By Jim Butcher
In the 16th installment of Chicago-based urban fantasy series The Dresden Files, wizard-for-hire Harry Dresden is tapped to work security for a treaty negotiation among supernatural forces, including dragons in disguise, succubus-vampires, Chicago mobsters, Summer and Winter Sidhe Courts, and aliens from beyond the veil. But family conflict distracts Harry from his work, just as a greater magical force arrives to destroy them all.
*Warning: mild spoilers below.*
When I first told my fiancé I was about to review the newest Dresden Files book, he told me I would hate it.
Colorado-based author Jim Butcher has somewhat of a cult following, attracting avid fans and vocal detractors. After launching the The Dresden Files with debut Storm Front in 2000, Butcher has since published the high-fantasy Codex Alera series and more recently, the self-described “steam opera” Cinder Spires series—on top of the 17 Dresden books. The most recent installments are being released as a duology this summer, Peace Talks on July 14, and Battle Ground on September 29.
In science fiction and fantasy circles, Dresden is a household name, with Jim Butcher often cited as the standard bearer for commercially successful urban fantasy. Dresden fans socialize at Paranet Online, r/Dresden Files, and this 719-page wiki. My fiancé, a “cradle” Dresden fan, has read the books religiously since he was young, and there was even a short-lived TV adaptation.
Other readers document a conflicted relationship with the books, and Butcher’s overall style. Butcher’s been both praised and admonished for his out-of-towner’s grasp of Chicago’s geography. He’s also been criticized for hyper-sexualizing female characters, and displaying a certain tone-deafness surrounding Chicago’s racial politics and LGBT communities.
Needless to say, I was eager to see what all the fuss was about.
Reading the 16th Dresden with no context felt much like how I imagine people who had never seen Star Wars felt when dragged into a viewing of the latest Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker this past winter. Peppered with the crooked grins and knowing glances of fan-service references, I had to regularly ask my fiancé to explain previous Dresden books, which he did with wild-eyed glee. And yet, I managed to prove him wrong; even without the emotional context and encyclopedic knowledge of a longtime fan, I found Peace Talks to be a stimulating and enjoyable read.
Four pages in, I knew the only way through was to leap onto the Harry Dresden bandwagon and not look back—and I don’t regret it. Butcher’s style is unpretentious and campy, relying on snark and self-deprecating humor. The jokes are corny and self-aware, making me chuckle and roll my eyes in equal amounts. The supporting characters I found to be delightful, if a bit monochromatic, more like vignettes of noir tropes thrust into the 21st century who act accordingly. On the other end of the spectrum, a few preachy Knights Templar pull the narrative perilously close to Christian fiction, only to be upstaged by lascivious vampire sex in the next chapter.
Butcher keeps the tone light and the fantasy intentionally kitschy; he expects the reader to take his world exactly as seriously as the characters do, which is not very. Harry summons magical beings using Dr. Pepper and ring pops, and banishes extraterrestrials with gasoline and dinosaur noises. He’s a quintessential Harrison-Ford-style protagonist: a shameless flirt with more balls than brains, a crippling lack of diplomatic finesse, and a penchant for blowing things up. It may seem strange to call a neo-noir fantasy a “beach read” but I’ll probably read the next one sunning myself on Montrose Beach (if it ever reopens).
In terms of craft, The Dresden Files are first and foremost about voice, and second about adventure and suspense. Cast members show up to help Harry process his evolving identity from grisly hit man to dedicated father to failed lover to estranged son—or, to aim a magical gun at his head. Each scene strings plot and emotional stakes together, while offering the reader satisfying glimpses of magical artifacts and mystical superpowers in otherwise nondescript Chicago backyards and parking garages.
What really made Peace Talks work for me, however, was the skillful handling of the conflict between grandfather-grandson duo Harry and his grandfather Ebenezer. I didn’t have to be a longtime fan to appreciate the decades-old tension simmering between this super-powered wizard pair. Too often, genre fiction skimps on the nuance of mentor-mentee conflict—typically, the elder “wizard” dies a tragic death (Dumbledore, Gandalf, Yoda) before his apprentice is able to challenge him as a mature adult. Butcher flips this trope on its head, pitching Harry and Ebenezer against each other in a battle of strength, skill, and ultimately, their tolerance for other kinds of magical people.
Unexpectedly, Peace Talks is the story of an adult trying desperately to haul his stodgy, bigoted grandfather into cosmopolitan modernity where one has to compromise and coexist rather than simply blast one’s enemies to smithereens. Their arguments broke my heart; the collateral damage, magical and emotional, done to their families and communities and innocent bystanders is a powerful testament to how ideological conflict within a family can derail decades of careful collaboration. Ultimately the narrative is about how Harry will throw his life and career underwater to save his family, family who has not necessarily been too kind to him.
Finally, to address the elephant in the room: my fiancé believed that I would “hate” Dresden Files due to Butcher’s documented tendency to hyper-sexualize female characters. So I opened the book expecting cringeworthy prose I might submit to the infamous Twitter satire account “Men Write Women” or the parallel subreddit where the likes of Haruki Murakami, Stephen King, E.L. Doctorow, and James Patterson are dragged for purple prose fixating on the female figure. In fact, Butcher himself was featured as late as last September.
But in my personal reading, that simply didn’t manifest in Peace Talks (I can’t speak for other books). While Harry’s certainly an ogler, at no point did his appreciation of his attractive female colleagues “kick me out of the story.” Rather, I thought it provided tongue-in-cheek humor and conflict in Harry’s interiority that raised the stakes and made his magical tasks all the more challenging. In fact, I found his total deference to his super-powered female bosses—a literal succubus and a fairy queen—refreshing, compared to some other gruff male protagonists in the genre who are resentful and dismissive of women irrespective of power. Of course this could be my inner ’90s kid talking; I grew up idolizing the female action heroes played by Charlize Theron, Carrie Ann Moss, Angelina Jolie, Milla Jovovich, and Tilda Swinton. Much like these 2000s films, the hyper-sexiness of Dresden’s femme fatales blends smoothly into their hyper-competence, rounding the novel’s grungy-but-glamorous, neo-noir aesthetic. Finally, I’d be remiss not to mention that Dresden has no dearth of sexy men; I kept a list of sumptuous “man-meat,” including Al-Capone-inspired mobsters, sadistic demons, and a beautiful Russian swordsman. Personally I found any purple prose to be even-handed, adding rather than detracting from the ambience of the story.
Peace Talks is a satisfying, Chicago-themed romp for old and new Butcher fans alike. Butcher delivers exactly what he sells: adventure with magical twists and heart-wrenching family sacrifice.
Peace Talks is available at most bookstores and the publisher’s website.
Update: A previous version of this review erroneously stated that Ebenezer was Harry’s father, when in fact he is his grandfather.