This week on Nicking from Novels, my first encounter with Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files.
The Overview: Contemporary supernatural with the whole standard slate: vampires, fae, werewolves and wizards (among others). First person narrative with an extensive supporting cast (more on that below). This volume is far enough into the series that protagonist Harry Dresden has accumulated a bunch of miscellaneous powers in addition to his raw wizardry. Nothing particularly fancy or clever going on with the language. Protagonist succeeds through raw talent and stubbornness. And consistent outside intervention.
The Plot: An old enemy (a vampire) blackmails the protagonist into going after a macguffin. He finds out what it is, finds out there are Bad Guys who also want it. There are some fights. Then there are some more fights. Between, there is investigating. The finale takes place on a literal dark and stormy night. Background events combine with main story events to suggest plot points in later volumes of the series.
The Cool Thing to Consider
In a moment, I’m going to discuss the use of supporting cast, particularly in series. I want to clarify a few things before I get into that, though. The Dresden Files books have been recommended to me by several people whose opinions I respect. I went in hoping for a good read, and instead found what is, at best, a “good enough for an airplane” book. I’m willing to give Mr. Butcher the benefit of the doubt, though. I jumped into the middle of the series, and every author has bad books. (They’re sometimes harder to avoid when you’re an NYT bestselling author with publishing contracts.) Not especially liking the book kept me from getting sucked into the story until the very end—this also meant that I picked it apart more than I generally do. What follows is going to skew academic, because that’s the part of my training that the reading activated.
When I was halfway through Dead Beat, I was mentally sketching a Nicking from Novels about quality supporting cast. Harry Dresden has plenty of friends. A few of them drive the plot here. (More of them show up in passing.) Butcher fleshes out his secondary characters well, combining Harry’s perspective with enough direct experience of the characters’ actions to give a sense of both personality and ability. I liked that.
What became harder to deal with as I continued into the latter half of the novel was the sheer volume of supporting players. Dresden has a laundry list of supernatural friends, foes, and frenemies. Butcher gives many (too many) of them face time here. They become distractions for several reasons.
First, Harry’s reliance on allies makes him less convincing as a protagonist. Butcher shows off Harry’s power plenty, but Harry is constantly bailed out by buddies…and nearly as often by enemies who are inexplicably more concerned with having their own vengeance than with Dresden getting what’s coming to him. By the end of the novel, I was never wondering “how will Harry get out of this situation?” I was wondering “who will come out of the woodwork to save him?” That’s not a good place for an author to leave his or her protagonist.
I think I understand what Butcher was aiming for. Harry Dresden occupies a world full of powerful nasties. Super necromancers. Wizards who can hold off armies of demons with a single spell. Fae nobles who can shred reality. Demons who hide in coins. Ninja ghouls. (Yes. Ninja ghouls. And the ninja ghoul is just a flunky.) Dresden is a bundle of power and, more importantly, the potential for even more power. The bad guys and the grey area guys all want a piece of that, but Dresden isn’t quite tough enough to play in those big leagues yet. Therefore, he needs help. Rather than making the antagonists seem especially big, though, the constant saved-by-a-friend makes Dresden shrink.
Second—and trickier—this is a book well into an ongoing series. Recurring characters are going to recur. I kept comparing it to Brust’s Taltos books. What would I think of those if I jumped into the middle of the series? I mean, technically I did, but I chanced into reading the book that is, chronologically, the earliest. Brust has Vlad accumulate a variety of friends (and a smaller number of enemies). Sometimes the least of these make cameos that are only mildly necessary, or necessary only because of the narrow but extreme competence of the supporting character in question. None of those appearances ever felt quite so gratuitous as the ones in Dead Beat. There are just too many. Dresden needing help is fine. Dresden getting that help from sixteen different angles just dilutes the plot.
Third: because there are so many of them, we’re not invested in seeing the bad guys defeated. We know they are bad mostly because Butcher (via Dresden’s first person narration) tells us that they are bad. Yes, raising zombie armies is bad. Yes, attempting a superspell to siphon hundreds of spirits into your own personal godhood potion is bad. I just didn’t get any personal investment in seeing the villains defeated. We know they are bad and powerful right from the start. We learn nothing more about them. They take turns beating Dresden up until they eventually take turns getting defeated by him (and/or his allies).
I think that Butcher tried to convey some sense of the chaos of competing factions and just didn’t manage it. There’s never a sense that power balances are shifting, nor much sense that the stakes are rising. (The stakes become clearer over the course of the novel, but that’s not quite the same thing.) There’s little differentiation among the villains’ agendas. And the wicked vampire who kicks the plot into motion? She appears twice. Once at the beginning of the book and once at the end. She becomes an afterthought.
There is one place that the secondary characters effectively add to the story. Dresden has a problematic relationship with the Wardens (wizard cops), but he ends up having to call them in anyway. When they arrive, the tensions are sharp and the novel’s main plot snaps into focus as part of broader events. Why does it work? Because the characters take things personally. The antagonisms are emotional and mutual. The way the book is written, Dresden has much more personal stake in getting the best of the Wardens than he does in stopping the wicked necromancers. Those conversations were the ones that had me flipping pages and spurred me to the book’s finale.
Overall, the plethora of secondary characters might be well-realized, but their volume—as allies and antagonists alike—becomes a distraction. There is only room for so much supporting cast, especially in a first person narrative. (It’s one of the difficulties of the technique. The more you focus on secondary characters the more the protagonist recedes toward the background.) There’s a balance to be struck, and Butcher misses it in this book.
What We Nick from this Novel:
You have to choose between Batman and the Justice League.
If you’re going to write a story with a single badass protagonist, make sure he (or she) is at the center of the thing. If you’re going with an ensemble cast, go with an ensemble cast. You can’t have it both ways.
The problem with the Dresden Files is that gets better as the series proceeds. It isn’t a bad problem to have but it is somewhat off putting to those who listen to people rave about the books and then go and pick up the first one and find it distinctly underwhelming.