Nitpick first. The methodologies of science — involving as they do rigorous application of evidence and peer-reviewed experimentation — could not be more diametrically opposed to religion, with its emphasis on faith and revelation. So when you hear someone, usually a religious fundamentalist, refer to science as just another religion, you can be confident you're talking to an idiot. And if you ever meet a scientist who practices his science as if it were some dogmatic religion: again, idiot.
So when Jim Butcher has Harry Dresden, wizardly investigator, call science "the great religion of the 20th century" on page three of Storm Front, I came within a picosecond of flinging the book in the bin and relegating Butcher to my "Don't Waste Your Time" list. But then I thought, Now now, lighten up. After all, this is a fantasy series set in an alternate Earth in which paranormal things occur with regularity, and the rules are a little different. Perhaps I should just chill, and judge the story on the level at which it was intended to be judged — that is, escapism — and not let my real-world frustrations with America's religious neoconservatism, superstitious irrationalism, and scientific illiteracy get all tangled up in the mix.
Glad I did. How does Storm Front hold up as popcorn entertainment? Happily, I can report it's a load of fun, if you don't let a few meddlesome facts bug you. If Jim Butcher ever had an original idea in his life, it long ago slashed its wrists from loneliness. But originality isn't Butcher's strength, and he knows it. He's a promiscuous borrower, hybridizing from pretty much every corner of geek culture. Storm Front's story is a delirious mishmash of noir and cop show clichés, by way of epic fantasy, and set-dressed by the art department of Hammer Horror. As Quentin Tarantino has long since made pop-culture swipes not merely acceptible but almost a prerequisite for coolness, Butcher's mastery of the derivative possibly shows more savvy than a critic might willingly recognize.
The pitch can be boiled down to "Philip Marlowe with Magic and Monsters". Dresden is a duster-wearing wizard living a precarious existence in modern Chicago, on an alternate Earth where the mundane world is nestled uncomfortably up against a magical realm called the Never-Never. When a couple of ghastly murders are unmistakably the work of a magician, Harry is called in for his expertise. But he must tread carefully, as one false move on Harry's part will bring down the wrath of the White Council, some sort of wizardly governing body just waiting to nail Harry for past crimes he'd rather forget.
Exactly how much does Butcher beg, borrow, and steal? Hell, just go down the list. World-weary detective antihero with a checkered past? Check. Hardass cop (here a woman, for modern sensibilities) who doesn't like our scruffy P.I. one bit but calls him in on cases anyway? Check. Nervous wife looking for a missing husband who clearly knows More Than She Is Letting On? Check. Femmes fatale? At least two, maybe three, and one's a vampiress, too, so bonus points. Add an assortment of Bad Guys™ from central casting who omnisciently seem to know exactly where our hero is any time he's overdue for a beating. Toss in faeries, demons, magic spells and artifacts, and a plucky girl reporter. Add healthy dollops of nudge-wink humor lifted wholesale from Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos series. And while I'm certain it's entirely coincidental that Butcher named his wizard Harry, it still feels like he just said "to hell with it" and went for broke.
One thing I won't hesitate to say about Storm Front is that Brust hasn't written a Taltos novel this entertaining in over a decade. Everything here comes from somewhere else, true, but the pleasure comes from Butcher's playful scrambling of all of his influences. Thus it is that you get things like a mob kingpin involved in running drugs that allow addicts visions into magic realms, plus those selfsame druglords employing magicians as well as the standard complement of toughs to do their dirty work. You see, take clichés from one genre, graft them onto clichés from another, and voilá, everything old is new again. Butcher demonstrates rather cleverly that just because a writer hasn't got fresh ideas going for him doesn't mean he can't be a creative and energetic storyteller all the same. After all, it's one thing to be merely derivative, another thing to own what you've derived.
The tale is propelled by Butcher's — surprise surprise — highly cinematic sensibility. He can concoct rain-slicked urban streets and explosive magic battles fought beneath raging electrical storms that are so vivid you feel like you should put this book into your DVD player. Late in the book, some awesome action scenes (one starring a giant scorpion) and an increasing sensitivity to character help make up for some clunky early attempts at comedy. A faery-summoning scene is really annoying, and then there's the spirit trapped in a skull in Dresden's basement. This starts out as one of those books where all the magical creatures who can talk do so exclusively in snarky wisecracks. But it gets better as it goes.
Storm Front is, if nothing else, a love letter from Jim Butcher to all the stories, movies, television, comics, and whatever else that he grew up with, and on which he cut his artistic teeth. And it's hard not to be caught up in that love while you read this brisk little book, even if you know much of the time where Butcher's taking the story next. I don't think Storm Front is exceptional enough to be fantasy's answer to Pulp Fiction. But by the time Butcher has a few more of these under his belt, it will be easy to why this series has captivated a new generation, the way guys like Tarantino and Butcher were once captivated.