I’ve just finished a re-read of The Dresden Files. I read the whole series at the same time of year in 2018, so I guess January is my Dresden binge season. Makes sense because I tend to get a touch of seasonal blues and binge reading favorite authors is one of my coping mechanisms.
The Dresden Files is Jim Butcher’s urban fantasy series about a private investigator/wizard Harry Dresden, Chicago’s only supernatural private detective. His specialty is finding lost people and lost things– oh and fighting supernatural bad guys that most of the humans in Chicago don’t believe in. The series is definitely not for everyone— there’s violence and gore and, yeah, sex. Harry is after all often dealing with the criminal underworld, both human and supernatural. There are vampires of all kinds, werewolves, demons, ghosts, fairies, ghouls, hellhounds, trolls, ogres, ancient gods… you name it, it probably exists in the Dresden universe. In fact that’s one of the things I love about the series. Butcher is a world builder, an architect, who has clearly put a lot of care into creating a supernatural world which accounts for just about every kind of fantastical story out there. He’s so careful about this that when he realized he’d left Bigfoot out, he went out and wrote three Bigfoot short stories to fill in the gaps.
But what I really love about the series, what made me want to re-read it all in one fell swoop, is that it is a profoundly moral world. Harry grapples deeply, personally, with the problem of evil: Am I a monster? Have I crossed the line? Am I deceiving myself about my motivations, about the necessity of my actions? He’s a flawed character, an unreliable narrator, and I really love how that builds and grows over the course of the series.
The series begins in Storm Front when Harry is 25, just a few years after he set up shop on his own. In the most recent novel, Skin Game, Harry is 39, much older and wiser and has learned a lot from his experiences. I was curious about how much time elapses over the series, so I hunted down a timeline and I think the character ages believably. (According to the timeline I found, Harry is also my age, almost exactly, though he share’s a birthday with my husband.)
His character arc is incredibly satisfying. As he grows and gains experience, the world he inhabits seems to become more expansive. He becomes more aware of the bigger issues, the deeper problems. And the thorny political compromises, the uneasy alliances, he must make in order to get things done, often do compromise him, put him in collaboration with some really evil, nasty beings. And he grapples with that. He wrestles with the question of whether there really is a God and if there is a God why He would want to have anything to do with anyone like Harry who has done some pretty bad things in his life— though always for what seemed like a good reason at the time.
Harry’s friend Michael Carpenter is a devout Catholic and a Knight of the Cross on a mission from God, wielding a magical sword made with one of the nails of the True Cross. His primary mission is not to kill monsters, but to save souls, to help those humans trapped by evil’s lies to repent and reconcile with God, to renounce Satan and all his evil promises. What I like about Michael as a character is that he is a true friend who both challenges Harry– constantly inviting him to turn away from magic and join the forces of good once and for all– but who also accepts him completely for who he is. Michael sees the good in Harry and often tries to help Harry to see the good in himself. He doesn’t always agree with Harry’s choices, and makes his disagreement known. But he also backs Harry up and he truly wants Harry’s good.
There aren’t many fantasy series where characters grapple so clearly and so starkly with good and evil. And the moral and ethical questions are seldom simple and never simplistic or pat. Harry himself is the narrator, the form following the traditional hard boiled style of detective noir, and Butcher uses that first person narrator with great skill. Harry is often an unreliable narrator (Oh boy do I love a good unreliable narrator!) and his limitations allow for that moral complexity to develop. Did Harry do the right thing? Were his actions and decisions justified? It’s never a cut and dried question.
In his authorial notes for his short story collection Brief Cases, Jim Butcher explains that “The idea of the consequences of your actions coming back to you in the future is ingrained into the fabric of the Dresden Files—and both your terrible choices and your more inspired ones engender consequences that will eventually come home to roost.” The series’s very fabric is this moral realism where although Harry faces off in each book against nightmarish supernatural monsters, the ultimate reality that matters is his very human capacity to make choices. I had already come to appreciate how well Butcher follows through to explore the very real consequences of choice long before I stumbled onto his note, but it was still interesting to see how deliberate and thoughtful he is about it. I really love Butcher’s notes in the short story collections. I always enjoy getting that peek into an author’s head.