Gentleman Johnny Marcone, Chicago mob boss, is kidnapped by a group of bad guys possessed by demons. Harry Dresden is a wizard who, with the help of his friends, has to save Marcone while fending off attacks by a group of fae hit men.
The Dresden Files is set in modern day Chicago, with the addition of magic, wizards and just about every magical creature you can think of. Most of the residents don’t know there’s any such thing as magic. Butcher makes a big deal about how people can ignore just about anything. In this case, that’s helped along by setting most of the book in the middle of a blizzard. People stamping around, sipping coffee, trying to keep warm adds a nice atmospheric touch.
Harry Dresden is a wizard crossed with a gumshoe and owes a lot to Robert B Parker’s Spenser (both books and the Spenser for Hire TV show). Unfortunately, he didn’t inherit Spenser’s way with the ladies. Instead he’s a lovable dork who doesn’t go on a lot of dates.
This is not a big character growth novel. This is a ‘Harry Dresden needs to figure out this problem and save the world’ novel. There are several big character moments towards the end, but most of the novel is driven by the twists and turns of the case at hand. You almost see more growth in secondary characters than you do in Harry. This is fine, since you can’t have massive character growth for 10 or 20 novels in a row. That will just twist your character into unrecognizability (expected if the protagonist starts out at age 12, less so if he’s mid-20’s).
The Dresden Files are written in first person. You’re riding along in Harry’s head for all the action and you don’t see anything that Harry wouldn’t have. In the tradition of all the great gumshoes past, Harry has a well developed internal monologue so you’re treated to his thoughts and insights about any number of things.
Butcher uses this to good effect, delaying reveals and keeping the reader in the dark about things until Harry can find out for himself.
Doing a ride-along in a character’s head doesn’t work very well if you don’t like the character. All those sentences starting with “I” pretty much force you to put yourself into the character’s shoes and envision yourself doing things. Thankfully, Harry is a lovable character, easily identified with.
There are two ongoing sub-plots in Small Favor. The first starts with the disappearance of Marcone. The second with an attack on Harry.
The Marcone plot plays out like a game of chess, with two sides each trying to out-think and anticipate each other’s moves. The moves are frequently violent, and in fact my favorite fight scene in the entire series happens in this book, when Harry manifests a magical hand and smacks someone around.
The assassination plot is secondary. Harry’s just trying to survive while he takes care of the Marcone plot. This sub plot doesn’t feel so much like a chess match as it does a series of high jumps with the bar moving ever higher. The final victory in this plot is my favorite victory in the entire Dresden Files series. After countering all the previous challenges physically, Harry uses his brain to get out of the last one in a way that only Harry Dresden could do. It’s perfectly in character and I loved it.
You never know when things will go from “under control” to “oh shit”. As the series progresses, Butcher gets better and better at writing action scenes. In this book, he does an excellent job of taking us from action sequence to action sequence with just the right amount of framing material in between to heighten the tension. Not a fast paced thriller that accelerates to the end, but a quickly moving tale nonetheless. No tedious slowdowns that I noticed.
You may have noticed that this book features not one but TWO favorites from the entire series (now at 13 novels). That’s not to say the rest of the series is bad, just that I happen to particularly like this book. It’s great, and I have to recommend the whole series. Jumping in on book 10 wouldn’t work so well.
For the most part, I’ve quit buying paper books. This series is one of the very few that I’m still buying on dead trees. Further, they’re good enough to merit a hard cover and an ebook, both on release day.