Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

A Few Comments on Dresden Files Book 2: Fool Moon

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.

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22 responses to “A Few Comments on Dresden Files Book 2: Fool Moon

  1. jlv61560 November 9, 2015 at 5:23 am

    You are SO going to get raked over the coals for this…. ;-)

    • jeffro November 9, 2015 at 6:57 am

      I’ve been saying this for a while. The replacement of the “Best Buddy” and the “Space Princess” archetypes with the Strong Female Character is the dominant style of our times. It undercuts both a sense of camaraderie and romance at the same time. It is inferior to the wildly successful adventure model that was the norm during Edgar Rice Burroughs and Leigh Brackett’s tenures.

      • jlv61560 November 9, 2015 at 1:29 pm

        I agree — but you’ll still get raked over the coals for it. Isn’t Butcher supposed to be the greatest thing since canned beer? (Frankly, I haven’t read him — most of the “moderns” leave me cold, and there’s still so much greatness from before that I have yet to read. Life’s too short to waste any of it.)

      • Cirsova November 9, 2015 at 2:49 pm

        Y’know, I was just thinking yesterday when a friend finally forced me to watch the new Star Wars trailer, “Aww, man, they’re try to make that lady the new Luke and black Storm Trooper is gonna be her Bojangles.” Even the part of me that wants to watch a movie about black storm trooper-guy just can’t get excited about this.

  2. MishaBurnett November 9, 2015 at 7:35 am

    In my opinion the series does get better, a lot better, and I think that Book Three: Grave Peril is where Butcher starts to hit his stride. The next one introduces a strong supporting character who begins the transformation of Dresden from Lone Wolf Hero to Quirky Leader Of A Rag-Tag Band Of Misfits–a role he’s much more suited for.

    The series started with an oddball idea–combine a film noir hero with urban fantasy–and I think that it took Butcher a while to move past parody of both the Chandler tropes and the Tolkien tropes and develop his own world and his own voice.

    Just my opinion.

    • jeffro November 9, 2015 at 8:07 am

      I have four more Dresden books in the to-read pile, so we’ll see about that.

      Of course, the first books was intentionally a joke– an outrageous parody of “the sort of book that would actually sell”. And of course… it did. (!!)

      • BobtheCertifiedIdiot November 9, 2015 at 11:11 am

        Jim was in college at the University of Oklahoma. (Boo. Hiss. Racist. Go Longhorns! :) ) He got into a creative writing class with a Journalism professor who had sold a lot of novels. I want to say thirty or forty. No L’Amour or Asimov, but respectable.

        At the time Jim was very artsocrat, and resisted the advice she had to offer. So he finally decided to go along with it, and prove her wrong.

        He misunderstands her directions, and outlines Dresden as a twenty something series of books. Along the way he proves her right.

        This leads to a bit I wanted to talk about when Morgan? was doing Dresden on Castalia House, but didn’t. I have some pressing RL business, but I should get back to this soon.

  3. BobtheCertifiedIdiot November 9, 2015 at 12:42 pm

    So Jim had a long plan for the exciting stresses of Harry’s life. A plan that was only partly the product of his mentor’s process improvement teachings. (Jim set himself a very ambitious project scope that would require a very aggressive pace of learning from him.)

    Hammett’s Continental Op stories start with him in his thirties or forties, after having done intelligence work in WWI and other jobs. In a time folks grew up faster.

    Harry Dresden starts at the level of maturity and experience of a modern highschool or college graduate. (His backstory is rough childhood, homeschooling through highschool, then the minimal training and experience for PI.)

    This is not a perfect fit for a genre that to some extent assumes a man of the early to mid twentieth century.

    I contend, based on vague memories, that Harry grows as he ages, and does boring work in between incidents. I think he is a better fit for the noir genre latter. Maybe he would develop something you might call moral clarity.

  4. Warren Abox November 9, 2015 at 1:03 pm

    Oh. So the first “modern” book you decide to review is written by an author on the Puppy approved list? (Boo, hiss. Crimethink!) No surprise it isn’t *still* isn’t progressive enough for you, you club dragging neanderthal, you!

    • jeffro November 9, 2015 at 1:07 pm

      Hey, thirteen more books to go and I can weigh in on Skin Game finally…!

      • dgarsys November 9, 2015 at 4:19 pm

        Heh

        OK

        Cards on the table – I love the books. I love the wisecracking, usually smart, competent guy who know’s he’s not a “Good” guy, but tries to be more or less.

        You haven’t hit the point yet (try soon) where you meet some actual good guys – holy warriors with magic swords.

        And as bad and capricious as the fey – and I love how they’re pretty old school, in ways that reminded me of Susan Cooper – there are, it turns out, worse things.

        That said, the sexual dynamics, and Harry, despite his awesomeness in any number of ways being such a “nice guy” gets really frustrating at times. I’m completely on board with the strong kick-ass girl sidekick not working out as well. Murph can be annoying/etc.

        That said, she has her own ghosts. (Given the series, it’s no surprise that that is also literally).

        Yet I finished the series despite that. And all the puppies had Skin Game nominated for the hugs. It was deserved.

    • Gaiseric December 4, 2015 at 9:06 am

      I like the Dresden books a lot too… but Jeffro’s not at all wrong. I think, though, that the relationship between Murphy and Dresden shouldn’t be sought in the Space Princess archteype at all, nor should it be condemned because it’s not a space princess archetype relationship. I think what Butcher, whether consciously or not, was going for was the screwball comedy vibe.

      The reason that it doesn’t work quite as well as the classic screwball comedies is that Butcher has been indoctrinated in our pro-feminist society into having clearly defined gender roles go back and forth. Sometimes Murphy is Claudette Colbert, sometimes she’s Clark Gable, and the same is true for Dresden. This significantly weakens both characters, makes them less likable and recognizable as archetypes, makes the whole situation occasionally hit a bizarrely loud wrong note.

      • Gaiseric December 4, 2015 at 9:09 am

        And the other comments here are valid as well; as the characters mature and evolve during the course of the series, the whole thing does improve. But I admit that I can’t really get over the same thing Jeffro claims bothers him, although it took me a while to put my finger on it.

        Murphy’s just not really a great character to begin with, and Dresden’s immediate foreshadowed attraction to her was off-putting. She’s simply not attractive. She’s not feminine.

        And Dresden’s beta-male torch carrying for her that lasts throughout the series (in spite of dalliances with a few others) is also not attractive. It’s not masculine.

        It’s to the detriment of both characters, and therefore to the series overall.

      • jlv61560 December 4, 2015 at 4:47 pm

        That’s probably the most cogent deconstruction of the problem I’ve read here. I think you hit the nail squarely on the head.

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  6. MishaBurnett November 10, 2015 at 7:11 am

    “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.”

    Bingo.

    I had a realization yesterday, thinking about what you said here. There seems to be an extension of Marxism into the writing of romantic sub-plots today. I know that sounds strange, but I think that best describes how many of the modern “happily ever after” endings hit me.

    Instead of the man winning or earning the love of a women (which is how it would be described fifty years ago) the model seems to be, “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.” The good guy gets the girl not because he deserves her, but because he needs her.

    The relationship of Bob Howard to Mo O’Brian in Charles Stross’ “Laundry Files” series follows that pattern–although, to be fair, the need becomes more mutual as the series progresses.

    Much more egregious is the romantic sub-plot in David Gerrald’s “War With The Chtorr” series–in fact, it’s the narrator’s relationship with the romantic lead that made me stop in the middle of the third or fourth book. She (and I can’t recall her name, but her nickname was “the Lizard”) comes out and says that he can’t do anything to either earn or lose her affection, that she is going to be with him until she decides not to be and that he had better just accept what she has to offer and not ask for anything more. I suspect that the scene was intended to show her as a strong, independent person, or something, but to me she came across as a brutal emotion sadist and I lost all respect for the narrator because he put up with it.

    And thinking on this, I suspect that what people see as “misogynist” in much old Sci Fi is that the women expect to be won. What you are calling “hook up culture” is the natural outcome of an expectation of unearned wealth. Just as the idea that monetary wealth is the result of hard work and dedication is intolerable to the modern elite, so too is the idea that love is the result of hard work and dedication.

    Does this make any sense?

    • jeffro November 10, 2015 at 7:35 am

      There’s a lot that could be said about this, but yeah I think you’re onto some of the threads that play into this. Look at the reviews of the old works and any old style romance gets brutal criticism. But the complaints just sound like the sort of cant kids pick up in college these days. It’s almost as if people are being indoctrinated to hate romance. No, I don’t get how this topic can get as screwed up as it is…. But what’s “normal” and acceptable has moved very quickly in a short amount of time.

    • BobtheCertifiedIdiot November 10, 2015 at 5:43 pm

      Yeah.

      The heroines of the old stories were indicating, perhaps by means beyond my notice, that they could like the hero, and would be willing to show it if the hero were willing to show interest by doing something heroic. So there was some subtle signalling, perhaps shared social assumptions, and each party expected the other to show signs of interest.

      If through poor writing or reading, a misandrist doesn’t see one side of the deal, they may see it as ‘turn crank, get snu-snu’. Which isn’t very fun.

      If through poor writing or reading, a misogynist doesn’t see the other side of the deal, they may see it as ‘woman taking advantage of a man, then ball-busting’. Which also isn’t very fun, except maybe for a misandrist. (I don’t know, I’m a misanthrope not a misandrist.)

      So ‘this romantic deal is unfair and exploitative’ versus ‘this economic deal is unfair and exploitative’. Especially with ‘the personal is political’.

      An alternative hypothesis. Before condoms, a girl getting together with a guy might assume there would be childbirth. The guy showing a certain amount of dedication to the point of self sacrifice might be evidence that he wouldn’t abandon her in distress. If the child thing is considered separately and later, we still don’t get to ‘as meaningful and boring as a handshake’.

      I’m reminded of how I like Kratman ‘army building’ novels more than I would like a similar work with just the battles and ‘the winners were simply better’.

      I might never have thought of this myself.

      Thanks.

  7. Scholar-at-Arms November 15, 2015 at 2:52 pm

    I will add my voice to the chorus saying that “Storm Front” and “Fool Moon” are the weakest of the series (barring maybe one here or there) and Butcher improves as a storyteller as he goes along. I completely agree with your assessment of Murphy though: she didn’t stop aggravating me until well in, book 5 perhaps?

    Your point about the “best buddy” and “space princess” being replaced by the “strong female character” is well taken, and now that I think about it, part of the relative strength of the later series is that Dresden begins accumulating male comrades who can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with him. (This begins in book three, so you don’t have a long wait). Alas, there are no princesses, space, terrestrial, or fairy.

    • dgarsys November 15, 2015 at 4:28 pm

      Definitely improves as he goes along

      I’ve just finished his new one. Lots of fun. Good pacing. The lead antagonist is a sociopathic “etherialist” (think wizard for all purposes)who is not quite all there – think OCD borderline turned up to 11. You do NOT mess with her, or even think of being discourteous.

      There are several competent lady adventurers among the good guys – but they are in the guard, and have firearms/etc. They get by more on being underestimated or being clever and learning quickly – because they aren’t a match for the men on strength or speed.

      Still no princesses, but the crew of the Predator is indeed a band of brothers.

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