Yesterday, I finished reading Dead Beat, the seventh book in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files.
In case you’re not familiar, Dresden Files is probably the most well-known urban fantasy series in the world. The books follow the life of wizard/private detective Harry Dresden as he travels across Chicago investigating paranormal events ranging from necromancers and werewolves to fairies and the evil eye.
On the surface, the stories are pretty formulaic mystery novels. You’ve got an edgy, brooding protagonist thrust into the investigatory A plot–typically a grisly murder–while encountering a separate B plot, which often appears in the form of a case being worked on by Karrin Murphy, Dresden’s liaison at Chicago PD. There’s some fighting, one or more femme fatales, and somewhere along the way, the A and B plots merge together as Dresden solves the cases, wrapping up the story in a nice neat bowtie.
The formulaic plots, mixed with Dresden’s excessive sexualizing of the female characters, can make the novels easy to dismiss. However, the longer I read the series, the more I clearly see how a number of redeeming factors make Dresden Files stand out among the drek of paranormal thrillers.
What impresses me most about the series is the scope of Butcher’s world. In the first book, the elements are basic: you have Dresden the protagonist, Susan his love interest, Murphy his police contact, and a few other stock gangsters and a vampire brothel madam. In book two, we’re introduced to a pack of college-kid werewolves. And in book 3, there’s Michael Carpenter, a devoutly religious Knight of the Cross who carries a big holy sword. At this point, you’re probably checking off all the fantasy tropes: vampires, werewolves, paladins. Cool, so this is basically going to be monster-of-the-week type of story, right? Each novel will feature a different brand of villain, but the main characters we know and love stay pretty static, and everything resets before the ending.
That’s where you would be wrong.
The great thing about Dresden Files is that there are stakes. Not just wooden stakes for killing vampires. But plot stakes change the character and the world in an irrevocable way at the end of each story. Remember the werewolves and paladins I mentioned from books 2 and 3? Well, they come back throughout the series and have their own complicated relationship with Dresden. Other new characters that get introduced later also continue returning (unless they get killed off) and each of them becomes a fixture in the world Butcher builds. I haven’t even mentioned the big interspecies war that Dresden accidentally sets off several books in, and which continues to rumble in the background, occasionally interposing itself onto Dresden’s own investigations.
This is what I love most about the series. A story that at face value seems like a formulaic paranormal mystery series with tropey static characters gradually reveals itself to be constantly in flux, a story where stakes and consequences carry over from previous issues, and where the world and characters are always growing, changing, regressing. That’s the underrated brilliance of Dresden Files.