Sunday, February 04, 2007

They Should have Stuck to Cuckoo Clocks and Getting Bombed

A review of Storm Front, by Jim Butcher

As many of my more nerdy readers may know (and I can’t imagine that I have any non-nerdy readers at this point) the Sci-Fi channel recently debuted “The Dresden Files”, one of their signature fun, lo-fi shows about the supernatural. I’ve only seen two episodes, both of which were essentially boring, but the setup and the characters are robust and it may get better if they can avoid stretching thin and brittle plots out to an hour. The basic premise is that Harry Dresden is a wizard (of the potions and wands variety) who consults for hot police detective Murphy in Chicago. He lives in a nice loft with his idiotically dressed French ghost roommate and has romantic tension with detective Murphy, who is a Lady. So the show may very well be worth watching.

After seeing that the show was based on a series of novels, I thought to myself “Hey, I will read almost any egregious crap as long as it has vampires or some shit in it, why not try these?” Well, Storm Front has one vampire in it. It has almost no other merits. It’s a conventional detective story, so conventional in fact that I wonder if Mr. Butcher wrote it using some kind of system. It takes two seemingly unrelated cases and resolves them together in the end, with what feels like a carefully numbered set of red herrings and obstacles in between. Sound familiar? This may be a problem inherent to detective novels, but Butcher handles it especially poorly.

The novel’s Dresden the wizard is supposed to be a wounded loner but comes off as more of an antisocial nerd. He constantly wears a long waxed cotton duster, of the type favored by child molesters and D&D enthusiasts, and he attends the formulaic final confrontation wearing sweatpants. He spits out unfunny wisecracks constantly, as if he attended a detective novel protagonist public speaking seminar. He generally handles every confrontation so incompetently that it’s even more annoying that he keeps mentioning that he is a powerful wizard.

The novel has the slightly embarrassing odor of a personal male empowerment fantasy made public. The book is written in the first person, and Dresden pretty clearly stands in for the author – the other characters, to the extent that they exist at all, do so only to serve Dresden. Despite the fact that every single woman that Dresden meets is described as strikingly beautiful, there are no attractive men at all in Chicago. All the women obviously want to fuck Dresden (a few of them come right out and say it), but he is sexless and nerdy enough to make it through the whole book without sealing the deal. This is fortunate, since I would dread cringing my way through a Butcher-penned sex scene.

The novel is not long but consists almost entirely of padding. Each chapter, again in an intensely formulaic way, contains one conflict and a hook to the next conflict; the rest of the chapter usually consists of Dresden driving somewhere or thinking about and carefully summarizing the events that just happened. I really can’t stress how boring this is: Dresden doesn’t usually put the pieces of the mystery together, he just lays them out, again and again. Excruciating. It’s all especially frustrating given that Butcher actually seems to be a decent writer, just lazy and unimaginative. He also uses the word “quirk” as a verb, as in “her lips quirked into a smile.” Obnoxious, and something that I remember seeing in another terrible novel recently (I’ll edit its name in as soon as I think of it*). A big disappointment.

* It was A Walk on the Nightside by Simon R. Green. It's actually very similar to Butcher's work, but British and a lot more imaginative, and with more interesting characters.

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tMa said...
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