Second update: Finally got around to looking at Butcher's website, and discovered his short story, Restoration of Faith. It's set before Storm Front,...moreSecond update: Finally got around to looking at Butcher's website, and discovered his short story, Restoration of Faith. It's set before Storm Front, when Dresden is still an apprentice to another private detective. He meets Murphy for the first time. That he names the wealthy folks the "Astors" reminded me that he used to do cheesy obvious stuff like that. He gets better further in the series.
Update, months later: I discovered that I liked the first book enough to read the second, and have since made it to the tenth in the series. I think Butcher's skill has increased steadily -- the stereotypes aren't quite as grating, and he has strayed far from the pure black-and-white depiction of good and evil. For example, his hero has cooperated with some nasties by this point, and has recognized that morality is complicated. His relationships are also showing more depth.
I'm not going to bump this book's rating up, since it does start the series off weakly, but I can recommend the series a bit better, especially for anyone wanting to see an author's craft slowly grow. We're still talking guilty-pleasure reading here, though.
Original review: This was the fantasy selection for the Goodreads SciFi and Fantasy Book Club for the month of September 2008. Visit this link to see all of the discussions, group member reviews, etc.
I struggled a bit over whether to give this two or three stars. (Or even whether to write a review, given there are apparently already 546.) Note: I've mentioned a few story elements whilst trying to avoid actual plot giveaways. But if you are sensitive to even a hint of what is to come, you might consider skipping this review.
I'm a sucker for an easy read in the wizardry-fantasy genre. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis got me started, Rowling was the obvious recent high point. So Butcher gets a shot at my affection just by association with an interesting crowd. I don't need big-ticket literature, actually — I'd be almost as happy without the whole epic thing. The ideal here would be Roger Zelazny's Amber series, but my conclusion is that's still asking too much.
World: a minor positive. Each author in fantasy or sci-fi gets to create the world they are speculating about. Butcher's world is very similar to Rowling's and many others in the sense that some of the folks you meet everyday might be magical beings. But it's a flexible play area, and he gets a few props for Dresden being "out", and for clever use of some magical-being archetypes. I especially thought Bob was clever, and Toots a bit less so; describing the 'unmasked' vampire was well done, and the "third eye" stuff was good.
Characters: a pretty significant negative. Everyone here is a stereotype. They might have variations on their personal theme, but nothing subtle or provocative or significantly clever. Yeah, black duster. Villains of pure evil, got it. Stupid and disposable henchmen, uh huh. Irascible cops, good but not very imaginative, right-o.
Dialog: minor positive. Butcher's got a handle on the witty sarcasm thing, although witty banter eludes him, since that requires sustained repartee, not just snarky one-liners. But the dialog does flow pretty well, and I suspect that is the foundation of a writer's skill.
Plot: another minor positive. Although his characters are pretty simplistic, he arranges them in a plot that was more complex than I'd expected. That separate plot arcs would overlap isn't unexpected, but he set it up nicely, for example.
This book is, what? eight years old? Some of the other reviews hint that the Dresden Files series doesn't get too much better (or worse), but some of the factors I've hit on above can improve as a writer's craft develops. So there's hope he can work his way up, even if not in this series.
So I guess I gave Butcher the extra star out of a sense of hopefulness. Critically, this kind of book isn't much of an investment for me: I can devour a 323-page pulp novel in one long evening, and I'm often casting about for light reading to aerate the denser fare.
So, if what you want is the equivalent of junk fast food at the freeway exit, this novel and the series will briefly satisfy you. (less)