Friday, January 07, 2011

Book-A-Day 2010 # 338 (1/7) -- Side Jobs by Jim Butcher

One thing that all reviewers know deeply is that there are two sizes of books: the ones that are smaller than they are, and the ones that are bigger. A reviewer can seriously push a book that's smaller than he is, but all he can do is nudge one that's larger. It's a sliding scale, of course, since some reviewers are bigger than others, but there are plenty of books that are substantially bigger than even Michiko Kakutani, and we reviewers do need to keep that in mind if we want to avoid embarrassing ourselves. [1]

Jim Butcher's books are much bigger than I am. They're bigger than anyone writing primarily on the Internet, I suspect, unless "The Dresden Files" somehow catches the attention of Glenn Reynolds or Randall Munroe. And so my job is much different than it would be for a book that my audience would only vaguely recognize, or need to be convinced about. If you're reading this, you likely have a settled opinion on Butcher, one way or the other -- maybe you detest all urban fantasy without reading any of it, or maybe this is your favorite series of all time. But, still, you're looking for me to amuse you while writing about something about which your mind has already been made up.

That can be quite freeing for a critic, actually -- particularly when the book in question is a sidebar to begin with, and not really built to take a deep investigation. Side Jobs is a book that exists because the random "Dresden Files" stories have piled up almost tall enough to make a book of their own. So, following the accepted practice, Butcher wrote a new novella, "Aftermath," which brought this collection up to the size of one of his novels. The timing is excellent as well, since his series character, Harry Dresden (Chicago's only consulting wizard, etc.), suffered a severe cliffhanger at the end of last spring's novel Changes (see my review) and so Butcher fans are apprehensive and concerned -- the more so if they've noticed that the upcoming next novel is called Ghost Story.

Side Jobs, then, collects the ten existing "Dresden Files" stories -- one a very early bit written before the first novel in the series, another a short vignette for a publisher's teaser package, and the others from various anthologies of the past four years -- and adds "Aftermath," a story about Sgt. Murphy of the Chicago PD which I should say quickly takes place immediately after the end of Changes but does not explain at all what just happened to Dresden. For most readers, it will be a chance to revisit the fun Harry Dresden -- the one with a wisecrack on his lips and a blasting rod in his hands -- as he takes out a bunch of supernatural nasties without too much trouble or moral compromise in a series of stories that only mildly betray their origins as theme-anthology fodder.

Side Jobs isn't as good as the better novels of the series; Butcher is essentially a novelist to begin with, and a storyteller rather than a writer of fine prose. But it's solid meat-and-potatoes hardboiled modern fantasy with an engaging hero, and it's a fine way to spend some time while avoiding wondering if Harry Desden has really contracted a fatal case of lead poisoning (to the head, via high-caliber rifle).

[1] You may rightly ask why anyone would review books in public if they were worried about embarrassment; it's a good question, and I have no coherent answer.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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