My very first Gabbing Geek column was on urban fantasy. Anyone who follows that subgenre knows who the 800 pound gorilla is for fans, the one all other urban fantasy characters will be compared to.
That would be Harry Dresden.
Harry Dresden, as created by author Jim Butcher, is a wizard who worked out of the city of Chicago. He advertised in the phone book. Technology doesn’t really work around him. He lived in a basement apartment with a giant cat named Mister, worked on occasion with the Chicago PD’s special unit for stuff no one can figure out, and had a lab underground where he kept a knowledge spirit inside a skull. The skull talked. Harry called him Bob.
That’s the basic sketch of how Harry started. 15 novels later and some of that is still true. He’s still a wizard working out of the city of Chicago. He may still advertise in the phone book. The rest? Not so much.
Butcher wrote the first two books for himself. After that, he got a publisher, and while the first novels were by no stretch of the imagination bad, they picked up and got a lot better after that. One of Butcher’s gifts for Harry may be world-building. He’s never content to let things sit, but expands Harry’s world a little bit with each go-around. The small scale of Chicago grows, encompassing worlds. The fae realm becomes important for Harry starting with book three. The White Council becomes more than just a distant wizard government. The lands of the dead take center stage for one book.
Another thing Butcher really does well is continuity. Harry gains allies and enemies over time, and Harry’s past with these characters is never forgotten. Harry grows, and so do they. The quiet college werewolf kid Harry meets in the second novel is a mature, thoughtful young man by book 14. Harry’s best ally, Michael Carpenter, has to retire after suffering severe injuries. Some of Harry’s friends die. Butcher even dedicated a whole novel to Harry solving a murder pinned on another wizard who spent the first few books trying to get Harry executed for various crimes Dresden may or may not have committed. This sense of past allows Butcher to make his characters a lot more well-rounded than they otherwise might be.
Butcher also isn’t above throwing anything at all into the novels. Harry’s met multiple types of vampires, werewolves, fairies, dragons, gods, ghosts, Knights of the Cross, demons, angels, the Archive, and even Santa. It isn’t uncommon for one of Harry’s novels to end with Harry gathering as many allies as he can to assault the big bad.
Butcher actually writes a good, tense action scene. Written from Harry’s point of view, the action rolls along fast, gripping readers with sudden moves, twists, turns, and last minute actions to save the day, though not always without cost to Harry and his allies. No plan goes as Harry intends it…unless it wasn’t shared entirely with the reader. That’s been known to happen.
I’m not sure how many more of these Butcher’s planning. I get the impression he’s headed towards some kind of end game scenario involving the mysterious Black Council, a group of evil beings who seem to be working against, oh, everybody (even other villain groups).
I love these books. Most any of Butcher’s novels are good enough for me to burn through in a day or two, which usually only happens to the stuff I enjoy the most. If you really want to know what urban fantasy is, this series is probably the best place to start. Given how other authors in the field tend to reference Harry, even indirectly, I’d say it’s the series all other series will be judged by.