Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Side Jobs: Weird World of Harry Dresden

Short story compilations are always a part of the marketplace. Some writers work exclusively in this genre. I’ve often found anthologies of short stories to be a mixed bag. Sometimes there are some extraordinary stories to be found. Other times I get the feeling the editor put stories in simply to pad the size of the book. Jim Butcher’s Side Jobs doesn’t feel like that kind of anthology. While not all the stories are spectacular, there are enough great mini-adventures in the book for die-hard Dresden fans.

Let’s start with the more lackluster entries (in so far as they are not up to Butcher’s usually sharp chops). “Restoration of Faith” takes place before Storm Front and shows the first encounter between Harry and Karrin Murphy, a mainstay of the series. The story is good for what it tries to be but an astute reader would agree with Butcher’s foreword to the story: it was written before he had really nailed down his technique. “Publicity and Advertising” is not a bad story. In fact, I found it humorous because of Harry and Bob’s interactions. There’s nothing new added or revealed, though. “Publicity and Advertising” is a good, short side tripe into a strictly character-driven scene.
There are some good but not great stories in the collection. “It’s My Birthday, Too” is saved by the ending between Harry and Thomas (who featured in of the best stories in this collection). The action is standard for the series but the villain is more than a little inept. “Last Call” has some cool moments, specifically Harry having to throw down with a drugged Murphy. It’s a fun little story that continues the honored tradition of Harry not getting his due. Stories like this one make me think Harry should borrow Rodney Dangerfield’s signature line.
The best stories in the collection are strong, character-driven stories. “Backup” is told from Thomas’s point of view and takes place before the events of Turn Coat. Thomas, from Harry’s perspective, has always been guarded around his younger brother. “Backup” gives some reasons for that protectiveness due to Thomas’s involvement in the Oblivion War. This background conflict brings in many of the Lovecraftian elements that Butcher has been hinting at through the main case file novels. Thomas makes for an interesting character in “Backup” because Butcher takes the time to show both the humane side of the vampire and the unquenchable hunger that threatens to take over.
“The Warrior” is another great story which focuses on Michael Carpenter. It’s set after Small Favor, which saw Michael suffer debilitating injuries while helping Harry fight the Denarians. It also saw Michael giving Harry Amoracchius (one of the three Swords of the Cross). “The Warrior” is the first story Butcher has written that overtly deals with faith. Up to this point, Butcher has wisely chosen to steer clear of concrete theological debates (primarily because Dresden describes himself as being not particularly religious).
In “The Warrior” a rogue priest has decided that a wizard like Dresden holding two of the Swords of the Cross is a blasphemy. The priest wants the weapons returned to the world to combat the evil in the world. The story offers a chance to see Michael as a normal guy, a family man, and a builder of homes. The shining moment of awesome comes at the end when the reader learns that even with Amoracchius Michael Carpenter is not a person to trifle with. It also takes the time to show Dresden (and thus the reader) that even the smallest acts of kindness can have massive repercussions.
Last but not least is “Aftermath”, a story told from Karrin Murphy’s point of view. It starts a couple of hours after the devastating ending of Changes. Murphy arrives for her date with Dresden to find no wizard and blood spattered on the walls of the boat. Immediately after his death, Chicago seems to become a much darker place (which is saying something if you’ve read the case files). A new power is introduced, the Fomor, and Butcher does not skimp on the details, making them as horrifying as the Red Court. “Aftermath” gives Murphy’s mindset and character center stage, which allows the reader to see Dresden from a different perspective. Murphy’s toughness and vulnerability are made clearer for the reader. She’s a warrior but she’s also a vanilla mortal facing horror’s most humans would (and probably should) run from into screaming madness. “Aftermath” shows the maturity Butcher has developed as a storyteller by revealing his ability to write a convincing, layered character who just happens to be a woman.

Side Jobs is a great single author collection. The worthwhile entries make up for the less polished works, but even those have interesting moments that make them worth reading. Butcher’s growth as a writer is evident as one goes through Side Jobs. The stories are excellent additions to Dresden’s universe. If you’re reading the series in sequence, read Side Jobs after Changes but before Ghost Story. Many of the references made in Ghost Story will make more sense after reading the short stories in this collection. It also helps that the stories are just fun to read as well. 

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