I had been told for many years that I should read this book. My mother would wax poetical about how great the series is and how funny Harry Dresden is. Finally, I caved and started reading, with unfortunately high expectations. Many spoilers ahead.
Storm Front follows wizard Harry Dresden, a Holmes-like arcane consultant for the police, on a murder mystery set in a mystically-charged Chicago. Butcher’s strong points include a straightforward and well-constructed plot, good pacing, and decent point of view from Harry’s perspective.
This book left me with a lot of mixed feelings, however, that my opponents (namely my mom and Alex) constantly meet with the promise, “It gets better in the next book.” Since all I personally have to go on is this book, that’s all I’m able to critique.
For one, there’s Harry himself. I didn’t find him remotely likable. He came across as pompous and arrogant and navigates his investigation of the murder mystery with a string of bad decisions. I can guess that Butcher’s aim here was to create tension and dramatic irony, which he does successfully. But there’s a fine line between creating tension and alienating your reader by taking away their suspension of disbelief, as well as their belief in the protagonist. As Harry continued on this downward spiral, I no longer believed he could succeed, despite the fact that he constantly reminded the reader of what a powerful wizard he is.
This is the other thing that bothered me about Harry. He states multiple times throughout the book that he is a skilled and superior wizard with ample training and experience to solve a variety of problems. However, we’re never really told or shown what Harry is actually good at, and he never really uses his magic to solve any problems. Even in the final confrontation, he only uses simple spells for cursory tasks and not really to solve the main problem, but I’ll discuss that specific instance more later on.
Another key issue for me was Butcher’s world-building. Harry’s world is incredibly interesting, but after reading this book I don’t feel as though I understand it. This is, in part, due to the fact that Butcher set this book up as the first in a long series, and I understand that you can’t divulge all of your exposition in the first part. The main problem I found was that the incorporation of magic into the urban setting felt contradictory at times. It’s clear that magic exists, and at first it seems like people generally accept that it exists, but it’s treated with a lot of skepticism. Normal mortals are also unaware of the extent of the magical influence on the world. That all makes sense and comes across clearly. The part that really bothered me and threw my understanding of the world into question was during Monica’s story of her husband.
The police can’t help me, Mr. Dresden. Do you think they would believe me? They’d look at me like I was some kind of lunatic, if I went to them babbling about magic spells and rituals.
But by this point, we’ve already established that Murphy heads a department that specifically deals with this subject matter, and people are generally aware that magic is possible and present. Why would Monica assume that the police couldn’t help her? Her reasoning doesn’t make sense given the reader’s (or at least, my) current understanding of how the world works. Did I miss something?
The writing itself also gets in the way at times, getting redundant in places where it doesn’t need to be. Yes, Harry, we know you don’t have your staff or your blasting rod, and that none of your trinkets work right now. You don’t need to tell us again.
Now on the subject of the final confrontation, where the pacing takes an unfortunate nose-dive. Harry makes the decision to confront Victor on page 257, but doesn’t actually confront him until page 298. It felt like he wasted a lot of time getting to that point, especially with so much at stake. The confrontation at Harry’s apartment with the scorpion didn’t need to be there. It seemed as though Butcher was trying too hard to outdo himself in raising the stakes, when the story already had plenty of tension and was making its way to a natural confrontation and conclusion. By the time Harry actually got to Victor, I wanted Harry to lose. Butcher took away all of Harry’s power that the reader could readily identify, leaving him with only his implied “skill, experience, and wit” that we had no evidence of. And then there’s Victor, himself, whose motives made very little sense and seemed to contradict what Monica previously told us about him. And Monica’s word was nearly all we knew about him, making him a less-than-compelling antagonist facing off against Harry, the less-than-compelling protagonist. Not exactly the exciting conflict I was hoping for.
One thing I will give this confrontation is that it contains the best part of the story, by far. Victor tries to summon a demon by calling its name three times, and Harry severs Victor’s connection to the demon by calling its name. This was a truly clutch move on the part of both Harry and Butcher, as it called back to previous scenes and gave evidence of Harry’s magical training and superior knowledge, thus keeping neatly in line with his character. It was the perfect moment that I was hoping for, and while it didn’t make up for everything I felt was missing, it certainly put a smile on my face and made me believe in Harry Dresden for a moment.
As of now, I’m not sure if the promise of better writing and story alone is enough to make me continue reading the series. Maybe I’d enjoy it more if James Marsters read it to me…