A lot of people want me to read and comment on books that were written after 1980, so here’s a little something for that side of the internet. I get the feeling that they feel sorry for me for enjoying the older books I tend to rave about– and they imagine that if I’d just step outside of my comfort zone for just a second, I’d see that fantasy literature is getting better and better with each decade that passes. Well, that’s not how it works. There have been cultural shifts over the past century that are so radical, I’m afraid that anyone that even remotely attempts to keep up with the times is going to fail to satisfy me.
Jim Butcher is, as far as I can tell, one of those people, unfortunately. That’s not to say that he can’t write an entertaining page turner that’s loaded with action. The Dresden Files is phenomenally successful and he has done really well for himself putting out what a great many people want. I’m just not quite one of those people. Oh sure, there’s some solid entertainment value in this series, I won’t argue that. But the same stuff that bugs me in popular movies and television of the past decade or so is a fundamental part of the books’ premise.
The police liaison Murphy really gets on my nerves, for instance. She is always upset with Harry Dresden over something. He is fundamentally incapable of making her happy and Dresden is constantly beating himself up for his failure to do so. If Murphy was replaced with a male character, then everything would be more likely to be about solving problems, beating bad guys, and sorting out an effective working relationship. But Dresden and Murphy never get around to that until the plot points fall in place. Even worse, the happy ending status quo for these characters is Murphy complaining about what a numskull Harry Dresden is: “You’re such a pompous, arrogant, pretentious, chauvinistic, hopelessly old-fashioned, stupidly pig-headed….” You know, I really don’t like the way she treats him. It’s not cute. It’s grating.
Meanwhile, the default romantic scenario that a book inherits that’s published in the year 2000 is some variation on the hook-up culture. The execution of what’s here is not that bad compared to the gratuitous sex of, say, Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves or Sterling Lanier’s Heiro’s Journey. But Harry Dresden is really hung up on whether or not he’s going to score or not and whether or not the frequency with which he gets into a girl’s pants is sufficient for him to feel good about himself. I can sort of see it working for him to just cruelly take advantage of his conquests or else to be too preoccupied with his mission to pursue some kind of relationship thing. But his general confusion on this point never quite attains any cogency for me. No, not every adventurer will recapitulate Aragorn’s marriage to Arwen or even Sam’s settling down at Bag End with Rosie. But I kind of do expect more from this sort of thing than Susan showing Harry that sex is this huge wonderful contrast to “all the pain in the world” as sort of a prelude to the climatic fight scene. (It’s cute I guess and maybe even a nice gesture… but there’s something about this that simply doesn’t correspond to reality. Sorry.)
But Harry Dresden really is a championship level nice guy. It’s funny, but the way he brandishes his pentacle themed Holy Symbol is really like a classical D&D cleric serving a generic Lawful Good deity. He very nearly quotes Robert E. Lee when he says in book one that “there is no truer gauge of a man’s character than the way he employs his strength, his power.” It is kind of amusing to see this sort of character take off after all the attempts during the New Wave era to overthrow traditional notions of heroism. At the same time, I never get the piercing sense of moral clarity from Harry Dresden that I do from, say, Gandalf. I mean I’m glad that the guy wants to do the right thing. But he seems to think more in terms of merely minimizing supernatural casualties rather than actual right and wrong.
There is some good magic in the series, though. The potions that get brewed up are always entertaining. The scorpion talisman from book one was a top notch magical artifact and I thought Jim Butcher’s handling of demon summoning was pretty fun. His preoccupation with true names and the way he portrays supernatural creatures not having souls is delightfully old school. And I quite enjoyed the mashing together of more approaches to werewolves than I ever thought were possible in this second book of the series. But the Strong Female Character™ of Murphy combined with the handling of the romantic elements get in the way of me enjoying the series as much as I could. If that sort of thing doesn’t phase you, hey… more power to you. I just like the old stuff better.
And for those that want an example from the classics of what I think is far superior to this, I’d point you to A. Merritt’s Dwellers in the Mirage. What we lose with the Murphy character here is the endearing warmth and camaraderie that’s possible with a solid, old type “best buddy” archetype. What we lose with the tacky hook up style relationship is the “evil” version of the protagonist that is able to seduce a femme fatale and double cross her even as she works out a double cross of her own. And finally, with the actual love interest sequence framing the main action, you get to see not just a girl that’s worthy of the hero but also a hero that is worthy of a girl like that. For too long, there have been hardly any protagonists that even deserve that kind of happy ending. The inability of most people to even imagine that sort of thing anymore is actually pretty unfortunate.