Here is a collection of eleven stories, ranging from very short up to novelette length, supplementing the novels of the Dresden Files. One was written before Storm Front, the very first Dresden novel, when Harry was still an apprentice detective and Jim Butcher was still learning to write. Another was suggested by his publisher as a promotional gimmick for one of his earlier books. One was written for this collection. And the rest were originally published in anthologies with stories by other authors, organized around themes like weddings and honeymoons, mead and beer, birthday mayhem, comedy, and romance. Also included is the novella Backup, originally published as a standalone title.
Here’s what you want to know about these stories in general: Their writing was spread out over most of the years Butcher has been working on the Dresden Files. They fill cracks in the canon between the Dresden novels, and blanks in the background of Harry and his friends. They spotlight a rich variety of themes, tones, and secondary characters. They cover a range of moods between deep cold terror and urgent panicky thrills, between laughter and tragedy, between light detective jobs with a side of magic and crises that shake the fabric of creation. Two of them are told from the point of view of characters other than Harry, while he himself remains in the background. And yet all of them are charged with the unmistakable energy of fun that we have come to associate with a certain wisecracking, tough-as-nails wizard.
And now for the stories themselves! “A Restoration of Faith” is the first Dresden adventure ever written. It features a vanilla missing-persons case that quickly swirls into nuttiness. First the runaway kid doesn’t want to come home. Then her parents try to get out of paying the detectives they hired by accusing Dresden and his partner of kidnapping. The involvement of a bridge troll is just the magical cherry on top. Though the story oversells its emotional impact, it has the added value of introducing Dresden to police officer Karrin Murphy, who goes on to be his most reliable colleague in the long run. Skip ahead to the end of the book, where “Aftermath” presents a case where Murphy takes the lead, after Dresden’s apparent death and her own suspension from the police force in Changes. By that point, it is clear to everyone that she’s the first person to call if you can’t get Harry. But her hair-raising case, involving members of the nefarious Fomor—amphibious people who shoot acid-tipped spines at their victims—proves in frenzied, violent action that an ordinary mortal on her own has very little chance against magical nasties. Carrying on without Dresden means arming for bear, taking the bad guys by surprise, and hitting them fast, hard, and with exceptional cleverness and skill. But even that wouldn’t be enough without some backup from a young werewolf named Will, whose pregnant wife is one of many “specials” the Fomor have abducted for some sinister purpose.
Will and Georgia are also involved in the story “Something Borrowed,” in which an evil faerie named Jenny Greenteeth tries to turn their wedding day into a marriage of horror and death. The honeymoon-themed story “Heorot” also confronts Dresden with a client whose newlywed wife is missing. This time, Dresden partners with Ms. Gard, the literal Valkyrie who works for “Gentleman” John Marcone, to solve a case that also involves a stolen keg of mead—the very thing to help a mythological monster get in the mood for love. Yuck! Harry’s bartender friend Mac, who brings him on board for this case, needs his help again in “Last Call.” This time a batch of Mac’s craft beer has been magically tampered with. The resulting mayhem puts several people in the hospital, including Mac; and more of it is about to turn a Chicago Bulls game into a deadly riot.
Humor predominates in “Vignette,” a slender story featuring Harry and his lab assistant, Bob the Skull. We get a more substantial look at the lighter side of the Dresden Files in “Day Off,” in which Harry just wants to spend a bit of rare free time getting ready for a hot date. Instead, he has to deal with terrorist threats from a lame, would-be dark lord whom he calls Darth Wannabe, plus a love spell that brings out the animal in a couple of his werewolf friends, plus an apprentice whose potions practice has reached the stage of blowing up Harry’s lab.
In “It’s My Birthday Too,” Harry wants to give a present to his half-brother, the White Court vampire Thomas Raith. Delivering the package on time means crashing a vampire-themed cosplay party at a big suburban mall. Luckily, he’s there when a group of Black Court vampires decide to turn the game into something terrifyingly real. Thomas returns the favor in “Backup,” when he saves Harry from a case that could destroy the world. His brotherly assistance goes unappreciated, because neither Harry nor the rest of the world can ever know about the secret war in which Thomas is engaged—an ages-long war to guard the mortal world against evil beings who need only be remembered, or believed in, to get in.
“Love Hurts” is a Dresden-and-Murphy adventure that climaxes at the Tunnel of Terror at the Illinois State Fair. Strangely this, rather than the Tunnel of Love, proves to be Ground Zero of an outbreak of mind-altering magic that causes each pair of its victims to fall passionately in love. Almost as bad as the fact that some of these victims have been driven to insanity, and even suicide, is the heartache that Harry and Karrin will experience when they realize that they must destroy their one chance to be happy together. And finally there’s “The Warrior,” in which Harry’s friend Michael Carpenter, Fist of God emeritus, is dragged out of retirement by the abduction of one of his kids. The culprit is a rogue priest who knows about the two angelic swords that Harry holds for safekeeping. He believes Harry is a force for evil, deliberately preventing these weapons of goodness from being used. But the steps Father Douglas is prepared to take to right this wrong shows that he has gotten some of his notions of good and evil turned around. This case hits Harry with a moral dilemma—and I don’t just mean the choice between safeguarding the swords and saving Michael’s child. It culminates with an interesting chat between Harry and an archangel about the age-old question: Why does a good God let bad things happen?
I haven’t described these stories in the order in which they appear. And I’m afraid this still isn’t an exhaustive collection of short stories based on the Dresden Files. I know of at least a few more stories that are out there, perhaps waiting to be collected in another volume. Each of these stories gives instant satisfaction to friends of Harry Dresden who have read the series at least up to Changes. They bring Harry and all your favorite secondary characters up against a variety of threats; and while each helping is only snack-sized, you’ll recognize all the flavors of the full meal deal.
If this metaphor suggests that I’m thinking of sinking my teeth into something, you might also like to know that the audiobook edition is ably narrated by James Marsters, who played the vampire Spike on TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As one might expect of an actor whose range also includes Superman villains and bisexual Time Lords, he knows how to put the chill into villains’ voices, innocence into the voice of a child, sensuality into that of a seductive female, grim endurance into characters like Thomas, grit and charm into ones like Harry and Murphy. Jim Butcher is lucky to have a talent like that reading his stuff. But he’s probably too busy launching the latest book of the Dresden Files to think about it. Skin Game was officially released today. I doubt it will be long before I sink my claws into it.