Friday, May 02, 2008

Small Favor by Jim Butcher

Small Favor is the tenth novel in Butcher's contemporary fantasy series "The Dresden Files," about Chicagoland's only consulting wizard. (Though the "consulting" part has been pushed far into the background for the last half-a-dozen books or so; I can't honestly remember if any of the books show him taking an walk-in case.) It was turned, briefly, into a bad TV show a couple of years back, and Small Favor is currently riding high on the New York Times bestseller list. So you might have heard of this.

Which is good, because explaining all of the backstory necessary for this book might be difficult. I bet it would all make sense if you actually read the book -- it's not like I have an encyclopedic memory; I'd forgotten most of the previous nine books long ago -- but cramming it all down into a paragraph or so is something else.

Oh, OK. Let's try. In Harry Dresden's world, like most Type II urban fantasy, every kind of supernatural entity you can think of is real, and a bewildering array of powers, entities, and factions have been introduced in the earlier books. (There are at least four kinds of vampires, for example -- Red Court, Black Court, White Court, and Jade Court.) In this book, the important supernatural players are the two courts of Faerie (Winter and Summer) -- each of which has a maiden-mother-crone queen system, to boot -- three knights who carry holy swords (each built around a nail from the crucifixion), and the knights' opposite number, an order of human-possessing demons each linked to one of Judas's thirty pieces of silver.

Harry's own White Council of Wizards is, by comparison, unimportant in Small Favor, and the local mafioso who's become aware of the supernatural world, Johnny Marcone, is little more than a Maguffin, just someone Harry is trying to find for most of the book. The werewolves are completely offstage, and the rumored "Black Council" doesn't show up, either. And the only vampire who shows up is Dresden's half-brother Thomas, who's a good guy at this point, anyway. (So it's not nearly as complicated as it could have been.)

Does any of that make sense?

Anyway, this is the kind of mystery where the events that drag the detective into the case don't necessarily have much to do with what's really going on -- Small Favor starts out looking like it'll be about a battle between the Winter and Summer courts of Faerie, as Summer sends increasingly-more-deadly assassins after Harry, and Harry is forced by Queen Mab of Winter to act as her emissary in the second of his three long-promised services to her. But Small Favor ends up being about the conflict between the Order of the Blackened Denarius (the demons in coins) and the Knights of the Cross (the sword-nail dudes).

In the grand urban fantasy style, it all ends up with a big battle scene, during which lots of things blow up, are shot at, or otherwise get knocked about. (None of which I'll actually describe here, since there's four hundred pages of other stuff to set it all up that I don't have the energy to go through in detail.)

I've seen people complaining that Dresden is getting too powerful, so the series should start winding down, but I don't see that, myself. He lost an important piece of power in the previous book, and his major magical strategy is, as he admits himself, just blasting away at things. His raw power is decent, but his finesse is horrible; he survives, like so many hardboiled heroes, on backtalk, attitude, and pure will rather than by any specific skills. The cliche to watch out for at this point is when the more powerful whoositzes keep saying "I won't kill you this time, because you're still useful to me." The way Dresden has been pissing off magical personages, he's going to need more than that to remain alive in the future.

Small Favor stands decently well on its own, but the meta-plot is becoming more and more important, and the usual fantasy escalation of danger is gripping ever more tightly. At this point, I'd prefer a book or three about cases that didn't involve Faerie or vampire Courts, that were just supernatural mystery stories. It's not so much that Dresden is becoming superpowerful as that he's saving the world far too much for a noir series. In noir, the world cannot be saved; it can only be endured. Dresden is getting too shiny and good-two-shoes; I'd like to see him have to make a decision between two unpleasant choices rather than winning all the time.

(But in general I'd like to see Type II urban fantasy move more towards mystery-novel structures and away from the swamps of high fantasy, so this is only a specific version of a general argument.)

All in all, Small Favor is a dependably entertaining entry in a quite enjoyable series. And Harry's whining about "people" possibly getting "hurt" has almost entirely disappeared, of which I completely approve.

1 comment:

RobB said...

I am loving this series more with each book, I just finished Summer Knight and picked up the next book Death Masks and have an advance of Backup.

The TV show wasn't all bad, about a month ago, SciFi aired (a 3 a.m., thanks TiVo!) what should have been the 2-hour pilot re-edited. Had they aired that initially, the series may have had a chance.

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