Saturday 26 April 2014

#CBR6 Book 38: "Side Jobs" by Jim Butcher

Page count: 430 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This is a collection of short stories featuring Harry Dresden, and Jim Butcher introduces each one, explaining which collection it was first included in, or what purpose it was written for. I wouldn't advise anyone who hasn't read up to, and finished, at least book 12, Changes, as the last novella in the book takes place immediately after the events in that book, and it contains several spoilers.

This month's monthly motif is Short and Sweet, to read short story collection or anthologies. Which fit pretty much perfectly for me as I'd been thinking about reading the various Dresden Files short stories, but wanted to make sure I didn't get spoiled by anything in them. Having ascertained that the last story is set right after Changes, I felt safe to dive in. I'm going to summarise each of the stories briefly, with my opinion of it, then give my general thoughts on the collection as a whole.

A Restoration of Faith - a prequel to The Dresden Files of sorts, set before the first book in the series. Harry is still working to gain his PI licence, and has been hired to locate a runaway teenager. In the process, he runs into a vicious bridge troll, displays some of his ability to charm children and meets a young officer of the Chicago PD named Karrin Murphy, who discovers that there are more things out there going bump in the night than she had ever suspected.

It was fun to see Harry Dresden before he became "himself" so to speak. I'm not sure when it was written, but I suspect it was after Butcher had been writing the series for a few years, as Harry the tone is a lot more similar to the later books of the series than the first three (exactly the three I'm the least fond of).

Vignette - very short little story where Harry is pondering his Yellow pages ad and talking to Bob the skull. He muses on who he is, what he does and what he's actually trying to achieve as a wizard with a listing in the phone book.

A cute, but ultimately rather throw-away story.

Something Borrowed - originally included in the wedding-themed supernatural fantasy anthology My Big Fat Supernatural Wedding, this story involves complications during the wedding of Billy and Georgia, Harry's werewolf friends. Harry discovers that the Fae Winter Court handmaiden Jenny Greenteeth has kidnapped the bride and is masquerading as her, intending to kill both Billy and Georgia. Harry and Murphy have to locate the bride and stop the ceremony before Billy kisses his false bride.

I always like it when Harry and Murphy work closely together, because they make a good team. I also really like the presence of the werewolves, even though I found the book with their introduction to be less than thrilling. Once Butcher started fleshing out the supporting cast of the books and extending the world of Dresden's Chicago, the series got increasingly more enjoyable. It was nice to see them included as supporting characters in this story.

It's My Birthday, Too - originally included in the anthology Many Bloody Returns, which seems to collect birthday stories involving vampires, this story is set on Valentine's Day, which also happens to be Thomas Raith's birthday. Harry and his apprentice Molly travel to a mall on the outskirts of town to give Thomas his birthday present. Of course there is trouble, involving Black Court vampires bent on revenge.

I love Thomas, and think he is a very important part of Harry's life. It's not like Harry has a lot of family, and so what little kin he has becomes all the more significant. Here we see Harry once again trying to fight evil without innocent civilians getting hurt, or discovering too much of the supernatural world.

Heorot - first included in the anthology My Big Fat Supernatural Honeymoon, which, you guessed it is supposed to feature honeymoons of some sort, this story finds Harry's bartender friend Mac asking him to help locate a young bride, who's disappeared mere hours after her wedding. Also gone is a cask of mead. Harry initially wonders if the young lady just got cold feet and ran away, but Ms. Gard, Johnny Marcone's formidable security expert, informs him that a big nasty with ties to Norse mythology has abducted the woman and stolen the mead, and that she needs to be rescued promptly, or very bad things will happen to more than just the kidnapping victim.

Anyone who wasn't already sure that Ms. Gard was something quite out of the ordinary, here finds out just how old she may in fact be and who she really works for. I always liked Ms. Gard and very much enjoyed her and Harry fighting monsters together.

Day Off - originally from Blood Lite, a supernatural anthology with light-hearted and humorous stories, this shows us Harry Dresden on one of his rare days off, when he just wants to relax and prepare for a date. Of course, things rarely go smoothly for Harry at the best of times, and all manner of calamities occur, to the amusement of the reader.

This story has a guest appearance by Molly again, and some of the werewolves. It was nice to see that Butcher can occasionally do funny as well as snarky or dark.

Backup - this story is told from Thomas Raith's point of view, and shows how the vampire watches Harry's back, even when our wizard isn't even aware that he needs watching. Thomas is clearly part of some sort of supernatural secret organisation so secret that barely its own members know the identity of others in the group. He discovers that Harry, thinking he's helping a distraught mother rescue her son, is in fact being set up by a dark power intent on performing a dark and dangerous ritual. Thomas needs to make sure the boy is safe, the villainess is stopped and that Harry never even suspects the truth about what is going on.

It was great to get more insight into Thomas' character, and even more fun to see how one of the major supporting characters of the series views our hero. I tend to find that when authors of first person-focused series shifts the POV to supporting characters, like Ilona Andrews has done a couple of times, it's always enjoyable and fleshes out the universe of the series even more.

The Warrior - first appearing in Mean Streets, an anthology featuring supernatural P.Is (of which Harry obviously is one), this story shows us how Harry's good friend (and father of his apprentice Molly) Michael Carpenter is doing after the events of Small Favour. Someone is targeting Harry and the Carpenters, and it seems the reason is that they want to get their hands on the two holy swords Harry has for safe-keeping.

Michael has always been a steadying presence in The Dresden Files and is a genuinely good man. Harry has always seen himself as a lot more morally ambiguous, definitely defined more as within the shades of grey than a straight up good guy. Here he sees that he can have a steadying influence on his old friend occasionally too, and that there are more ways to serve the forces of good than he might have suspected.

Last Call - first appearing in Strange Brew, this story finds Mac, Harry's stoic bartender friend having been viciously beaten in his own bar, a place that's supposed to be neutral territory in all matters supernatural. Harry and Murphy investigate, aided by Molly, and discover that there is some form of wicked enchantment on Mac's micro-brewed beer.

Probably one of the stories in this collection that I least enjoyed, this was still fun and featured my two favourite women in the Dresden Files, Murphy and Molly.

Love Hurts - originally written for the anthology Songs of Love and Death, this short story has Harry and Murphy investigating a string of deaths, all involving couples, dead within the last few weeks. They discover that the common link between the victims is a fun fair outside of Chicago, and that the couples all died because of a malevolent love spell. Can Harry and Murphy avoid the love spell themselves?

The relationship between Harry and Karrin Murphy is a complicated one. There is clearly a spark of attraction between them, that tantalising will they-won't they?, but they don't want to mess up their friendship and professional working relationship. It's bitter-sweet to see a glimpse of what might be if they didn't hold back.

Aftermath - this story was written for this collection, and does, as I mentioned above, take place very shortly after the last pages of book 12. It's another story which gives us a new POV, this time from Karrin Murphy, possibly Harry's best friend in the world. She's trying to figure out what happened to him after they last saw each other, but her attention is divided when Billy Borden, comes to her and explains that his wife Georgia has disappeared, and that she's seven months pregnant. It's clear that dark powers are trying to establish a foothold in Chicago, and they are collecting supernatural creatures for nefarious purposes. Murphy has no magical powers, just her police and martial arts training. When working with Billy to save Georgia, it becomes all the more obvious to her how outclassed she is against supernatural threats without the magical aid of Harry Dresden.

I don't want to say too much about this story, as it's the most spoilery of the bunch, but even when it was sometimes painful to see the insides of her head (because of the context of the story), it was great to see the world through Murphy's eyes. I especially liked her translations from "Martian", the language all men speak and which she understands so well after a lifetime of working with them.

Frequently, I don't get as much out of short stories when they're collected in various themed anthologies. I much prefer reading them like this, where they help expand and give new insight into a fictional universe I'm already familiar with and enjoy. With very few exceptions, these stories were all good and added to my enjoyment of The Dresden Files. I think I'm ready to read the next proper novel now. After all, the new book is out at the end of May.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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