At every magazine retailer - especially in airports – you’ll find that one stand. You know what I’m talking about. Between the potboiler poor man’s Dan Brown mysteries and the Harlequin romance novels, there’s that funny little niche I’m not even sure has an official name, but it exists.
Arguably, it started with Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake schlock, then it was popularized by Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Getting the picture? I’m talking about a strange little niche of genre novels that try to appeal to a cross demographic by combining the goth romance sensibilities of an Anne Rice with action. With martial arts, gunfights, explosions, the works.
Alternatively, it’s a niche still aping the schtick that got Joss Whedon famous in the 90’s.
Kim Harrison has made a living off this niche, and I’ve lost track of how many “supernatural action-romance” series there are now on television.
Most of these barely rise above the writing level of a Harlequin romance. I’d even go so far as to say even the best come off as a bad episode of Buffy or even Angel. This being said, as you can glean from the title, there is one series that has made some distinction for itself in this niche genre.
Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to The Dresden Files, Jim Butcher’s baby.
The premise? Think Angel, but replace “vampire” with “wizard,” and then feed it a healthy daily diet of crack and Red Bull. More specifically, it follows the cases of “professional wizard” and private investigator Harry Dresden, who has been described as “John Constantine if written by Joss Whedon.” Which is to say, the guy makes constant glib, smartass snark while constantly reference pop culture and genre clichés.
In fact, one might argue that The Dresden Files is a little too derivative of Whedon, especially in regards to dialogue. A main cast of glib, self-aware smartasses? Check. Pop culture references? Check. Dark, brooding anti-hero struggling with literal inner demons? Check.
One could be forgiven for thinking The Dresden Files rips off Whedon’s material with the same liberties Jason Voorhees usually takes with limbs.
Even the cosmology feels like it was derived from a few abandoned scripts of Buffy or Angel. Harry is implied to be some Chosen One, vampires are heavily featured, Lovecraft inspired monsters are abound and waiting to overtake the Earth…
Overall, the mythology is distinctly Western, complete with capital G God and Satan himself as the dominant powers atop the supernatural food chain.
… Yeah, the mythology isn’t the most original in urban fantasy, I grant you that. It’s no Persona 4. Even Hellblazer had a little more “oomph” (and some satirical bite, to boot).
Many of the books follow a rigid formula. There’s a prologue that sets the plot in motion and inevitably sets Harry off on a case; there’s twists, turns, betrayals; a few boss battles here and there; a confrontation with the book’s Final Boss; finally, it ends with Harry scoring a bittersweet victory (and a trip to the hospital).
… It should also be mentioned this series has earned the ire of a good many online feminist critics, who’ve derided the books as typical white nerd power fantasy.
Not helping Butcher’s case is his tendency to devote - oh, on average - five paragraphs to any new woman who’s stepped into the story; going over her beauty; what she’s wearing; all to fetishistic detail.
“But, surely, that’s just the main character doing that, right?”
Years ago, I might have bought that argument, but the Male Gaze permeates the entire series. Even when Butcher wrote a short story told from the point of view of one of the female leads, he still dips into the Male Gaze.
At this juncture, I don’t care if it’s a character trait of Dresden’s that he’s easily distracted by any piece of T & A, with this trend repeated so many times – over the course of a dozen books – it’s gotten a little irritating. It halts the story just so Butcher can have Dresden mentally masturbate over the beauty of a woman… in a world where, evidently, there are no ugly female characters under the age of 45.
You might be thinking, “Is this a negative review? Hold on, I thought you once said you liked the series at some point, or did I just imagine it?”
Don’t worry; you’re not going crazy. You didn’t imagine it. I did in fact say I liked the series, but I always stress it’s important to recognize that there are flaws. Keeping these things in mind can prevent you from turning into, say, the kind of fanboy who overreacts defensively when a critic criticizes the work you love.
It’s about keeping a calm, stable, rational perspective.
So, what is good about the series?
Well, for starters, it’s a fun as hell action series. This is a man who knows how to write action scenes. Hell, the series is famous for one scene where Dresden reanimates the skeleton of a tyrannosaurus rex… and rides it into battle against necromancers and their army of the walking dead.
Yes. It’s as every bit awesome as that sounds.
Oh, and did I mention the zombie dinosaur is powered by polka? No, really.
Which is another that keeps me coming back to this series: Jim Butcher’s sense of humour. He knows how to write comedy. There are some moments where it’s easy to forget this is ostensibly supposed to be a horror action series, instead of a horror comedy in the vein of Evil Dead.
But, really, the most important thing here… is that Butcher can write character.
Once you get past the Whedon-inspired glib, the strength of The Dresden Files comes from Harry’s relationship with his friends, loved ones and enemies. In particular, I’m fond of the relationship Harry shares with his half-brother. It’s provided some of the more heartwarming scenes of the books, such as when they simply hang out or try to help one another overcome their issues.
Every character gets a chance to shine and be rounded, no one feels wasted. For all of Harry’s Male Gaze, even the womanfolk prove themselves beyond merely being considered conventionally attractive. In fact, it’s almost impossible to pinpoint a single woman in The Dresden Files who fits the bill of an incapable damsel in distress.
Is it the best written series ever? Hell no. But is it fun? Does it manage to stand outside Whedon’s shadow? Can one get past the Male Gaze or how shocking, ahem, "similar" it is to Joss Whedon's stuff? Does it have any semblance of decent writing and imagination?
In short: Yes, yes, depends on you personally, and yes.
... Although, that being said, I have to admit even I'm getting wee tired of how repetitive and overly reliant on its formula it can be...