The great virtue of Jim Butcher's Dresden Files novels is that Butcher understands where the line is between taking your escapism too seriously versus just seriously enough so that the fun isn't hamstrung. There have been a number of Harry-Come-Latelies in the wake of this series, and I've been surprised at how many of them either get far too dour when they should be amping up the adrenaline, or far too jokey when they should be establishing a real sense of danger and tension. Butcher's narrative radar never fails him. He expertly dodges all of the ample pitfalls stories like these are prone to. I suppose there's still plenty of room for him to cock the whole thing up at some point. But four books into this perennially popular series, he's found a winning formula that's working like gangbusters.
That formula can be summed up as follows: 1) Establish a hero who, though he possesses magical powers, is still very much your everyday, relatable "ordinary joe." 2) Beat the shit out of him. 3) Repeat 2 until climax. 4) Offer triumphant conclusion while reminding us our hero's peace is but temporary. If Hitchcock's maxim about storytelling was that it is "to put the audience through it," Butcher has taken that enthusiastically to heart. Poor Harry Dresden is the most put-upon, hard-done-by, beat-down hero in contemporary fantasy. Sometimes even friends and lovers turn on him. But he always rises to the occasion, because, like all maverick heroes who think following the rulebook is not necessarily the best way to get the job done, he recognizes a duty to a world larger than himself, and that it's worth the fight.
This time Dresden's foes are, well, everybody. The vampiric Red Court, who want revenge for the events in Grave Peril; his own White Council of wizards, run by the usual cowardly appeasers and bureaucratic weasels; and last but not least, the Sidhe, the creatures of the fey, whose opposing houses of Summer and Winter keep one another equally balanced so as to avoid too much power in any one set of hands. But the balance has been disrupted. Someone has murdered the Summer Knight, that realm's champion to its queen, Titania. The Winter Queen, Mab, has been blamed, and she makes Harry an offer he pretty much can't refuse: if he helps her to find the Knight's murderer and clear her name, she'll help him. All Harry has to do is help avert an all-out war between Summer and Winter. Piece of cake, right?
Perhaps the best single way I can sum up why Butcher succeeds at this sort of thing where so many other writers never progress beyond the mediocre is to point out one action scene around the book's middle. It's one thing to have your hero duking it out with a giant monster made out of trees. But it takes everything to an all new level to have them trashing a Wal-Mart while they do it. Butcher never makes a big deal out of the location, he just employs it. It's easy to see what a source of inspiration such icons of American cultural banality can be to an imaginative fantasist. In the same way that Stephen King's The Mist changed the way we think about our local supermarket, I can certainly get behind a mammoth tree-monster demolishing a Wal-Mart. And the real humor hiding in the subtext of whole thing is that these icons of banality are what Harry fights so desperately to save!
It's that careful balance between suspense and wit where both can work that Butcher has a true gift for. Humor in these kinds of fantasy novels can all too easily call attention to itself — Look! at all our hip and ironic pop culture references! The Dresden novels, for the most part, avoid the scourge of postmodernist pretension. Occasionally Butcher pushes it — naming the murder victim Ronald Reuel is about as on-the-nose as you can get. But mostly, every time he sits down to hammer out a new Dresden novel, Butcher simply focuses on crafting tight and exciting little action-thrillers that legions of fans have taken to as if each volume came with a nickel bag of crack. In truth, the high is in the story. The Dresden Files are modern fantasy's most reliable escapism. Butcher knows what to deliver, and delivers it. It's like he's some kind of wizard.