The White Council of Wizards is meeting in Chicago to discuss the war with the Red Court Vampires (and by extension, all the vampires). Chicago is the home of Harry Dresden, a wizard for hire who combines his wizardry with investigations. So of course, it rains toads. Real ones. This is not good, because it means that a major player is getting ready to do something that Harry probably won’t like very much. One part of the problem is that, by some accounts, Harry caused the war when he fried a high vampire noble and a bunch of her retainers. He’s also not universally loved in the White Council. He gets his first major hint that things are going downhill when a ghoul tries to assassinate him. Then he finds out that Billy the Werewolf made an appointment for him that afternoon with a potential client, who turns out to be Mab, the Winter Queen of the Sidhe. No one wants to get involved with the Sidhe. Ever. Mab wants him to investigate the death of the Summer Knight, for which she is being blamed. He turns her down.
And then things start to get complicated.
The White Council decides that the Winter Queen’s job is the ideal trial for Harry, to prove once and for all that he is of good moral character, etc., etc, etc. In the meantime, a group of halflings hire him to find one of their number, gone missing for too long. His long-lost adoptive sister appears, with her own agenda. And . . . well, you get the idea.
I read Storm Front and Fool Moon, the first two volumes in the Dresden Files, when they first came out, and enjoyed them but wasn’t so overwhelmed that I kept up with the series. My bad. Summer Knight, the fourth book, shows that the series has grown up and become a substantial companion to Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake novels and Tanya Huff’s Blood series.
Harry himself is developing into what I can only call a “heroic anti-hero.” He’s a good guy who sometimes isn’t hard-bitten enough, and most of whose problems come from doing the right thing in ways that always don’t fit the accepted models of his peers on the White Council. He also has the refreshing quality of not allowing himself to be paralyzed by his moral quandaries — he sees what needs to be done and does it, no matter how much it hurts.
Jim Butcher also has the enviable ability to combine different strands of folklore into a rich and consistent universe — the Sidhe and other denizens of Faerie, vampires, werewolves, unicorns (in variety) ogres, wizards, fallen angels and secret arcane societies (both good guys and bad guys), all come together — usually, it seems, with the express purpose of making things difficult for Harry.
This particular volume also has some touches of humor that are rare in this subgenre — the diminutive faerie Toot-Toot and his troop, for example, are both charming and very, very funny and in offbeat, off-the-wall kind of way, from the ranks they’ve assigned themselves (from “Generous” through “Caption” to the “Privies,” both first- and second-class) and their passion for pizza. They’re actually one of my favorite parts of the book.
One warning — if you haven’t read the previous books, I recommend them. Characters and plot elements from earlier volumes keep reappearing in this series, and, while you can make sense of the story without knowing everything that happened before, it’s easier — and more entertaining — if you do.