by Jim Butcher
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
Storm Front / 0-451-45781-1
Fans of the cult classic "Mystery Science Theater 3000" know that some things are so bad that they're good...or at least good for a laugh. "Storm Front", the first book in the Dresden Files series, falls squarely in the laughably bad category, with emphasis on the 'bad'.
Harry Dresden is a practicing wizard in the Chicago area. He is, he assures us, the only openly practicing wizard in the whole country, so solitary and alone that they had to make a brand new category just for him in the phone book: he's the sole name under "Wizard", which I thought was incredibly accommodating of the Yellow Pages.
Harry doesn't really *do* wizardy things for hire like create love potions, tell the future, perform at bar mitzvahs, or summon demons for odd jobs around the house. He mostly advertises as a wizard-detective, and he consults with the police for his bread-and-butter. The police tend to need him on occasion, because even though nobody believes in magic (or do they?), it turns out that Chicago is chock full of vampires, werewolves, ghosts, demons, and rogue wizards, all hell-bent on being poor citizens. All of this is a decent setup for some good fantasy drama, if a bit cheesy, but no more so than the usual, fun-loving Buffy/Angel/Charmed cheese that we all know and love. And yet, almost immediately, problems set in.
1. Harry Dresden is a one-dimensional character. He's the best wizard around, because he is "trained" and "experienced", and those words are used to describe him at least once per chapter. Frustratingly, though, the reader isn't given any actual *details* about Harry's "training" or "experience" - you have to stick with the series to get that, apparently. This is frustrating because even a few paragraphs would have helped to establish the character, but outside of a single flashback near the end we don't get *any* real details on Harry's past or background.
2. Harry Dresden is a Mary Sue character. The reader is told regularly, that Harry Dresden is really tall, really strong, super awesome, and ruggedly rugged in his cowboy-esque duster. (Does anyone in Chicago look cool in a duster?) The women around him all want him, or at least want something *from* him. On the other hand, Men don't generally like Harry much because he's intimidating and super-awesome. But that's okay because Harry doesn't need men in his life, or indeed, anyone at all.
3. The women in this series are all (sexualized) stereotypes. I'm not sure that Dresden/Butcher has actually met a Real Life woman, based on the characters in this novel. Murphy is a Tough Cop who is mostly described as either "short", "tough", or "cute". She has a maternal-slash-abusive personality that makes her practically an anime Tsundere character, and she alternates between trusting Harry completely and cuffing him for murder at the drop of a hat. That's the kind of trusting cop-and-consultant relationship that you can take to the bank. Apparently she's an eventual love interest for Harry in the series, which feeds nicely into #2.
Moving on, we also get Susan the Journalist, who is inquisitive and sexy and not above sleeping with Harry for the latest "scoop" on that magic that nobody believes in. Possibly the most shocking thing here is that Butcher seems to think it is de rigeur for ambitious bottom-feeder journalists to seduce no-name police consultants for 'scoops' for their gossip rag. Whoever is getting sexed up for the recurring "Three Headed Alien Baby" headlines I see at the supermarket has got quite the scam going, I'd say.
Our third woman in this novel is Linda is a Prostitute, and *of course* she's an aggressively bi-sexual sex addict. Why else would anyone become a prostitute?
Finally, we have Monica the Client, who is described by Harry as slender, dumb, and... "a cheerleader". I've never thought of a grown woman as a high school cheerleader, but Harry doesn't balk at the comparison. Conversations with Monica go like this:
"Is there anyplace he might have gone that you can think of, offhand?"
She nodded. "The lake house. We have a house down by..." she waved her hand.
She beamed at me, and I reminded myself to be patient.
Haha! That's the kind of dialogue you get for your money when you buy "Storm Front".
4. Butcher cannot decide how much his background population believes in magic. After the introduction, where Butcher makes a big point that Harry is the only openly practicing wizard in the country and that no one takes him seriously and the majority of his office calls are cranks and people asking if he's "for real" (who trolls the phone book, honestly?), he has Monica the Client show up for help.
Monica - as well as EVERY OTHER PERSON IN THE BOOK - studiously avoids Harry's eyes because "everyone knows" that if you look directly into a wizard's eyes, he can see into your soul. Wha-huh? Talk about whiplash. We went, in ten short pages, from "no one on earth believes in magic or knows that wizards exist" to "everyone on earth knows you can't look a wizard in the eye". Which is it? When Harry later uses magic to completely decimate a local juke-joint (at a level that you'd think the FBI would take interest in), it seems pretty odd that all those frightened patrons go back to being non-believers later in the series.
5. Butcher relies too heavily on coincidences to propel the story. A huge part of being a good writer is figuring out how to plausibly make the story move forward. Implausible lurches in the story are jarring and take the reader out of the narrative. Harry the Detective finds clues by almost literally tripping over them. Here's an example: When walking around a lake house looking for a missing person, Harry finds a film capsule on the ground. Several chapters later, Harry staggers blind with guilt to the *closed* crime scene of a recent murder. After breaking into the crime scene (a senseless act which will surely damage his already rocky relationship with the police further), he flings himself on the floor of the dead woman's bedroom and sleep overtakes him. In the morning, he stretches his arms tiredly and his hands connect with...a film capsule under the bed! Ha-HA! (The cops who secured the scene failed to recover the film capsule because it was under the bed. Cops don't look under beds.) Literally less than a second later, a Suspicious Character breaks into the apartment, looking for...his film capsule!! What a coincidence!
An even more frustrating example of Bad Coincidence is that of the Love Potion Conceit. Butcher has decided that there needs to be a cool scene in the book where a woman accidentally takes a love potion at an inopportune time and hilarious hijincks ensue. In order for this to work, Dresden has to whip up a love potion to have lying around first, and Butcher simply isn't creative enough to come up with a good reason for Harry to do that. Harry can't make one to sell, because he doesn't do that. Harry can't make one to use for himself, because he doesn't do that either. So Butcher writes in a conceit so loopy that, well, follow me here: Harry can't put his potion recipes on a computer because computers break when wizards are around. So he uses a horny air spirit trapped in a skull to keep his recipes. Bob the Horny Air Spirit demands that Harry tear up his last $50 bill to make a love potion because Bob is horny and he wants to watch Harry get it on. So Harry is simply "forced" to make a love potion, while silently vowing not to use it, and ta-da!, there's the love potion for later misuse.
Literally an *entire chapter* is devoted to the creation of the love potion, and the whole set-up is so painfully obvious that it genuinely hurts to read it. The worse part is that Harry had a perfectly GOOD reason to make a love potion all along - he's decided that the murderer he is looking for *must* be a woman because only a woman could kill someone so viciously (see #3, re: issues with women), so he should be making a love potion on purpose to protect himself from this horrible murderess! There, a plausible reason in a mere sentence, and it would have been so much less of an obvious set-up to wacky hijincks. Only Butcher doesn't think of that because the murder isn't really a woman in the end, and he therefore forgets that Harry has already decided it must be so - he can't separate himself from his Mary Sue for even that long.
Which brings me to my summation: Butcher just plainly cannot write well. "Storm Front" lacks from basic editing and there's no excuse for it. Little things jar the reader - like the fact that Bucher chose to use the verb "snarl" more than fourteen times in the final chapter (it was so distracting, we started keeping count). Butcher is seized with a weird obsessive need to describe clothing and ambient background details during tense fights for no apparent reason. When Harry is at death's door because the wizard who is about to kill him just needs a moment more before he can utter the incantation to take Harry's life and Harry needs to burst in on him and interrupt the spell NOW.....Harry chooses instead to dig through nearby boxes to see what kinds of potions the Bad Guy has been making lately. The same stale descriptions and words are used, chapter after chapter, as the reader is beat about the head with "trained" Harry, "cute" Murphy, "breathy" Linda, and so forth.
In the end, we ended up reading "Storm Front" aloud purely to make fun of how bad it was, MST3K style. Even that lost its appeal over time, though, as we became frustrated at how bad this novel truly is. The climatic ending was so silly and cliched that my fiance actually left the room to go do laundry rather than listen to any more "snarls". I think with a good editor, "Storm Front" could have been quite solid, but I suppose we'll never know.
~ Ana Mardoll
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