Review: Storm Front

Storm Front (The Dresden Files, #1)Storm Front
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.
"The lake?"
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

View all my reviews


Ana Mardoll said...

Hello, Heather, and welcome! It's good to have you here. :D

I've often thought about delving into another of Butcher's books - he's certainly quite famous and all those people buying his series can't be wrong, right? ;) You're very correct that authors definitely grow and evolve over a series, and I'm willing to believe that he's gotten stronger and perhaps a bit better with characterization.

I suspect the Dresden series, at least, isn't for me because I dislike the concept of "I'll tell you later". I don't like having to wait 3 books to find out why Murphy is so unacceptably violent, or 5 books to find out where Harry got his training, or 7 books to find out why the people in Chicago are so blase about all this obvious magic in their midst. (I disagree that most people would rationalize it away, and pretty much figure that everyone would welcome it as proof that Buffy the Vampire Slayer was right all along.)

I realize that "I'll tell you later" is a valid way to write a series and that a lot of readers truly like discovering new things about the characters as they go along, but it doesn't work well with my own reading tastes. I would contrast it with my favorite paranormal series - "Sisters of the Moon" - the sisters grow and change and evolve quite a bit over the series, but you pretty much know everything you need to know about their backstory and characterization from the first book. This doesn't mean there aren't later revelations about unknown-to-the-reader past events, but it's always in a "oh, that's an interesting thing I didn't know", not a "oh, that explains their behavior for the last 3 books, I was wondering about that".

It's my understanding that even in his more recent books, there's still a lot of that "hold on and see" among the fans, and while I think that's a valid writing choice, it's not one I find joy in myself. So, I rather doubt I'd like his later works, but I do think there's nothing *wrong* with liking any of his books at all - I think it's great that he's made so many people so happy. :D

Patrick Pricken said...

Thank you! I have read the first two or three of these books (maybe four? Who knows) because they are held in such high regard. But the plots honestly run together - quite possible I have read six or seven of them even. It's always the fricking same, and in the end Harry Dresden will exhaust himself more than in the previous book and make all bad guys go away.

These books don't get better. They're more or less carbon copies. As Twilight shows, many people can be wrong. Or at least have very different tastes.

Rjmhhk said...

While your review is well written I don't fully agree with it.

1.) While his backstory is developed largely over the course of the series some elements are laid out fairly early (the fact that he's in the doghouse due to killing his mentor, the fact that said mentor was an asshole).

2.) Harry does display quite a few flaws even in book one (his attutiude gets him in a lot of trouble, he's wrong many times, and he succees by the skin of his teeth.)

3.) That's largely because harry has a libido problem. In the future books hte desciptions become more nuanced (due to him overcoming said issues). Also, the women characters do evolve and grow and murphy's main motivation for her behavior is actually hinted at earlly on. Essentially, she's in the department that the CPD sends the guys they want to dump but don't yet have an excuse for. Harry's expertise is the one reason murphy hasn't been drummed out yet, so his secrative nature could very well cost her the job she cares for and deny her the chance to regaom her old

4.) While people can be credulous of things, they can also be extremely stubborn when it comes to holding on to their own viewpoints. Just look at any debat of the Israeli palestinian conflict (even if one side can show that Israel does horrible things as often as the palestinians do, there are those who will still try to downplay said actions). Never underestimate human stubborness/stupidity. It's also revealed that the various magical groups do a lot of damage control later on (one of harry's enemies in book 5 uses his position as a university teacher to "debunk" magical phenomenan). Same reason why the cops missed the film (police can make mistakes at times, such as the fact that they failed to realize that one of sam sheppard's employees was a convicted felon guilty of multiple violent crimes who stole jewelry from the house in question, and mathched the description shepppard gave of his attacker.)

5.) Cooincidences can happen in real life all the time (I once bumped into a friend from grade school on a random trip in washington dc for instance). What's more, Butcher was only starting out at this point; in the later books he is able to avoid doing this as much.

While the "wait and see" development may not be your cup of tea, it is used by many good writers (JK rowling uses it in harry potter).

DarthYan said...

off the top of my head there are only about four times where butcher adopts the "wait and see" attitude.

1.) The past of Harry's mother; first introduced in book 2, someewhat built on in book 5, and given a large explanation in book 6

2.) Why the hell a white vampire (from a group of guys who are usually selfish bastards) goes out of his way to help harry. It turns out in book 6 that he's harry's half brother and that he does care about his family.

The other one is the implications that a shadowy organization called "the circle" has been manipulating the events of the series (at one point when harry soulgazes one of the villains he sees the guy recieving his artifact of doom from an unknown benefactor, in book 12 the bad guys try a larger scale version of victor sell's curse, in book 9 a traitor is revealed and he's working with a powerful demon called a naagloshi) and are the eventual big bads of the series as a whole. sort of like how in the starcraft series we knew that there was a "higher power" out there waiting to strike even thoiugh he doens't show up until the third game.

Also the latest book does play with the idea of how the hell people don't notice. To make a long story short Chichen Itza is levelled after an intense battle. and a large amount of mutated corpses show up in the aftermath. harry makes a comment about how there were so many conspiracy theories about what went down that he would have been unnoticed if he told the truth about what happened.

Rjmhhk said...

he wrote a second series, Codex Alera that's like 6 books long. It sort of has a wait and see attitude but it also avoids it as well (more showing that characters have hidden depths). 

Rjmhhk said...

the prime example is the fact that in book 2 he sees the big bad's flashback of him kneeling and recieving his artifact of doom and wonders how the guy could have gained as much knowledge as he did in under a month (foreshadowing the involvement of a secret organization that makes an appearance in book 9), and in book 3 the future big bad of book 7 makes a cameo at a villain's party. 

Will Wildman said...

This is very helpful; Ana.  I've heard so much praise heaped on Dresden, and some criticisms, but this gives it a lot more context.  (If anything, it may increase my chances of actually getting around to reading parts of the series; otherwise I would have started with the first book and given up before the second.)

I'm not sure about the whole 'I'll tell you later' thing; I certainly think it can be used to effect, but it does need to be justified.  If we're not going to get backstory on a character until after X event, but it could improve the story to have it earlier, then there should be reasons (both in and out of universe) that X event is being put off for now.  Otherwise it just feels like a weird narrative keepaway (the fine line of which Harry Potter tried, with varying success, to walk - the last revelations from Snape, for example, seemed perfectly timed, but I see no reason why the Horcruxes were treated with such mystery until the latter half of book 6).

5.) Cooincidences can happen in real life all the time

I've heard this described as "why an author's job is harder than God's": when things happen in real life, there's no rule that they have to be plausible.

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