Review of Side Jobs: Stories from the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher
Side Jobs: Stories from the Dresden Files
by Jim Butcher
This review contains spoilers for the ending of Changes and possibly other books in the Dresden Files series. It does not, however, contain spoilers for the short stories themselves in Side Jobs, so I have not marked the review with a spoiler alert.
This is how much I love the Dresden Files: not only will I buy every book as it is released, a practice I eschew for a great many other authors I still adore, but I will go to great lengths to buy that book on release day if at all possible. My experience buying Side Jobs testifies to this determination. It was a stormy Tuesday morning when I woke up and realized it was the release day for this book. By stormy, I mean torrential rain and wind that managed to knock down power lines in several places throughout the city. So not only did I make a special trip to Chapters in the rain for Side Jobs, but I negotiated around closed off streets and braved intersections where the traffic lights had no power. That is how much faith I put in Jim Butcher and Harry Dresden. When I sit down with one of these books, I know I'm going to enjoy it, and that is a nice type of anticipation to have once in a while.
So the question with Side Jobs, as it is with every Dresden Files book, is not if I like it, but how much. And let's be honest with ourselves: if you are a Dresden Files fangirl or fanboy as I am, you're going to buy this book even if it sucks. Fortunately for you, this book is a must-have for any collector of the Dresden Files, be ye fanatic or simply a casual connoisseur of the Dresden.
A few of the stories—particularly the first two, "A Restoration of Faith" and "Vignette"—are not that good, and I'm not going to talk about them. Instead, let me discuss some of the stories I liked, the story I loved, and that final novella, "Aftermath," in which we learn what Murphy goes through immediately following the events of Changes.
Some of these stories are funny. Not just snarky and entertaining in Harry's trademark, sarcastic way, but outright comedic. Part of this comes from the reasons Butcher wrote each story, such as the comedic sci-fi/fantasy anthology for which he wrote "Day Off." Yet I think it's also a side effect of Butcher writing Harry for a shorter length of story. Humour is a nice route to exploring a character, and character studies can make for great short stories, especially when paired with fantastic action sequences or descriptions, as we see in "Day Off" and "Last Call." Despite the often serious consequences in his adventures, Harry is still a very funny guy.
The stories that really shine, however, are those where Harry displays his heroism in the face of those serious consequences, even if it's sometimes chivalrous to the point of chauvinism. Two of the stories collected here, "Something Borrowed" and "Heorot," involve a fiancée or wife, respectively, being kidnapped by a monster. The monsters have different motivations (one has revenge on the mind, while the other wants to breed), and the resolutions are different as well (I loved seeing Harry team up with Gard, and I loved the action sequence in "Heorot.") But I can see how this concentrated dose of chivalry might make one uncomfortable with Harry or with Butcher; why does the wizard always have to rescue damsels in distress? Recall that even when Butcher seems to be yielding to one trope, he's subverting or averting another. Almost all of the female characters in the series are strong, either physically, emotionally, or both. You've got metaphorical Valkyries like Murphy, who shines in "Love Hurts" and "Aftermath," and literal Valkyries like Gard, who kicks ass in the same "Heorot" that pulls a damsel-in-distress on us.
One way in which the short stories deviate from the novel formula is in their perspective, which isn't always Harry's. There are two such stories in Side Jobs: "Aftermath" is one, and the other is "Backup," a novelette from Thomas' point of view. The latter is interesting for two reasons: for Thomas' viewpoint, naturally, but also because it adds to the mythology of the Dresdenverse in a way a Harry Dresden story cannot. As Butcher explains in the preface, Harry can't know about the Oblivion War, but it's a plot point that fits perfectly with other Dresdenverse lore (and tickles that part of my brain dedicated to speculating about the Outsiders, such as He Who Walks Behind, who seems to have a plan in mind for Harry). I love the mythology around the Dresdenverse, which is both creative and enduring in a way that only makes me want more.
Speaking of more, the cliffhanger in Changes definitely left me wanting more, and Side Jobs teases us with a new story set forty-five minutes after the end of Changes. The appropriately named "Aftermath," however, doesn't quite live up to the hype. This is completely understandable, because "Aftermath" is a story about Murphy and her role in Harry's life, not a story about Harry told from Murphy's point of view. So what we get is much better, actually: we get to see Murphy snap into action when she realizes there is a possibility that Harry won't be coming back from this one. And her reaction demonstrates how much Murphy has changed over twelve Dresden Files novels, how much she has grown as a character. Even as she refuses to admit Harry is dead—"There's this voice inside me that keeps pointing out that we haven't seen a body. Until I have …"—she steps into to take his place, to carry the torch, as it were, "Until Dresden gets back."
And I can think of no way more fitting to celebrate Harry Dresden and his life than that. To see so clearly how Harry has affected so many people's lives, to see Murphy and the Alphas step up and say, "It's on us now," is so moving. We have come such a long way from Storm Front, when Murphy was a detective who tolerated Harry and certainly didn't trust him. In the last ten years, they have formed a bond that is deeper than friendship (even if, as we see in "Love Hurts," it can never quite be more than that on the surface). And to see her honour and remember Harry by fighting the good fight, despite all she's been through, is awesome.
Still, "Aftermath" pales in comparison to the single best story in Side Jobs, one which surprised me. Damn you, Jim Butcher, for making me laugh and cry at the same time. When I began reading "The Warrior," I actually thought I would dislike it. Firstly, Michael has always grated on me as a character, and it's not just his constant faith in God. I love him for giving us Molly, who is one of my favourite characters, but he never quite seemed as round or complex. And then Butcher hits me with "The Warrior," which not only made me love Michael and laugh at Harry but, despite being an atheist, choke up at Uriel's homily about how Harry's actions have made the world a better place and Michael is still fighting the good fight:
I just stared at him for a moment. "But … I didn't actually mean to do any of that."
He smiled. "But you chose the actions that led to it. No one forced you to do it. And to those people, what you did saved t hem from danger as real as any creature of the night." He turned to look down at the church below and pursed his lips. "People have far more power than they realize, if they would only choose to use it. Michael might not be cutting demons with a sword anymore, Harry. But don't think for a second that he isn't still fighting the good fight. It's just harder for you to see the results from down here."
That's not all that's great about "The Warrior." There are intriguing tidbits in Uriel and Harry's conversation, doors opened that I hope are later explored more thoroughly:
Jake shrugged. "But if you hadn't, you'd have died in that harness, and he'd have died on that island."
I scowled. "What?"
Jake waved a hand. "I won't bore you with details, but suffice to say that your choice in that moment changed everything."
Finally, we have what may be my favourite moment in Side Jobs. Harry has come to the park, where Michael is coaching his daughter's softball team. And one of the girls has gone off by herself, upset because she doesn't think she's a good enough player. Harry suggests that no one can be perfect, that you can't just retreat into your house and live in Bubble Wrap. And he explains why:
I snorted. "They still make you read Dickens in school? Great Expectations?'
"You can stay at home and hide if you want—and wind up like Miss Havisham," I said. "Watching life through a window and obsessed with how things might have been."
"Dear God," she said. "You've just made Dickens relevant to my life."
I'm pretty sure there are English teachers who would kill to hear a student say that, and to watch Harry cause that to happen was both pleasant and sensational.
Side Jobs isn't perfect. It is hard for an anthology to be perfect. Still, as I said before, if you are a Dresden Files fan, you should read this. If you are a collector, you should buy this. It's a wonderful addition to the series, with some truly great stories you might not have had a chance to read, particularly "The Warrior." Although "Aftermath" might not have any of the resolution you were hoping for after Changes, I think it's an excellent story about how Murphy deals with the shock of losing one of the most important people in her life. And it's a foreshadowing of how difficulty the days are going to become—for Harry, and for those left behind.
I can't believe I have to wait until April for Ghost Story!