Welcome to my first “Baseline” review. Why baseline? Well, in any scientific experiment you need to have a Control, ie. a Baseline. Something that is a given quantity that you can compare all other against. For us Storm Front is that baseline. This is it, the series that started it all. The very first Urban Fantasy novel.
Also, you will find if you read my stuff long enough that I love, L – O – V – E, kicking hornets nests. Next I’ll be comparing PC to Mac and Ford to Chevy. Ok, ok, ok, simmer down now. No, TDF (The Dresden Files), as this series is referred to, was not the first UF novel. It’s not the best, it’s not the most popular. Honestly it’s not even that creative. Seriously, the first book in the series, SF, is a tired cliched, paint by numbers, “It was a dark and stormy night”, noir, PI novel except the PI is WI-zard and no, he’s note joking about it. It says it right there in his yellow pages add. For those of you young enough to not know what the Yellow Pages were, just imagine the Craig’s List services section as a giant yellow book.
But here is what Harry Dresden, Chicago’s only professional wizard, does bring to the table that all other before him could not. Everyone. Yep and by everyone, I mean like real people. As in people who have day jobs, and dates and go to yoga class or even play football. Yes American football. Harry Dresden was the first, BREAKOUT, UR series to try and take us mainstream. Hell they even had a TV series. Yes it only lasted one season but it was on season longer than any other novel like this had managed. And to be honest, I didn’t think it was half bad. Ok, so it was barely better than half good but still. I’ll have to do a review on the TV show later. But the point being, for many who would not normally have ended up down this long and dark alley, Harry Dresden popped their UR cherry. In fact I personally know several people who I turned onto the TDF that enjoyed it so much that it actually got them BACK into reading. And I think we can all agree that is a good thing.
But now for the not so good and by that I mean Storm Front. Believe it or not, SF is actually only a rather ok novel. It does come across as being written by someone using a Lowes DIY Home Novel Builder kit. And it seems that there is a good reason why, because it was. OK, he might have been using the Ikea version but you get the picture. “Put plot point A into story arc B”
I only recently found out the story behind the creation of this novel. Seems that Jim Butcher, the man behind the mage, was taking a writing class, trying to get better so he could get one of his epic fantasy novels published. The instructor for the class kept pushing him to try writing a novel along the vein of the Anita Blake series (Look, prior UR novel!). But Butcher didn’t want to do it and was convinced that it was a stupid idea and a waste of time. Eventually though his instructor broke him down and he finally agreed to give it a try. Ok, so try is a stretch. It was less of a “try” and more of a “I’m going to go through the paces just to shut you up once and for all after you see how badly this all turns out”. It was so bad in fact that it got picked up by a publisher.
Butcher admitted, years later, that he wrote the novel using a static, formula driven method. Hence, dark stormy night, noir, detective novel. SF is not a masterpiece, but it is a seminal piece in that it is the book that started the Dresden Files and the DF is the series that got UF out of the closet and on the dance floor.
In the end you need to read this book for these reasons. First, it’s just fun to read. For all the cliches there is plenty of witty and even often laugh out loud dialog. Secondly it sets the bar for what lies ahead. After reading this you will quickly see that for as Trope loving as Dresden may be, he actually becomes the font for his own tropes that other soon can’t help but adopt. Try finding an urban mage who doesn’t have some sort of magical sidekick. Who doesn’t have issues with technology. Who doesn’t have a close if sometimes strained relationship with a local PD detective who was assigned to a career dead end position in the Department of Cases that No One Really Wants Solved. Yep, you’ll be hard pressed to find a city practitioner who trip up on Dresden’s tropes.