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REVIEW: Storm Front, by Jim Butcher

Rating: ***** (out of 5)
Capsule Summary: Modern-day wizard Harry Dresden, following in the traditions of hardboiled P.I.'s since at least the 1930s, gets drawn into a case involving sorcerous murder, monsters, the Mob, bad family relations, and his own difficulties with other magicians.

Detailed Review:
When my own "Digital Knight" came out, the Harry Dresden books were often mentioned as being "kinda like" DK; during my unsuccessful attempt to see if I could interest the SciFi channel in DK, it was mentioned that they were doing (or planning on doing) a Harry Dresden adaptation, so I should make sure I differentiate them. Finally, at Worldcon I met Jim and we exchanged books. I don't know if he's had time to try reading Digital Knight, but I have, at least, managed to find time to finish Storm Front.

It was well worth the wait.

I understand the initial "well, there's something similar" reaction, even though (as will be seen) there's actually very little similarity between Digital Knight and Harry Dresden. It is in some ways a matter of tone. Both have the narrative flavor of the wisecracking P.I., though Harry appears to draw more from Sam Spade and I took much of Jason's narrative from Archie Goodwin. But let's talk about Storm Front.

Harry Dresden is the only publicly-practicing wizard in Chicago. I'm not sure if there are others in the world or not; judging from internal evidence, maybe, but damn few, because there are... problems associated with that sort of thing. He is in many ways the classic down-on-his-luck PI with a Heart of Gold and more skill than his luck would indicate. In Harry's world, most people know that magic, monsters, etc., exist, but few encounter it directly and most avoid it. In a way, this is an inverse of the world seen in "Cast a Deadly Spell", where the main character is one of the few who DOESN'T use magic. Harry Dresden's world is very like ours, but not quite the same, a place where a city once disappeared for a couple of days and then came back.

We start out with Harry musing, as hardboiled detectives are wont to do, on the current low state of his life. And, as they always do, things start with a dame. A woman calls him -- a very nervous woman -- to hire him to find her husband. He convinces her to come to his office to discuss the matter.

As a world in which magic is known to exist, and with one practicing wizard in the city, it is inevitable that when really wierd cases show up, the cops turn to Harry. Something very wierd happens, and his friend on the force, Karrin Murphy, calls him in... of course shortly before this first potentially-get-me-paid appointment in weeks. But it's definitely something in Harry's area; some tremendously powerful wizard has found a very nasty way to kill people. Heading back from the crime scene, Harry is picked up by a limo with Chicago's Mafia boss, Johnny Marcone. Marcone's henchman was one of the victims, and Marcone wants to hire Harry... to NOT investigate.

This is just the beginning of a roller-coaster ride that in the next few days will bring Harry lots of lumps, many opportunities for wisecracking, and a hell of a lot of complications. We learn that Harry once killed another wizard through the use of magic, something forbidden by the laws of the "White Council", a group of wizards who apparently oversee the use of magic by humans, and that even though Harry did this in self defense there are those who are still convinced Harry is really a bad guy and should be executed (including a sort of enforcer agent from the Council, a sword-bearing "lawful Fanatic" paladin-type named Morgan). It's a hell of a book, filled with both the incongruously amusing (a font of sorcerous knowledge, a spirit bound into a glowing-eyed human skull, hundreds of years old... named "Bob") and the chillingly macabre (an encounter with alluring vampiress Bianca which reveals a great deal about what vampires are like in Dresden's world). Harry is clearly a highly talented professional with extremely rigid morals, a will of iron, and in need of a lot more friends than he has. The only thing that I really got concerned with is that Harry really needs to find a chance to get sleep that doesn't involve being knocked unconscious.

I'm not going to spoiler the rest of the book, as it's too good to spoil. Harry does manage to improve some parts of his life at the end, but I have a feeling that he's headed for equally hard times in other areas. I suppose Jim might allow him to slowly crawl up the ladder of life, but the theme of the hard-luck detective works so well that it'd be risky. I'll have to see. I'm certainly going to read the rest of this series!

But if Harry ever needs a friend, he could always hit Jason up for advice or a loan. We need more people like Harry in worlds like that.
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