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Book cover art by Chris McGrath (left).
Review © 2007 by Thomas M. Wagner.

There are any number of ways you could label Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden novels as gimmicky, starting with the cute stunt of giving each volume a two-word title, each word having the same number of letters. But none of that would take away from the series' off-the-charts entertainment value. This is some sick, adrenaline-charged action storytelling, spun with a Hollywood sensibility for maximum endorphin rush. No, it isn't great literature. It's great escapism, a pure roller coaster ride. There's a difference.

In the series' second outing, Chicago's only full-time professional police-advising wizard must square off against just about every species of werewolf under the moon. From non-shape-changing human lycanthropes, to Hexenwulves who transform with the aid of a charm, to a full-blown ravenous loup-garou — all manner of lupine lunacy is to blame for a horrific series of murders. Everything points to a rivalry between the Windy City's top underworld kingpin, Marcone, and environmental activist/tycoon Harley MacFinn. But Dresden is convinced there's much more going on below the surface. Is someone building an elaborate frame-up, and why?

It's a staple of noir that your hero has to get roughed up a little, but Dresden ought to earn a Purple Heart or something for the endless abuse he takes in the service of entertaining you. There are guys in Gitmo who haven't been beaten up this badly! The fearlessness with which Butcher is willing to abuse his hero, and the bullet-train momentum of the narrative, always keep the story's dramatic tension ramped right up where it should be. Butcher establishes himself as a top-drawer narrative craftsman with Fool Moon. He borrows everything, and does it liberally. But his talent for cooking up all of his borrowed ingredients into a delectable stew all his own is undeniable. The story here doesn't just deliver on the blood and guts; the mystery is smartly contrived and hangs together cleverly enough to make Fool Moon a richly satisfying hybrid of suspense, fantasy, horror, and ass-kicking. It's easy to see why this series has become so widely read and, with less success, imitated.

One area where I thought Fool Moon markedly improves upon the promise of Storm Front is that the principal characters are becoming more fully developed. Dresden himself has evolved beyond being merely a fantasy-styled pastiche of the Philip Marlowe/Sam Spade archetype. There's no Bogartian posturing; Dresden's cynicism is the practical cynicism of bitter experience. Even when not being menaced by ghastly creatures of the night, he's plagued by such mundane problems as poverty and a rickety old car. And he feels a profound sense of responsibility for the effects of the magic he wields and the damage that it can do, not to mention a devastating sense of guilt whenever innocents come to harm. There's still room to do more with such supporting characters as Dresden's on-again/off-again ally, the beleaguered cop Murphy, as well as love-interest Susan. But with many more books to come, the opportunities are there.

If I have to nitpick, I suppose I'd be happier if Butcher didn't feel he had to insult my intelligence now and then with gratuitous science-bashing. There's enough scientific illiteracy in our culture in this day and age that we don't need our popular entertainment pandering to it. Also, some of Butcher's creature appearances still have a tendency to be overly cute; Dresden's scenes with Bob the Skull are again reminiscent of the snarky banter between Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos and his little minidragon Loiosh. And one could also say that Butcher is a little ham-fisted about drawing the metaphor between the bloodlust of lycanthropy and drug addiction.

But screw it — when I'm in the right mood, give me a healthy supply of gore and naked shapeshifter chicks, and I'll forgive a great deal. Fool Moon, like all the Dresden novels, maintains a consistent tone and always manages to strike the right balance between humor, action, pathos, and throat-ripping violence. I'm happy to see that Butcher has no problem living up to his name.

Followed by Grave Peril.