The Best and Worst of Urban Fantasy Boys

Guest writer, Rhiannon J. Taylor, writing for the Best and Worst series. Chirp!

BEST: Dresden Files by Jim Butcher

Okay, now anyone who happened to read my review on Storm Front and Fool Moon will know that I didn’t have the best experience reading Jim Butcher’s first two Dresden Files books. That ought to say a lot about the other guy.

But let’s start at the beginning of why Butcher’s Dresden Files wins my Urban Fantasy recommendation. The series is one of the best urban fantasies out there for a number of reasons. First of all, it brings a perspective that isn’t often found in Urban Fantasy: a male first person narrator. And while I enjoy most books in the urban fantasy genre, I tend to prefer a male narrator to a female one. Perhaps because I relate better to men, or perhaps it automatically breaks the Urban Fantasy norm, who knows, but for whatever reason, if the book has a male narrator, I’m giving it a shot.

Next, you can’t have a best read without an interesting premise and Butcher delivers. Harry Dresden is a wizard in Chicago working as a pseudo private investigator and Lost & Found box. Occasionally, he’s brought in as a paranormal consultant with the police for his magical expertise. It’s a nice change from the wizardly norm—you know, bushy beard, graying, and hanging around in sleazy taverns looking for bored young men to send out on pointless adventures.

Sure, The Dresden Files has its weak points. The plots sometimes fall into the “Too Coincidental for Comfort” category, there’s some continuity issues here and there, the openings are rather like strapping yourself into a catapult and launching yourself into the story at a splattering velocity. At times the setting doesn’t feel real–just a backdrop and a name for things to happen on–and, oh, and there is the small problem of every woman in the story sounding either like a robot or a plot device. But that’s a whole different can of enchanted monkeys.

That said, Dresden is a fun character. His world-weary and occasionally caustic attitude peppers the narration. He’s quick-thinking, clever, and isn’t always right (which is good. I like a character that makes mistakes). His somewhat outdated, 1930’s view on women, while occasionally annoying if you happen to be a woman, still makes him stand out in a world of cutout cardboard personalities. He embodies many of the characteristics of the traditional male hero but Butcher adds a hint of modern grunge to make Dresden a hero for the 21st century.

All and all, Dresden is what you get when you combine a 1930’s noir PI, an old fashioned superhero, and a dash of magic. It’s a comfortable book with a good number of clichés balanced with just enough of Butcher’s own originality to make one of those books that works well with a comfy chair, a cup of coffee (tea, choice alcohol, whatever your poison may be), and nowhere-to-be for a few hours.

The Dresden Files is the best out there for a supernatural Mystery/Urban Fantasy story told from a man’s point of view.

WORST: Dead to Me by Anton Strout

Dead to Me, like The Dresden Files, is told from a male first person PoV and follows a main character with magical powers in an urban setting (New York City in this case), in a world of magical occurrences, strange happenings, supernatural critters, and an ultimate big bad that must be stopped.

Now, I first came across Dead to Me at GenCon. At one of the panels, Strout pitched the book’s premise: Simon Canderous can touch an object, any object, and experience visions of that object’s past. However, he can’t quite control this power, and it drains him terribly, leaving him weak and vulnerable. I loved the idea of a character whose special power is his Achilles heel, so I bought it and settled down to enjoy myself.

And it started out good. Poor Simon is finally getting in on with a girl, only to have his magical power rear its ugly head and destroy both his chances of sex and a long-term relationship. But once that’s out of the way, the story goes downhill, and downhill very quickly. The writing is mediocre at best, juvenile at worst. There are far too many internet meme nods, too many exclamation marks (and I mean too many. I counted four on the end of one sentence…in the narration), and just plain poor characterization (as in, every character seems to have multiple personality disorder). Unrealistic and contrived—it’s a difficult book to get through and leaves you feeling like you’re reading a very bad fan fiction of The Dresden Files.

Simon Canderous is Dresden in a poorly written disguise. He has that same chivalrous/misogynist attitude, but with a habit of informing the reader of how much of a“gentleman” he is. Instead, he reads more like a sexually frustrated fifteen-year-old boy who’s been labeled the undatable geek of the school. More than that, Simon finds lost objects and returns them to their owners (see: Dresden Files book #1 back blurb). He lacks depth, and very rarely consistent. One minute, he’s a calm, calculating individual able to work out complex problems, the next his heart is melting for the women he’s fallen in love with (yes, he has two. One’s dead, the other’s evil), then the next he’s walking into a corporate office wielding a baseball bat to beat the truth out of a bunch of cultists.

This leads me to the cultists. They are a terrible, terrible enemy. No, I don’t mean they’re evil. I mean they’re terrible villains. As in, no motivation, no purpose beyond being the big bad guy Simon has to defeat, no real agenda, and they don’t even feel scary. Moreover, we have no reason to think they’re evil until the last fifty-odd pages, which really just serves to make Simon sound like a judgmental asshole, since he brands these cultists as being evil because they’re cultists, not because they’ve done anything.

Now, like Butcher, Strout cannot write women. Unlike Butcher, who mostly kept his badly written female characters on the sidelines and out of mind, Strout insists on bringing in some of his female character’s thoughts and feelings about the world. Sadly, these are…absolutely godawful. I really, really hope that Strout’s narrative decisions aren’t an indicator of what men believe a woman’s innermost thoughts revolve around, because they are, I might have to swat every man I meet. In Dead to Me we see the womanly perspective conveyed through a journal scene that sounds like it was written by a five year old trying to sound like an adult. And it’s really inane. There’s a whole paragraph and a half devoted to this woman complaining to her journal (which she addresses as “Dear Diary”) about her thong. A whole flipping paragraph and a half. Who the hell writes a paragraph and a half about an itchy thong? To a diary? Why not just change out of the damn thong?

it got to the point where I wondered whether Strout had an editor at ACE Fantasy. If he did, I then wonder if this editor can read. There are so many grammatical errors, badly worded sentences, and exclamation mark abuse that this ought to have been considered a rough draft at best. The plot was more than contrived—it was like the characters were being forced into a Play-Doh mold they didn’t quite fit in, with bits squeezing out along the edges.

That being said, Strout’s major failure was not in his ideas, but in their execution. It was the ideas that kept me reading (that, and I met the author, so I felt I owed it to him to finish his book). Firstly, the psychometry power and the price Simon must pay for using it (his blood sugars drop to a life-threatening low and he has to eat candy bars to try and fix it) called to me. Secondly, when a ghost rips through you, it turns your hair white, and then you get to join the super secret society of the White Stripes. Fun. I also like Conner’s character (Simon’s handler) and I really wish we could have switched Simon out for Conner. Lastly, the story began with a liberal dash of humor that had me cracking up here and there, but unfortunately, the jokes grew stale after about a hundred pages.

In the end, Dead to Me had a great concept, and I thought I might have found myself an alternative to the Dresden Files books, but it utterly flopped in its execution. If you’re looking for some light, quality Urban Fantasy entertainment, go with the former and avoid the latter.


What do you think, Canaries? Have any Urban Fantasy recommendations for me?


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