The Delicate Art of the Serial II: The Dresden Files

The Modern Language Association (MLA) is the style manual I cut my college teeth on. It’s the preferred manual for English papers and so I first learned to underline book titles rather than italicize them. I’ll confess a dirty secret: I started italicizing a while back, unless I was writing a paper, since it just looks cleaner to me, and when dealing with electronic formats, avoids confusing the title with a URL. Here’s another one Daily Writing Tips reports that the MLA has finally caught up and decided that italics with titles are the way to go. This should give a few million English majors an easier time as well as help resolve conflict with the Chicago Manual of Style, which other majors such as my History degree, use. I highly recommend subscribing to Daily Writing Tips. They’re doing a lot of great work and keeping me up to date.

The second book series I’m examining is the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. I’m going to start with two disclaimers: I completely missed the television series, so I won’t be discussing it to any degree. Second, I read the first book a while ago and the second more recently. I’m revisiting them for critique, but I’m already a fan and likely a bit biased towards them. I know there are several more, and I am behind, but they’re in the stack and I hope to get to them very soon.

In Butcher’s first book, Storm Front, he set up a stand alone adventure with a few threads he could build on for subsequent plots. This looks typical for the business (and is the model I’ve used for Eastlight). You don’t want to torture your readers with unresolved issues if you don’t get a longer publishing deal. Harry Dresden as a character is established and his basic traits are put up there for us to see: technology doesn’t work well around this urban wizard, and money is usually an issue for his business. Butcher will revisit these traits at the start of the next two books as an anchor for us to remember but also maintain conflict. The second book, Fool Moon, immediately reminds us of Dresden’s money problems while the third, Grave Peril, instantly brings up the technology problem in a life and death situation.

As characterization goes, Harry is fairly vague in the first book. We get to know him, but a lot of his history (and the potential conflicts it brings) are left out. As a good serial character, he shouldn’t grow or change too fast, and Butcher keeps to the core of who Harry is. He’s brash, has a strong streak of chivalry that is often a weakness, and his aforementioned liabilities surrounding money and technology are a concrete portion of his character. What does get expanded nicely are Harry’s contacts with the spirit world. As the series progresses, we see more of his allies and enemies past the mundane. We’re introduced to some of his old associations, and Harry’s world widens for us. Handling things this way, Butcher wisely doesn’t throw the whole world at us in the first few books: he lets it widen as he goes. By handling it this way, he avoids the typical fantasy trap of over-describing and laying out all the groundwork in advance of the story. Instead, he lets the world serve the story and grow organically. It also means that the reader doesn’t have to remember a million little details about how Harry’s world works. We can just get on with the story and let the world catch up.

Butcher gave the first two books a fairly strong self-contained nature. Characters from them return, but again, he doesn’t wallow in backstory, so the plot gets moving right away. The third book seems to lay the groundwork for a longer series, setting up some pretty important events (which I won’t spoil). The Dresden Files works effectively as a series for a number of reasons, but I think the strongest are that Butcher doesn’t bog us down with unnecessary detail. He repeats critical information but not too often, and he links the books together with details that while important, aren’t essential so you don’t feel as though you’re missing something if you read say, the second book before the first. One warning though: you may get a little hooked. I finished the third book and immediately cracked open the fourth. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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