Thursday, October 6, 2016

Storm Front: Gruesome Vampires and Real Magic

          The hard boiled detective novel has been just as overdone as the urban fantasy book but, as is often the case, fusion makes the two of them fresh again. Wizards are old men with white beards who live in towers and heroes are young whippersnappers with dreams and ideals who head towards their goal with a mindless intensity. Detectives are alcoholics who have gone through a divorce and completely lack a social life. Vampires are hot undead people with a thing for southern waitresses. Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden overturns these tropes with ease.
          He's an orphan, which is a bit cliche, and he's got ideals, but he is a far cry from the heroes that quest about for magic swords (or, if it's urban fantasy, for magic boyfriends). He's poor, he's realistic and he openly acknowledges that his beliefs, demeanor and appearance make him look spooky to the average person. Despite that knowledge, or perhaps because of it, he has a large circle of friends who are fiercely loyal and accept him for who he is, and his enemies- from vampires to wizards- are a little bit afraid of him.
          He also works for a living. His gifts and knowledge give him an edge, but a lot of his detective work falls out exactly the same as it would for a normal human being, with magic subbing in for technology. His constant struggle with average things like bills and getting his butt kicked make him an accessible character, a rarity in fantasy. There's no inheritance or magical ability to ken gold that fuels Harry's fight for good, he does it the hard way, by helping ordinary people who have run into extraordinary circumstances.
          He's persona non grata with the magical police, but he's still on their side. The role of renegade is pretty common in any fiction, but Harry is different in that he still believes in the people who are persecuting him. He's not exactly gracious to them, but he respects the Wardens as an institution, even though they have him under constant surveillance.
           And the Vamps? They're gruesome. The Red Court wears a "Flesh Mask" and only drinks blood when they can shed it- in the form of a grotesque demon. The White Court vampires look more like humans most of the time, but they feed off of your soul. The Black Courts are the literal dead, possessed by a demon. They're not friends with humans, their existence is predatory- or hellish (for those of them with a little humanity left).
           In addition to creating a unique and likable character, Jim Butcher gets major points for authenticity. Every type of magic presented in the Dresden books is culturally grounded and well researched. The temptation in fantasy fiction is to make it up as you go and call for a suspension of disbelief. Butcher ignores this easy shortcut and does his homework, looking up everything from Wicca to Haitian Voodoo and doing them justice.
           Intricate, three dimensional characters, a quick, engaging plot and historically based magic make Storm Front a great alternative to popular fantasy fiction.

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