Murphy told me. Then she went through the door to the right of the entryway and into what I supposed was the bedroom of the suite.

I wandered around the sitting room with my eyes mostly closed, noting things. Leather couch. Two leather chairs. Stereo and television in a black glossy entertainment center. Champagne bottle warming in a stand holding a brimming tub of what had been ice the night before, with two empty glasses set beside it. There was a red rose petal on the floor, clashing with the carpeting (but then, in that room, what didn’t?).

A bit to one side, under the skirt of one of the leather recliners, was a little piece of satiny cloth. I bent at the waist and lifted the skirt with one hand, careful not to touch anything. A pair of black-satin panties, a tiny triangle with lace coming off the points, lay there, one strap snapped as though the thong had simply been torn off. Kinky.

The stereo system was state of the art, though not an expensive brand. I took a pencil from my pocket and pushed the PLAY button with the eraser. Gentle, sensual music filled the room, a low bass, a driving drumbeat, wordless vocals, the heavy breathing of a woman as background.

The music continued for a few seconds more, and then it began to skip over a section about two seconds long, repeating it over and over again.

I grimaced. Like I said, I have this effect on machinery. It has something to do with being a wizard, with working with magical forces. The more delicate and modern the machine is, the more likely it is that something will go wrong if I get close enough to it. I can kill a copier at fifty paces.

“The love suite,” came a man’s voice, drawing the word love out into luuuuuuuv. “What do you think, Mister Man?”

“Hello, Detective Carmichael,” I said, without turning around. Carmichael’s rather light, nasal voice had a distinctive quality. He was Murphy’s partner and the resident skeptic, convinced that I was nothing more than a charlatan, scamming the city out of its hard-earned money. “Were you saving the panties to take home yourself, or did you just overlook them?” I turned and looked at him. He was short and overweight and balding, with beady, bloodshot eyes and a weak chin. His jacket was rumpled, and there were food stains on his tie, all of which served to conceal a razor intellect. He was a sharp cop, and absolutely ruthless at tracking down killers.

He walked over to the chair and looked down. “Not bad, Sherlock,” he said. “But that’s just foreplay. Wait’ll you see the main attraction. I’ll have a bucket waiting for you.” He turned and killed the malfunctioning CD player with a jab from the eraser end of his own pencil.

I widened my eyes at him, to let him know how terrified I was, then walked past him and into the bedroom. And regretted it. I looked, noted details mechanically, and quietly shut the door on the part of my head that had started screaming the second I entered the room.

They must have died sometime the night before, as rigor mortis had already set in. They were on the bed; she was astride him, body leaned back, back bowed like a dancer’s, the curves of her breasts making a lovely outline. He stretched beneath her, a lean and powerfully built man, arms reaching out and grasping at the satin sheets, gathering them in his fists. Had it been an erotic photograph, it would have made a striking tableau.

Except that the lovers’ rib cages on the upper left side of their torsos had expanded outward, through their skin, the ribs jabbing out like ragged, snapped knives. Arterial blood had sprayed out of their bodies, all the way to the mirror on the ceiling, along with pulped, gelatinous masses of flesh that had to be what remained of their hearts. Standing over them, I could see into the upper cavity of the bodies, I noted the now greyish lining around the motionless left lungs and the edges of the ribs, which apparently were forced outward and snapped by some force within.

It definitely cut down on the erotic potential.

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3 thoughts on “Today I Read…Storm Front

  1. Pingback: Today I Read…Fool Moon | wadingthroughbooks

  2. Pingback: Today I Read…Grave Peril | wadingthroughbooks

  3. Pingback: Today I Read…Summer Knight | wadingthroughbooks

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