Copyright 2012 by Paula S. Jordan
Stories from The Dresden Files
by Jim Butcher
ROC Books, 2010
There are eleven stories to review in this excellent anthology – all but three or so of the shorter Dresden pieces written to date – and there’s a good bit to say up front about the collection itself. So I’m going to take this in two parts; anthology comments and the first three stories now, and the rest next time. Unless it takes three parts. Butcher’s stories are that good.
As regular readers of the Dresden Files Series know, Jim Butcher lets some time elapse in Wizard-Detective Harry Dresden’s world between one novel and the next. Gives you the sense that Harry’s always out there somewhere, making his way in the really-mean streets of Butcher’s urban fantasy Chicago, and not bothering to tell you about it unless it’s something notable even for him. Something like a more-or-less friendly zombie T Rex running loose in the streets. And all that time, between the books, Harry is living a human life as well as a magical one. Maturing. Growing in magical knowledge, power and skill. Meeting adversity. Collecting scars.
With these stories Butcher gives you a few vivid glimpses into Harry’s life between the books. You get to see him grow.
The first story in the collection – and they are given in the order of the Dresden Files chronology – is a treasure for any reader who is also a writer: the first Dresden piece Butcher wrote and, in his words, “an anxious beginner’s first effort” at marketable fiction.
Restoration of Faith takes place some time before Storm Front, during Harry’s apprenticeship at detective Nicholas Christian’s agency, Ragged Angel Investigations. Nick (who also appears briefly in Ghost Story) specializes in finding lost children.
On this occasion the lost – actually runaway – child is Faith, the smart, feisty, ten-year-old daughter of rich but unloving parents. After hiring Nick’s services to find her, they decide they’d rather not be known as the parents of a runaway. So they report her to the police as a kidnap victim, giving Harry’s and Nick’s descriptions as the perpetrators.
Two things impressed me about this story: the remarkably detailed backstory that Butcher had developed at that early stage and the level of writing skill he’d achieved in “only the third or fourth” story he’d ever written. Granted, he wrote it as a class assignment at the University of Oklahoma’s Professional Writing program, so he was not untrained. Even so, his ease with the language and keen insight into his characters’ inner lives were surprisingly good for a student writer.
As to backstory, a great many of the props, behaviors, and characters of the Dresden Files are already in place. Harry has his black canvas duster and a prototype of his power ring. He has a workable tracking spell and other dependable magical skills, complete with evidences of the system’s drawbacks and limitations. His intelligence, courage, sense of humor, and soft, self-sacrificing heart are already recognizable as the Harry of the later books. He encounters a powerful and nasty inhuman opponent out of fairytale who has violated the Unseelie Accords, and defeats it with the help, at first meeting, of a short, blonde, female ‘uniform cop’ named Murphy.
I call that a satisfying beginning.
Vignette, a brief piece written for a sampler handout at a convention, takes place between Death Masks and Blood Rites. For its length, and its quick midnight creation just before deadline, it gives some good, amusing insights into Harry’s life at that point in his still-developing career: the kinds of every-day distractions that could interrupt his studies, his relationship with Bob the Skull, and his cluelessness about certain aspects of the mundane world.
Something Borrowed takes place between Dead Beat and Proven Guilty. It came about when Butcher was invited to write a piece for Pat Elrod’s anthology My Big Fat Supernatural Wedding. He took it as an opportunity to explore the changing lives of the Alphas, the pack of young werewolves who were, at that point in the series, completing their college years and embarking into adulthood.
It’s a werewolf story almost – but not completely – without fur, exploring the impacts of both the mundane and magical worlds on the human lives of Alphas leaders Billy and Georgia on their wedding day. It is not, however, without magical challenges. Those come in the form of a powerful Winter Sidhe bent on avenging the Alphas’ involvement in the battle of the fairies described in Summer Knight.
Butcher’s character skills make for especially good reading in several insightful scenes: Billy’s response when a hung-over, post-bachelor-party Harry, at his snarky best, confronts Georgia’s snooty stepmother; Harry’s slow realization that Billy is no longer a kid; the first encounter between Murphy and Bob the Skull; and the maturing team-of-two trust between Harry and Murphy.
All in all it is a well developed, satisfyingly suspenseful story of search and rescue, deadly magical tricks and traps, a foray into Chicago’s treacherous undertown complete with Harry’s special brand of pyrotechnics, and the multifaceted power of a kiss. A good read.
That’s it for now. See you next time for more of Harry’s Side Jobs.