Grave Peril

Reviewed: February 14, 2007
By: Jim Butcher
Publisher: Roc
378 pages, $10.99

From paperback original mystery/fantasy series to brand new television series in just seven years, Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden novels have moved very quickly into the the big time.

I was primed to try this series by Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, which held my interest for the first six books but eventually got to be too much about sex and not enough about mystery and character development to keep me reading.

It had started out well, with a Sue Grafton type private eye who operated in an alternate reality where magic worked and vampires were granted citizenship. I didn’t mind giving the concept another try somewhere else, in this case an alternate world Chicago which reminded me a little bit of Kelly Armstong’s fantasy novels about witches and werewolves.

Oddly, my first take on Harry Dresden was that he was a lot like Howard Engel’s non-magical private eye Benny Cooperman, a slightly down at the heels wizard with a number of eccentricities and a low opinion of his own worth.

Storm Front (2000) introduced the character and some of his supporting cast: Bob, the ghost in a skull who is his mystical data base and helper; Murphy, the Chicago cop who gets the weird cases; Susan, the tabloid reporter who likes to write them up; Michael, the Knight of the Lord who acts as Harry’s conscience and backup muscle.

Despite the seriousness of the problem in the book, it was a little bit slapstick, what with Harry’s propensity for fouling up any technology newer than about 1945. Things just don’t want to work properly around him; if you’re with him take the stairs not the elevator. Forget about computers.

I thought it might wear thin quickly. Butcher apparently thought so too, and cranked up the tension in Fool Moon (2001), the second novel which, of course, had something to do with werewolves. Some parts of the formula were the same. Once Harry takes on a case he doesn’t get much rest until it’s over, and he gets chewed up pretty badly along the way. In that sense, his adventures are a lot like Anita Blake’s, but Harry is much more coy about his intimate relationships than Anita has come to be.

Grave Peril (also 2001) revisits an earlier villain, and has to do with ghosts and vampires. In addition, we pick up some Dresden backstory and learn a bit more of why he is under perpetual supervision by the White Council of Wizards. We learn a lot more about Michael, as well as Susan and Connie Murphy.

Michael and Harry are called to a hospital to deal with a ghost that is apparently trying to capture babies for itself. In this reality ghosts are not spirits of actual people, but rather memories of the spirits of the departed. This one seems to be unusually powerful, and Harry discovers that it, as well as some people in the material world, are being tortured to madness by some unknown force. The barriers between our world and the Nevernever (which contains all the mystical dimensions) have thinned, and some nasty stuff is getting through.

Harry has to undertake a number of dangerous journeys into that realm, where he is in peril from his fairy godmother (really) who wants to possess his spirit and keep him there. He also has to face down a horde of vampires in order to rescue the young woman who first got him involved in this case, as well as his friends and Thomas, a vampire who turns out to be on the side of the good guys.

It’s all very fast paced and action packed, and just the sort of thing to take your mind of the fact that you’re trapped in bed with the flu, which I have been this week.

As for The Dresden Files, the television show, it’s not bad. They’ve given Bob a spirit body so that Harry doesn’t have to have long conversations with a skull, and they’ve provided him with an ancient jeep instead of the VW Bug that is featured in the books, but the casting is pretty good and they have a lot of material to work with.

Butcher has produced nine books in this series since 2000 and all the ones I mentioned here are currently on sale.