I feel I need to be up-front about something before I go any further: this is a troll-face review. I had heard that the Harry Dresden books were awful and I chose this to review next specifically to make fun of it.
However! That doesn’t mean I didn’t give the book a fair shake. I went into this fully prepared for my preconceptions to be proven wrong, to discover that everything I had heard about the book was wrong, the product of vile slander and insidious rumors. Which didn’t end up happening- Stormfront is just as awful as everyone told me, and then some- but at least I tried, right?
This is going to be more of a read-through with commentary than a straight-up review, since I ended up putting in enough excerpts to violate copyright laws, but the book really deserves it. The misogyny alone could fuel ten blog posts, to say nothing of the mediocre prose and non-existent world building. I don’t normally feel entirely qualified to devote an entire review to misogyny in a novel (not being a woman and all), however in this case if I didn’t talk about the rampant sexism the review would be two paragraphs long. To make up for it I’ll try to link to some other pieces written by women at the end (Jim Butcher is something of a favourite target of internet feminists, for reasons that will become abundantly clear in a minute).
Let’s get to it:
The Dresden Files series, of which this is the first, takes place in the usual fantasy kitchen sink setting that most Urban Fantasy books tend to go for. It’s a large American city- Chicago in this case- except there’s wizards and vampires and Santa Claus is actually real except he’s a fairy oh ho ho do you see. Right off the bat we run into some fairly major world-building problems:
The new mailman, who looked like a basketball with arms and legs and a sunburned, balding head, was chuckling at the sign on the door glass. He glanced at me and hooked a thumb toward the sign. “You’re kidding, right?”
I read the sign (people change it occasionally), and shook my head. “No, I’m serious. Can I have my mail, please.”
“So, uh. Like parties, shows, stuff like that?” He looked past me, as though he expected to see a white tiger, or possibly some skimpily clad assistants prancing around my one-room office.
sighed, not in the mood to get mocked again, and reached for the mail he held in his hand. “No, not like that. I don’t do parties.”
He held on to it, his head tilted curiously. “So what? Some kinda fortune-teller? Cards and crystal balls and things?”
“No,” I told him. “I’m not a psychic.” I tugged at the mail.
He held on to it. “What are you, then?”
“What’s the sign on the door say?”
“It says ‘Harry Dresden. Wizard.’ ”
“That’s me,” I confirmed.
“An actual wizard?” he asked, grinning, as though I should let him in on the joke. “Spells and potions? Demons and incantations? Subtle and quick to anger?”
This section seems to imply that there’s a Harry Potter-esque Masquerade going on in the book’s world, but directly afterward we’re told that Harry gets enough clients and police consulting jobs to make a semi-decent living. A fairly arcane magical rule that we’ll get to later is treated as common knowledge, and we’re told that obviously-supernatural events have been reported openly in newspapers. Basically, whether or not magic is a secret known only to a small minority or an open fact changes whenever its convenient for the plot. This isn’t the last time I’ll be saying that.
After failing to establish the setting, Jim Butcher gives us this little gem:
Science, the largest religion of the twentieth century, had become somewhat tarnished by images of exploding space shuttles, crack babies, and a generation of complacent Americans who had allowed the television to raise their children.
Personal bias admission time, I’m a biotechnology student who happens to think science is fairly nifty. I’m not one of these people who treat it like (to quote Carl Sagan) a cornucopia bestowing endless gifts on humanity without bringing its own problems, but overall the good outweighs the bad. Not according to Harry Dresden, who takes quite a few pot-shots at science throughout the book despite the bulk of the story being about wizards violently murdering people with magic. I’d love to know how crack babies and neglectful parents are the fault of scientific advancement.
Anyway personal rant over, let’s continue.
Oh. Is this, um, Harry Dresden? The, ah, wizard?” Her tone was apologetic, as though she were terribly afraid she would be insulting me.
No, I thought. It’s Harry Dresden the, ah, lizard. Harry the wizard is one door down.
Unfortunately this is the extent of Harry’s sense of humour. Jim Butcher keeps trying to insert Komedy into the book even though he’s fucking terrible at it.
So hey remember that sexism I mentioned earlier?
I caught up and walked a little ahead of her.
She sped her pace. So did I. We raced one another toward the front door, with increasing speed, through the puddles left over from last night’s rain.
My legs were longer; I got there first. I opened the door for her and gallantly gestured for her to go in. It was an old contest of ours. Maybe my values are outdated, but I come from an old school of thought. I think that men ought to treat women like something other than just shorter, weaker men with breasts. Try and convict me if I’m a bad person for thinking so. I enjoy treating a woman like a lady, opening doors for her, paying for shared meals, giving flowers-all that sort of thing.
It irritates the hell out of Murphy, who had to fight and claw and play dirty with the hairiest men in Chicago to get as far as she has. She glared up at me while I stood there holding open the door, but there was a reassurance about the glare, a relaxation. She took an odd sort of comfort in our ritual, annoying as she usually found it.
If you’ve read any criticism of this book you’ve undoubtedly seen this quote before. In the scene above Harry is going with Murphy, his contact at a special police department set up to investigate paranormal shenanigans (there’s that pesky world building again) to check out a crime scene. He insists on opening the door for her because he’s an old fashioned gentleman and by God, he’s going to hold doors open for women whether they want him to or not.
This illustrates what’s so poisonous about the misogyny in the Dresden Files books. Harry isn’t what people (or at least, men) picture when you talk about sexists and chauvinistic pigs. There are probably millions of guys out there who think exactly like this and don’t believe they’re doing anything wrong. Throughout the book Harry Dresden consistently and repeatedly treats the women around him as women first and people second, to the point of even referring to an unconscious reporter he’s on a first-name basis with as “the woman”. What makes all of this worse is that Harry forces this viewpoint on woman regardless of whether they actually agree with him, as becomes clear in this scene:
Besides. I could never resist going to the aid of a lady in distress. Even if she wasn’t completely, one hundred percent sure that she wanted to be rescued by me.
Is it just me or does that sound like something a rapist would say?
I’m going to post up a quote now:
They were on the bed; she was astride him, body leaned back, back bowed like a dancer’s, the curves of her breasts making a lovely outline
This is a pretty good sample of how every single woman in the book is ontroduced. Harry Dresden ogles every woman he comes across. Literally all of them are described in terms of their physical appearance and rated on their relative attractiveness. Oh and just to add to the creepiness, thatparticular quote? That’s a mutilated corpse. Harry sees a naked woman with her heart literally ripped out of her chest and his first thought is “hey, nice tits”.
So yeah, two people have been murdered by explosive heart removal and Murphy wants Harry to help her out. This leads to an incredibly contrived situation where the dark magic research (because of course we’re using shallow Star Wars morality here) she wants him to do will violate the one-strike rule he’s under from the wizard’s White Council due to an event from his past. This could of course be easily avoided by simply explaining the situation to Murphy, but Harry doesn’t do that for reasons that are never really explained. A lot of the plot works on this principle, with conflict arising out of characters not telling each other things for no real reason.
For example, Harry gets another client soon afterward with a missing persons case (gosh, do you think it will be tied into the main plot in some way?) who likewise executes a needlessly contrived plan that hinges on not telling Harry something that could have ended the plot twenty pages in for no real reason. Also incredibly contrived is the fact that tons of people think Harry is responsible for the murders, because…… he’s a wizard and he lives in the area, I guess.
Before he leaves the hotel Harry offers us this piece of wisdom:
Murphy glared at me. “You keep saying ‘she,’ ” she challenged me. “Why the hell do you think that?”
I gestured toward the room. “Because you can’t do something that bad without a whole lot of hate,” I said. “Women are better at hating than men. They can focus it better, let it go better. Hell, witches are just plain meaner than wizards. This feels like feminine vengeance of some kind to me.”
“But a man could have done it,” Murphy said.
“Well,” I hedged.
“Christ, you are a chauvinist pig, Dresden . Is it something thatonly a woman could have done?”
How does Harry know women are “better at hating” then men (whatever the fuck that means)? He’s obviously not a woman, he admits several times to having almost no romantic experience and he appears to have grown up with little to no involvement from women in his life, so where are these sagely pronouncements coming from? Could it be that he’s just making up derogatory shit about women and passing it off as fact? There are labels for people who do that- sexist, misogynist, PUA, MRA. The bottom feeders of the internet cess pool. I would bet you a substantial amount of money you could take out the part about witches and post that to The Spearhead to rapturous applause. And hell, you might not even have to take out the witches, those guys are only tangentially connected to reality on the best of days.
Oh, and the murders turn out to have been committed by a man. I would almost be tempted to say this was Butcher showing a shred of self-awareness but other stuff in the plot (such as everything that happens in it) discount that idea.
Anyway, Harry goes to see a vampire brothel owner for information (because this is a sexy thriller for mature adults) and it turns out that in this particular generic Urban Fantasy cliche-parade vampires are really ugly and hideous, but hide behind human forms. After a confrontation with the vampire forces her to show her monstrous side we get this:
She stiffened, then turned her head to one side, and let her fingers go limp. It was a silent, bitter surrender. She didn’t move quickly enough for me to miss seeing a tear streak down one cheek.
I’d made the vampire cry. Great. I felt like a real superhero. Harry Dresden, breaker of monsters’ hearts.
She starts crying because Harry Dresden- traditional gentleman and Chivalry Knight- thinks she’s ugly. Needless to say, none of the male characters in the book ever worry about their looks, and they certainly don’t cry about it because crying is for people with ovaries:
I stepped closer to the bed and walked around it. The carpet squelched as I did. The little screaming part of my brain, safely locked up behind doors of self-control and strict training, continued gibbering. I tried to ignore it. Really I did. But if I didn’t get out of that room in a hurry, I was going to start crying like a little girl.
Later on he also refers to blushing as a distinctly feminine trait. Remember people, crying and blushing are girly things that only girly girls do. Real men have chiseled jaws and eyes of flint and can make women faint by looking at them.
Oh, I didn’t mention that yet?
When I look into someone’s eyes, into their soul, their innermost being, they can see mine in return-the things I had done, the things I was willing to do, the things I was capable of doing. Most people who did that got really pale, at least. One woman had passed out entirely.
This is presented as being caused by the shock of seeing Dresden’s DARKNESS OF THE SOUL or whatever, but read that paragraph again and tell me this isn’t a bullshit male power fantasy.
The woman who Harry man-gazed into submission turns out to be a Hispanic reporter (who is sultry and seductive and has a “fiery” personality, of course) who ends up trapped in Harry’s apartment while a demon tries to kill them. At first she just runs around and screams because, you know, women do that apparently. Through another contrived coincidence she accidentally drinks a love potion, then this happens:
“Nothing happened,” she said. “Dammit, Harry, we have to do something.” And then she came pounding up the ladder, dark eyes flashing, my .38 revolver in her hand.
“No!” I told her. “Don’t!” I felt the staff slip more. The demon was getting ready to come through all my defenses.
Susan raised the gun, face pale, her hands shaking, and started shooting.
In other words, she’s useless and frightened until her love for a man motivates her to take action. And no, I’m not reading too much into this- the narrative explicitly states that the only reason she was able to do that is because the love potion motivates her to protect Harry.
Okay, let’s move this along a bit faster. Basically the plot lurches between set pieces where Harry will require some piece of information, he’ll go about getting it, some sort of magical whatsit will attack, he’ll have his back against the wall and then will either a) remember an object he was carrying previously and use it to escape or b) will pull a magic spell out of his ass and save the day. This goes back to the world-building problems I talked about earlier. The magic system in the book is extremely loosely defined- sometimes it operates on a sort of Harry Potter-like “point the wand at the thing and say the magic words and stuff happens” principle, but at other times magic requires complex rituals and vague “calculations” to work with the result that Harry’s spells are always just as simple or difficult to accomplish as they need to be for the plot to function. Likewise, Harry’s level of ability is never established- we’re told throughout the entire second half of the book that he’s almost out of strength or that that last spell “took everything he had”, yet this never actually acts as a hindrance. Sometimes his magic seems to be quite limited but at other points he can wreak havoc on entire buildings with little to no effort.
Eventually Harry discovers that the missing husband he was contracted to find back at the start of the book is the one committing the murders (I’m skipping past an entire woman-as-sex-object character to get to this point, but trust me it’s just as creepy as everything else I’ve talked about). His wife got Harry involved in the hope that he’d stop the husband, but didn’t tell him what was going on because…… um. I don’t know. I read the entire thing cover to cover and I’m still not sure. There was some sort of reason. Probably.
Anyway the point is, the villain’s wife is motivated by two things. Can you guess what those two things might be? We’ve already had a woman spurred into action by the desire to ride Harry’s wizard staff, so what other trite, stereotypical female motivations could Butcher saddle her with?
I was shaking, too. A soulgaze is never something pleasant or simple. God, sometimes I hated that I had to live with that. I hadn’t wanted to know that she had been abused as a child. That she’d married a man who provided her with more of the same, as an adult. That the only hope or light that she saw in her life was in her two children. There hadn’t been time to see all of her reasons, all of her logic. I still didn’t know why she had drawn me into this entire business-but I knew that it was, ultimately, because she loved her two kids.
Yes, her motivations are past abuse and her children. Because women and BABIES always go together. Note that Harry spends most of this section feeling sorry for himself instead of the woman whose broken childhood and unhappy life he just witnessed in intimate detail. Of her two children it’s her daughter that Harry fixates on protecting because as a bearer of two X chromosomes she presumably can’t take care of herself. Her (significanly younger) brother? Pffft fuck him, he has a penis he’ll be fine. The females need Big Strong Harry to save them from danger.
There’s also this from earlier:
I was beginning to think that Monica Sells was in denial. Her husband wasn’t wandering around learning to be a sorcerer, spooky scorpion talismans notwithstanding. He was lurking about his love nest with a girlfriend, like any other husband bored with a timid and domestic wife might do under pressure. It wasn’t admirable, but I guess I could understand the motivations that could cause it.
Oh, that Harry Dresden, always telling it like it is! If Jim Butcher has a wife I hope she throws him into a bonfire.
Toward the end of the book, when Harry is about to fight the demon from before again, there comes a line that neatly sums up everything (well, most things) that are wrong with Jim Butcher’s attitude toward women:
I thought of little Jenny Sells, oddly enough, and of Murphy, lying pale and unconscious on a stretcher in the rain, of Susan, crouched next to me, sick and unable to run.
These characters aren’t people- they’re Harry Dresden’s morality pets. Their hopes, fears, desires and sorrows are certainly explored (sometimes voyeuristicly so), but only so they can effect Harry, so he can feel sorry for them, be motivated by them and shed manly tears over being forced to trample over their feelings. Two of the big action set pieces feature Harry being hindered and forced into a corner by a weak or disabled female sidekick, and two more revolve around him being attacked by women driven to violence by their emotions. These are the same hoary old misogynistic noir tropes that should have gone out of fashion decades ago, just without the somewhat-more-positive femme fatale character showing up. I think Murphy was supposed to be that, but then she gets stung by a scorpion and ends up on life support for the rest of the book.
So we’re 3300+ words into this and you might think there’s nothing else bad I could say about Stormfront, but you would be wrong. We haven’t even touched on Butcher’s writing yet!
To be fair, it’s not aggressively awful. As long as he sticks to basic dialogue and character action he’s more or less okay, ignoring the more-than-occasional bout of ham-fisted exposition. Whenever the book reaches for abstraction or anything even the least bit poetic the writing gets clunky as fuck:
The light made the carvings on the columns vague and mysterious, the shadows changing them in a subtle fashion.
I shrugged and swallowed. I thought of the corpses at the Madison , and felt green
His salt-and-pepper hair was cut short, and there were lines from sun and smiling etched into the corners of his eyes. His eyes were the green of well-worn dollar bills.
At the back table, Johnny Marcone regarded the doorway with his passionless, money-colored eyes.
Money-coloured eyes. Not quite down there with “cerulean orbs”, but still pretty bad.
But okay, ignoring all of that, is Stormfront a truly awful book? Yes it is, because the all-pervasive sexism is simply impossible to put aside (I didn’t even mention that the only black character in the book is a mechanic with more than a whiff of the Helpful Magical Negro trope about him). But assuming, in some fantasy-land alternate universe, that you could actually do that, could the book have some merit? A little bit, sure. If you were to remove Harry Dresden from the story as a protagonist (or better yet make him the villain) you’d have a fairly decent potboiler, the sort of book you’d pick up for a nominal amount of your local currency at an airport before a log flight. “Well that certainly was a novel,” you’d say, tucking it into the seat pouch to be forgotten when leaving the plane. “I read it, and time passed more quickly when I read it then if I hadn’t been reading it.”
But we don’t live in a universe where that’s possible. Harry Dresden is such an all-consuming void of misogyny, such a charisma event horizon, that he drags whatever tiny amount of merit the book might have otherwise had down into in inescapable singularity of douchiness. Without Harry Dresden Jim Butcher would have been a hack. With Harry Dresden, he’s a misogynistic waste of oxygen and ink. Do not read these books, or if you do don’t pay for them. Butcher’s mouth-breathing idiocy has gotten him far too much money already.
BONUS READING MATERIAL:
Apparently Jim Butcher is a racist as well!