The Dresden Files: Epic Noir in the Windy City

Sad as it is to know, there are fans of fantasy out there who have not yet read The Dresden Files. This is like being a fan of sci-fi and never having seen Star Wars. Well, young padawans, consider this your crash course.

I first discovered The Dresden Files almost exactly eight years ago, via a pretty cool TV show based on the books. Yes, I’m living proof that coming to the books from that direction won’t necessarily warp your appreciation of the real story, even though pretty much the only thing they got right in that show was that they’re both about Harry Dresden, wizard PI, and set in Chicago.

But I didn’t know that; I thought the show was cool, and was a little disappointed that the show didn’t have much to it. I looked it up online, and got very confused. At first, I thought there must have been some other seasons, and I’d been wrong about it being canceled. But no . . . they were based on books, and apparently there were magic swords with nails of the True Cross and a really cool guy named Michael Carpenter.

I stopped reading that webpage the moment I realized there was an even better story waiting for me beyond the TV show. Shortly after that, my mother asked me what I wanted for my birthday; I of course asked for the books. 

The first five books arrived, and I quickly devoured them. To say I liked them was an understatement; I very nearly changed thesis topics. I was covering Harry Potter, and now I wanted to cover Harry Dresden.

Dresden Files Potter

 

Here I had a series that showed clearly-defined good and evil, with a flawed narrator trying to do one without slipping into the other. A vast and deep mythology full of vampires, fae, werewolves, and wizards, any one of which could have been a series on its own, yet always giving just the right amount of depth in a single book. It had magic and monsters and modernity; it showed the costs of being a wizard, the dangers of looking too closely at the shadows, and the willful way people turn away from the truth just because it’s uncomfortable. It had complexity, suspense, excitement, humor, and a strong Catholic feel that took my breath away.

Yes, Catholic; though the author is not Catholic, and neither is the series, it was clear that Jim Butcher was drawing on medieval Catholic metaphysics to create his world. Black magic was like how Randall Garrett described it in his Lord Darcy Catholic fantasy: a matter of intent, and not a different kind of magic. Both authors described the effects of magic as how Catholicism describes the effect of sin on the soul, so much so that you can use The Dresden Files as a source of metaphor on that subject.

And it’s not just that Butcher includes Catholic characters that are actual role models. Short of The Lord of the Rings, you may never find a better fictional model for a young boy than Michael Carpenter, Knight of the Cross. And no, that doesn’t mean he’s filling in as an usher at Mass and serving food at the monthly pancake breakfast, though I wouldn’t doubt he’s doing both of those as well. Michael Carpenter is a loving father, loyal friend, exemplary Catholic, selfless defender, and just so happens to carry a sword forged in part from a nail of the True Cross.

Michael Carpenter standing next to Harry Dresden, as played by actors with the Dresden Files Fan Film group.

Michael Carpenter standing next to Harry Dresden, as played by actors with Dresden Files Fan Filming.

Aside from sounding a trifle stuffy when first introduced, Michael is consistently seen as a favorite among fans. This despite the fact that he is the most overtly religious character in the series, even over the actual Catholic priest who pops in to help every so often.

He’s the one I usually use to hook my fellow Catholics. He is the bearer of Amoracchius, the Sword of Love, forged as a weapon that can only be used by a chosen bearer willing to accept the burden. Taking up the sword is a commitment; it can be fulfilled by the sinful, but not by the selfish. A Knight of the Cross is charged with protecting the innocent from evil, but especially the Fallen — yes, fallen angels — who seek to corrupt the world. To be a Knight means putting the mission over everything else, even your own family.

Not cool enough yet? There are three Knights of the Cross, as you might guess: knights and swords of Faith, Hope, and Love. We meet Michael in book three, Grave Peril, and the other two in book five, Death Masks (incidentally, the title is partly a reference to the Shroud of Turin). Each one exemplifies their cardinal virtue in some way. Together, they stand against the Order of the Blackened Denarius, thirty fallen angels bound to tarnished silver coins that can possess the humans who bear them.

Yes. Three swords with nails of the True Cross, against demons bound to thirty pieces of silver.

Dresden Files DF3 Michael with sword

Also from DF3; this is from the author-sanctioned book trailer for book 15, Skin Game. Do not mess with Michael.

You may all have a Catholic geekout now.

But Butcher went even further and described the world, demons, spirits, and the interaction of magic itself in ways compatible with Thomistic philosophy. Going into detail would be difficult without spoilers; but for those of you who have read White Night . . . that thing about the nature of change and substance at the end? My geekouts were having geekouts.

I’ve never had a fantasy series that made me think more — about characters, plot, pacing, ideas, mythology, or worldbuilding. Yes, even over Tolkien. Tolkien was the better writer, don’t get me wrong; but The Dresden Files fit me like Middle-Earth never has.

Traitor

I encourage you to find out for yourself.

Though, before you do, I have to give you fair warning. The Dresden Files is intended for a mature audience. I don’t just mean it’s got sex, though there’s some of that there; this isn’t Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter or Game of Thrones by any stretch of the imagination, but some stuff happens every few books. I’m talking about overall maturity. You’ll find violence, moral quandaries, and complicated themes, all done in a style that proves good noir isn’t just a product of the early 20th century. Harry Dresden doesn’t just have to choose between good and evil; he often has to choose between being the good guy, and being the hero.

Sound strange? Well, after the third book, there’s a grave reserved for Dresden in Graceland Cemetary. The headstone reads “Here lies Harry Dresden. He died doing the right thing. The grave plot and headstone were both provided by an enemy.

Dresden Files cover art Ghost Story

Yeah. There’s a difference between being a good guy and a hero. A good guy does the right thing. A hero does it even if it kills him.

It’s that kind of a series.

Ashe will be giving us a look over her shoulder as she reads through the series, though — since she’s already read the first five books — she’s starting at Blood Rites rather than the very beginning. I may do a different read-through myself, from the perspective of a longtime fan, as we get closer to the release of Peace Talks. (Though I’m not sure yet whether I’ll be doing it here, or over at Novel Ninja.)

But if you don’t want to wait that long, you can pick up The Dresden Files and read along with us. Let us know what you think over at the Catholic Geek Reader Lounge on Facebook!

About Matthew Bowman

Matthew Bowman is a traditionally-minded Catholic convert and freelance science fiction and fantasy editor, which means that he's in high demand in a small population. Fortunately, he loves talking about stories. And Catholicism. And history. And philosophy. And lots of other stuff.
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8 Responses to The Dresden Files: Epic Noir in the Windy City

  1. pavetack says:

    I’d recommend the Dresden short story “The Warrior”, found in the anthology Mean Streets as the archetype Harry Dresden story, with strong Catholic worldview. BTW, Thomas E. Sniegoski’s Remy Chandler series is well worth a look. He’s got a novella in the same anthology. Remy Chandler is an angel so in love with mankind he leaves Heaven and lives as a mortal. He soon finds that the Fallen also walk the Earth, living a life of dissipation and envy, and plotting to get back in God’s graces.

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  2. jawats says:

    I enjoyed the Dresden Files books. I have also enjoyed Lev Grossman’s “Magicians” trilogy. Both, I would say, are “Potter for Grownups.” Grossman, however, does not involve Catholic theology, explicitly or implicitly. As with nearly all fantasy, there is a sense of something greater at work, at times. But, like Susan Cooper, Grossman seems to want to avoid the implications at all costs.

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  3. John Rose says:

    And, of course, with Michael comes Charity, the housewife who storms the fortress of Winter to rescue her daughter. 🙂

    I LIKED book one, LOVED book 2 (Fool Moon), and was thoroughly hooked with book 3, the addition of Knight Michael and such delightful touches as the … effect … he has on Red Court Vampires (eh, sometimes that happens).

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    • I keep telling people that Storm Front is the worst book in the series, and Fool Moon the second-worst, and that’s enough to tell you how much awesome lies ahead.

      It took me a very long time to convince Lori to give the rest of the series a chance after some of the more outlandish elements of Storm Front, but she’s hooked now. When Aislinn finishes her read-through, the only CG author who won’t be a fan of the books is Olivia, and that’s just because she can’t get over the idea that the books’ Bob is different from the show’s Bob, and therefore refuses to give it a fair try. But we’re working on her!

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      • John Rose says:

        Exactly. When Storm Front, which is pretty good, better than most, and certainly a signal that it’s worthwhile continuing the series, turns out to be the WORST book in a given series… well, crikey. I have no real idea where Butcher’s going with this series, but I’m enjoying the ride!

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        • He says there are at least eight more books in the series, counting the “apocalyptic trilogy” that actually ends the story. Considering what happened in the first eight books, and considering that he took three books to actually start the first major arc, that’s a lot of stuff that could happen right there.

          And then, with what was revealed in the last two books . . . it’s actually a little frightening. In a very good way.

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  4. Pingback: New Blood’s Take on Blood Rites (part 2) | The Catholic Geeks

  5. Pingback: Updates: Deadpool, Originality, and Dresden | Novel Ninja

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