THE FIRST LAW OF MAGIC
Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden is a publically practicing wizard. He plies his trade in Chicago as a licensed private investigator, not as an entertainment personality. And he is a paid consultant to the Chicago PD, working with Lieutenant Karrin Murphy on situations that fail to fit “normal” parameters.
Now Dresden is not your basic garden-variety witch. He was born with power and has studied his craft long and hard to develop and control his talents. In fact, the power he seeks to control runs through his body to such an extent that any electronics in his vicinity are disrupted, from phones to elevators. And that power seriously affects his love life, and not in a good way. In fact, a sexual union can be so unpredictable that Harry hasn’t risked even a date in what seems like forever.
But Harry has a problem far nastier than the miniature EMPs he generates. He is under an impending death sentence imposed by the governing body of witches, the White Council. Several years ago, Harry’s mentor turned to the Black Arts. When Harry refused to turn with him, his mentor forced the issue and Harry killed the mentor in self-defense. Unfortunately, he killed him using his power, which is against the first and primary of the Seven Laws: Thou shalt not kill using magic.
The penalty for breaking the First Law is immediate execution by beheading, but the council voted to commute the sentence – temporarily. They imposed the Doom of Damocles upon him, which means that any further infraction of any Law is grounds for termination. To that end, Harry has been assigned a Warden, the equivalent of a probation officer, named Morgan. It is Morgan’s job to monitor Harry, to report his activities to the Council, and to behead him upon proof of any infraction. And Morgan hates Harry with the proverbial passion. We are not told the source of this hatred, but it is so profound that Harry has to be concerned that every breath he takes could be his last.
As our story sets up, Harry is practically broke, as jobs requiring a wizard have been lacking for some weeks now. Then two cases come to him within an hour of each other. The first is a consult with Murphy at a murder scene. The two victims are in the bedroom of a plush hotel suite, still joined together, even in death, in an obvious act of lovemaking. The rib cage of each victim is splayed jaggedly outward and their hearts are across the room, pulpy, bloody and decimated. It appears as if their chests just exploded from the inside out.
The second case is that of a missing person: Monica Sells wants Harry to find her husband. Victor Sells has lost his high-powered, highly paid job, has become depressed, has become enthralled with magic and has run away from home to join a coven. Now, if you are like me and don’t believe in coincidences, you figure that these two events, spaced so closely to each other, are somehow connected. The trick is to figure out how and why.
Since this is the first book in the Dresden Files series, the author does a great deal of world building. Butcher does not insert major info dumps but, instead, passes the information out piecemeal as it fits the situation at hand rather than in a logical, systematic history-of-the-world manner. Therefore, the gaps in that knowledge add to the mystery and the tension.
I really admire the character that Jim Butcher has created with Harry Dresden. He possesses, genetically, supernatural powers yet he is mortal. He can’t remember everything magical that he needs so he has acquired Bob, a centuries-old knowledge and memory spirit who, appropriately, resides in a skull. He is lean of frame and fair of face rather than the off-the-charts handsome creature with a gym-rat body that so many paranormal authors create. And Butcher has given Harry a droll sense of humor in his internal monologues, a way of observing people and situations that will have you nodding knowingly one minute and wiping the tears of laughter off your face the next.
But Harry is not a comedic character nor is this novel a farcical paranormal beach read. Harry lives with the fear of his life being summarily ended every minute of his life. He freezes when fear hits and vomits at the sight of carnage. He worries about not having enough work to pay the bills. He has all the same feelings and insecurities that any male, any human for that matter, would have. They are just complicated by his power and exacerbated by the Doom of Damocles.
And when Harry become the target of the villain, when he knows that his chest will be the next to explode, you cannot help but fear for him as his humanity works against him. You know that Harry is going to survive the ordeal in some form or another, supernatural or mortal, since there are currently 15 books in the series. But until you are within the last 5 pages of the book, you cannot really see just how this is possibly going to happen. And when the miracle he needs does transpire, Butcher does not bring it to either Harry or the reader as a deus ex machina. The save is logical, timely and credible.
While Harry is a fascinating blend of emotions and skills, Butcher creates a major secondary character for whom I feel no affection or sympathy whatsoever. That character is Murphy, who will, apparently, be a recurring personage in the series. She is obviously intelligent and she is aware of the existence of supernatural powers. She is also aware of the existence of supernatural creatures such as vampires and the spirit world called Nevernever. But she does not fully comprehend, and, because of the Seven Laws, Harry can only expose so much to her.
At a certain point in the storyline, Harry cannot accede to her wishes regarding the murder investigation because of the Laws. From this point on, every word Butcher puts in her mouth, every action he has her take shows a side of Murphy who honestly believes she can compel a man powerful enough to blast her into next week to tell her what she wants to know, just because she has a badge and a warrant. She comes across as egotistical, with significant power and control issues, and with her head buried deeper in the sand than her partner who has no belief in Harry’s abilities at all. It will be interesting to see how this newfound enmity and distrust between the two plays out in future novels.
And speaking of future novels, a third and relatively minor character made me literally sit up, widen my eyes and utter an “Oh, my God!” The character in question is Bianca, a vampiress who employed one of the victims in the initial chest explosion scenario. When Harry goes to question her about the girl, Bianca goes for his throat at the mere mention of the girl’s name. In defense, Harry releases an image of sunlight into the room. Within moments Bianca transforms from a beautiful, seductive woman into a bat-like creature, with hunched shoulders, powerful wings, leathery skin and claws.
Upon reading that description, my mind flashed to another vampire character written by an entirely different author – J. R. Rain’s Samantha Moon. While Butcher published this book in 2000 and Rain did not introduce Moon until 2009, the resemblance between the creatures that the two women transform into is uncanny. Whether this is a case of Butcher’s chicken hatching Rain’s egg, a case of great minds thinking alike, or a case of both authors playing on the ancient lore that connects vampires with bats, it is a fascinating connection.
Almost 15 years have passed since Harry Dresden first appeared in the urban fantasy genre. Chronologically, he follows Harry Potter and he precedes Twilight. Yet he is as unique as a fingerprint, one of a kind that I look forward to catching up on.
Cover Art From Goodreads