Subterranean Press Magazine: Spring 2007
Review: White Night by Jim Butcher & Wizards edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois
by Jim Butcher (Roc/416 pages/$23.95)
Edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois (Berkely/402 pages/$25.00)
Reviewed by Dorman T. Shindler
Although wizards have been popular in genre fiction since the days of Dorothy and the Scarecrow or Gandalf, the appearance of Harry Potter and friends in the last decade and a half has upped the ante and the interest. The resulting overflow of books about wizards and/or witches seems to be spilling out into the aisles of late. Two such publications are the focus of this week’s column.
To be fair, The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher owes as much to the Rockford Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer as it does to Hogwarts. More so, in fact. After all, Chicago-based Wizard Harry Dresden is a low-rent wizard who works as a consultant (for those in need of advice on how to slay preternatural creatures), performs lost and found services and does just a lot of private investigation work. If you’re a regular watcher of the Sci-fi Network, you may already know of Harry via the television show which has run one season thus far (its renewal is being decided this spring). If you’re a reader who hasn’t caught the TV show, you might like to know that Harry also drives a beat-up Volkswagen, and lives with a talking skull (the skull is actually haunted by the ghost of Bob, a sarcastic magical entity who loves Harry despite all evidence to the contrary).
Jim Butcher’s amalgam of fantasy and tough-guy private eye genres is one of the better paranormal series currently riding that popular subgenre wave. And White Night, the ninth entry, is one of Butcher’s best efforts, although some political intrigue involving group dynamics and politics (in this case, the White Court of psychic vampires and the Red Court of blood-drinking vampires) threatens to weigh it down at times (strangely, that same albatross currently hangs around the “necks” of the Anita Blake Vampire Hunter Series by Laurell K. Hamilton and the Sookie Stackhouse Southern Gothic Vampire series by Charlaine Harris).
This time out, Harry is investigating the deaths of several second-class practitioners of magic in the Chicago area. Called on by Detective Karin Murphy - an old buddy in the Special Investigations division of the police department who was recently demoted from Lieutenant to Sergeant - Harry learns that what was thought to be a suicide turned out to be a case of murder. It seems someone is carrying out a vendetta; and Harry finds a card left specifically for him at the first murder scenes. The card bears a quote from the bible, Exodus 22:18 - “Suffer not a witch to live.” Worse, as the investigation continues, evidence Harry uncovers points to his half-brother Thomas (a member of the White Court) as a prime suspect. Getting help from his apprentice, Molly Carpenter, and assorted other eccentric (secondary) characters, Harry eventually finds himself hip-deep in trouble, battling ghouls, vampires and assorted creatures of the night.
Full of well-written banter, fast-paced plotting and memorable characters, “The Dresden Files” is just a lot of noirish, spell-casting fun - both Harry Dresden and White Night, a series high point, are sure to appeal to the fans of that other wizard with the same first name.
Unusual for a theme-based anthology, Wizards is full of surprisingly good stories centered on wizards and magic. And it starts from strength with Neil Gaiman’s “The Witch’s Headstone.” Rumored to be part of a novel in progress, the story reads as if written by a descendant of Ray Bradbury, with its poetic prose style, its reverence for traditions, and an unusual bit of family dynamics. Eight-year-old Bod (Nobody Owens) is being raised and schooled by a family of ghouls and ghosts while living in a graveyard: the fanged Silas, the zombified Pennyworth. But it’s the lessons of a Sorceress that prove most important. Although Gaiman ends the tale at the just the right spot, knowing it’s part of a larger work will leave some readers wanting more.
Orson Scott Card’s “Stonefeather” tells the story of a seemingly unremarkable, Fifteenth Century kid who suddenly discovers heretofore unknown powers after leaving home in search of his destiny. Elizabeth Hand delivers one of her stunning, unexpected endings in “Winter’s Wife,” a New England magical tale which pits modern-day pragmatism against old magic, and Terry Bisson does some interesting things with well-worn images and plotlines when a young boy meets the Devil himself in “Billy and the Wizard.” Other highpoints include stories by Gene Wolfe, Patricia A. McKillip, Jane Yolen and Jeffery Ford. There are a total of eighteen stories in all, with only a couple of clunkers, and most of them well worth the read. As editors Dann and Dozois point out in their preface, “Wizards have stalked through the human imagination for thousands and thousands of years…the figure of the wizard is still a deeply significant one.”
Five million or more Harry Potter fans would most likely agree.