I’ve never found a real reason to like Urban Fantasy novels, mostly because while they are a legitimate sub-genre, I always suspected they were books for people who thought hardcore science fiction of Asimov, Heinlein, and fantasy novels in the vein of The Lord of the Rings were a bit too pretentious. While I know science fiction and fantasy are still –more or less- considered cult in nature, they wore that badge of honor, they did not compromise.
I think this genre does compromise, because even though Storm Front, the first novel of The Dresden Files, features a wizard, it is also set in contemporary Chicago, with cars, bars, and mobsters. These are the “hooks” that allow people to read this genre; because those are things they can understand and see in everyday life. Doctor Who, Star Trek, Star Wars, these are properties that are seen as too “far” out, too unreal.
So this series marries fantasy with hard-boiled detective fiction and while I found it fun, it’s not deep and really has not much to say:
“Harry Dresden is the best at what he does. Well, technically, he's the only at what he does. So when the Chicago P.D. has a case that transcends mortal creativity or capability, they come to him for answers. For the "everyday" world is actually full of strange and magical things—and most don't play well with humans. That's where Harry comes in. Takes a wizard to catch a—well, whatever. There's just one problem. Business, to put it mildly, stinks. So when the police bring him in to consult on a grisly double murder committed with black magic, Harry's seeing dollar signs. But where there's black magic, there's a black mage behind it. And now that mage knows Harry's name. And that's when things start to get interesting.”
Author Jim Butcher tries to make his Harry Dresden character less The Chosen One of the Harry Potter books (this series started about 4 years after JK Rowlings hero began) and more The Chosen One’s half-brother who caused an awkward event at a family reunion a few years ago so no ones speaks of him again. The magic here is based on thermodynamics, with Butcher’s version of Chicago being gritty, dirty and slightly left of Law & Order realistic. But it also features a “hero” wizard who doesn't know when to keep his mouth shut, which is a trope of the classic noir films.
And that’s the problem here for me, as Harry is too much an arrested developmental nerd, a dude whom uber-geeks probably wish they could be. But he’s also a character we’ve seen before. I mean Columbo has his wrinkled overcoat and Harry has his black duster and cowboy boots, the comparison ends there (of course, this image of Harry that Butcher continues to remind you of certainly makes for great looking covers). Harry also rambles on and on about some mystical White Council that keeps tabs on him because, apparently, he killed a woman who was his first love, despite her being really evil (“Yes, she was a bit of meanie, but you should’ve not have killed her”). They’re like the Time Lords on Doctor Who that “allows” the Doctor to travel in time and space and help people, despite their no interference policy.
Plus, if these books are supposed to take a page from the classic noir characters of Raymond Chandler, Butcher fails miserably with Harry. He has no confidence, he is certainly not tough, lacks street and book smarts, and seems blunder around solving his latest mystery only because he wound up at the corner of Coincidence and Convenience.
I can now understand why I’ve never felt the need to read them, why this genre is not for me. It offers nothing new, even though it tries to sell itself as something new. It’s designed too much for those who can’t grasp the subtleties, analogies, and metaphors of Star Trek.
And if your going to set your books in Chicago, it would be nice if Butcher used real locations, real streets, and highway names. For Chicagoians like me, it would be fun Easter Eggs for me if he mentioned names like Lake Shore Drive, the Skyway and what not. Los Angeles native and dark fantasy writer Tim Powers name drops local LA stuff all the time. But Butcher lives in Missouri, so why did he not just set his books in and around his native city of Independence?