Tangent Online

  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size
the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Brief Cases by Jim Butcher

E-mail Print

Brief Cases

 

 

 

by

 

 

Jim Butcher

 

 

 

 

(Ace, hc, June 5, 2018, 448 pp.)

 

 

A Fistful of Warlocks”
B is for Bigfoot”
AAAA Wizardry”
I Was A Teenage Bigfoot”
Curses”
Even Hand”
Bigfoot On Campus”
Bombshells”
Cold Case”
Jury Duty”
Day One”
Zoo Day”

Reviewed by C.D. Lewis

Brief Cases is Jim Butcher’s newest collection consisting of twelve stories set in the universe of his bestselling Dresden Files universe. Eleven have been collected from themed anthologies edited by others, and which Butcher’s fans may consequently have missed while looking on the bookshelf under B. Butcher concludes the anthology with his previously unpublished “Zoo Day.” When I interviewed Butcher last year before several hundred of his fans at Comicpalooza 2017, he said of his short stories (and here I paraphrase from memory because, as it turns out, nobody videotaped it) that there might not be more short stories because they required a different skill set than a novel-length story, and were a lot of work to do well, which kept him from the novels people really wanted and which paid better. In the hope of making a subtle plug for more short stories, I pointed out that many of his fans loved seeing the Dresdenverse through the point of view of characters besides Dresden—characters whose take on the world is normally opaque to the novels’ narrator, and Butcher reported that he really loved being able to write from the point of view of other characters which increased his freedom to show Dresden as seen by others. Fans will love Brief Cases both because it contains a few short stories they missed elsewhere, and because “Zoo Day” is a gem none who love Dresden (and his daughter Maggie, or the dogasaurus Mouse) will willingly miss.

Told from the point of view of Anastasia Luccio, “A Fistful of Warlocks” opens in the Wild West when Luccio was younger and more reckless—after she became a Warden of the White Counsel, but before she became Captain of the Wardens. On the trail of a murderer-by-magic, she stumbles into a coven of necromancers led by Kemmler, who in the Dresden Files backstory had been the greatest necromancer in history. As a bonus, we get to learn how some famous Wild West personages connected to the supernatural conflicts that shaped the Dresdenverse, and see some characters who (thanks to wizards’ long lifespans) turn up later in Dresden Files novels. It’s fun to see Luccio’s takes-no-crap inner thoughts and get a sense of her business-first ethic which shapes who she becomes by the time we meet her in the Dresden Files.

Jim Butcher reports that despite growing up with a fear of Bigfoot, he hadn’t actually thought of a place for Bigfoot in the Dresdenverse despite having found places for demons, angels, witches, Norse and Greek gods, faeries, unicorns, and practically everything else. Correcting this oversight, Butcher wrote “B is for Bigfoot” (set between Fool Moon and Grave Peril), “I Was A Teenage Bigfoot” (set around the time of Dead Beat) and “Bigfoot On Campus” (set between Turn Coat and Changes). Each was previously published elsewhere before being collected once before in Butcher’s Working for Bigfoot anthology. Told from Harry Dresden’s own point of view, each shows readers what kind of work Harry Dresden takes between novels, and the scale of problems he solves on his regular weekends (as opposed to the couple of days that frame a novel, which is usually the worst weekend of his year). The stories follow Dresden’s work for a member of the Forest People, who hires Dresden to help his half-human son Irwin, who over the course of the stories faces a succession of threats as a middle-schooler, a high-schooler, and a college student. All three contain trademark Dresden snark and humor. “Bigfoot on Campus” may be the most like the novels: it involves more characters and different kinds of threats, it involves mortal law enforcement, it lengthens Dresden’s arrest record, and it puts Dresden himself in the most serious peril. The Big Bad in “B is for Bigfoot” outclasses Harry in magical force, but Harry’s thoughtful/diplomatic solution saves himself from a straight-up fight. “B is for Bigfoot” is much more about teaching children to confront bullies than it’s about rescuing them from bullies, which is a wonderful theme and fun to read. “I Was A Teenage Bigfoot” is largely a combination of suspense and comedy, but since Irwin is unconscious from illness most of the story we learn less about him in it than about his school, his family, and Dresden. By the time of “Bigfoot On Campus” young Irwin is old enough to be convinced he doesn’t need help, which is by itself a serious obstacle, and helps improve the story through further complication. Definitely read these back to back, for continuity. They’re fun alone, sure, but even better as a collection.

In “AAAA Wizardry” Harry Dresden relates his instruction of new Wardens in investigative techniques to use when addressing magical threats in their territories. It opens in a hotel conference room where class has assembled; the main action is presented as a case study delivered for teaching purposes. Each return to the classroom allows reflection, interpretation, and suspense-building. The story leverages a Butcher maxim that everything done or decided in the story-world must have a consequence if the story is to have meaning, and uses Dresden’s students’ questions and reactions to reveal dark problems that will overshadow and haunt Dresden for the rest of his career. Excellent introduction for new readers to the Dresdenverse, its values, and its mood.

First published in Ellen Datlow’s 2011 anthology Naked City, “Curses” leverages Harry Dresden’s work in Chicago to explain and predict the end of the Billy Goat Curse that from 1945 until 2016 kept the Cubs from winning a World Series. This story is fun. You don’t even have to like baseball, you just have to understand that some people love it. The emotional force of the story comes in significant part from knowledge that Dresden has always been in a financially precarious position—the first novel opens with the delivery of bill collectors’ letters and delinquency notices—and he lives a life of relative privation. What he’s willing to do to ensure people continue to enjoy their ballgames shows the size of his heart. Don’t miss.

Even Hand” presents a Fomor attack on a fortified bunker, told from the point of view of crime boss “Gentleman” John Marcone. Dresden does not appear in the story, but we see Hendricks, Gard, and Justine under pressure—and under magical assault. Readers who wondered what kind of trouble a nonmagical mortal could get into in a world full of magic, and doubted Marcone could repel Dresden in a fury, will be interested to see both the assault Marcone draws by holding his ground, and the defenses at Marcone’s disposal—defenses especially designed to stop Dresden. Unfortunately for Marcone and those seeking shelter with him, the defenses aren’t calculated to stop a Fomorian noble with its bile up …

Bombshells” is the story of Dresden’s apprentice Molly, set between Ghost Story and Cold Days—while everyone believes Dresden dead—as she solves the kind of problem Dresden might have solved. But she does it her way. And gets paid a lot better doing it, thank you very much. Butcher subverts gender-based expectations about characters solving problems through seduction, demanding and/or performing sexual services as part of a bargain, and capitulating…by including the recurring character Thomas, a sex-vampire. Molly Carpenter’s point of view is different enough from Harry Dresden’s—and dark enough—to justify the tale’s inclusion in the anthology in which it originally appeared, Dangerous Women. To see her savage instincts barely restrained by the advice and guidance of her departed mentor is a dark delight.

Cold Case” once more follows Molly—but this time, in her first outing as the newly-minted Winter Lady. Sent by Mab (Queen of Air and Darkness, etc.) to collect a debt past due in the Alaska port of Unalaska, she encounters the dashing young Warden Ramirez. Both also find a local chapter of the Cult of the Sleeper, whose freakish members hope to loose upon the world a horrific elder god—which would feed quite happily on a Queen of Faerie. We see the inner thoughts of Molly trying to solve problems while wearing the mantle of a Queen of Faerie, and subject to all the limitations it imposes. In Skin Game we heard Molly say she “literally can’t” explain her work as a faerie, and in “Cold Case” we get a glimpse what that looks like from her perspective. The story is full of playful banter and hints at lighthearted things, but it is dark, deliciously dark, and ought not be missed. You heard Mab was Queen of the wicked faeries? Now you can see what that means.

Jury Duty” follows Harry Dresden a few days after he is summoned…for jury duty. There’s several stories going on, of course: the one Dresden tries to follow, the one Dresden stumbles into, and the one that explains how Dresden really got pulled into the mess. “Jury Duty” is just complicated enough to feel like it belongs in the Dresdenverse without actually taking on the scale of a Dresden-sized novel problem. As he so often does, Dresden does the right thing despite seeing how he’s been manipulated, because the alternative would let good people get hurt. It’s a fun read. Also: Dresden undercover as a street musician. You didn’t know anyone that tall could do undercover, did you? Entertaining solution to the original problem turns out to involve nothing more (or less) than the power of a juror’s vote. For the rest? Magic. And some salesmanship.

Set after Cold Days, “Day One” follows Dresden’s ally Waldo Butters, a Jewish assistant medical examiner, on his first day as a holy-sword-wielding Knight of the Cross. Entertaining from the early pages, we see Butters training under Michael Carpenter, the retired Knight who took “one last job” during Cold Days—until Butters hears The Call. Well, sees it, more like. In the form of a giant exclamation point, hovering over a nearby person MMORPG-style, informing him this is where his quest starts. We get to see Butters getting into a problem that’s bigger than he thinks, facing a longtime personal fear, and when it’s clear no help is coming beyond the good advice of friends, we see him play the hero alone. Butters had a lot of fans coming into Cold Days, and many Dresden files readers were excited for the character after the climax of Cold Days, and those folks will want to catch this story if they haven’t seen it already in Unfettered II.

Finally, “Zoo Day” presents Harry Dresden’s first day as a Dad. He takes Maggie to the zoo with her emotional support dog, Mouse. For those keen to read the works in chronological order, “Zoo Day” is set at the same time as “Day One” (after the action closes in Cold Days). It opens with Harry Dresden’s familiar first-person narration, but switches point of view twice as it proceeds through Jim Butcher’s first story that has what he described a Russian Doll story structure. Like the nested dolls, each segment has the same basic shape but reveals something different about the story. In this case, we see Harry’s father-daughter zoo outing as viewed by three different narrators: Harry, Maggie, and Mouse. Each version changes our perspective on what’s really going on. Since each of the three has a different background—and different capacity to see what’s around them—we see a totally different central conflict in each of the versions, with different and increasingly escalating stakes. The story’s delight is amplified for those familiar with the characters and their existing relationships; those who loved Mouse’s confrontation with Lea in Changes can’t miss this.


C.D. Lewis lives and writes in Faerie.