a review by Nalini Haynes
Side Jobs is a collection of short stories about Harry Dresden, a wizard who lives in Chicago, working as a detective-come-magical expert. Based around a growing series of novels, these short stories have mostly been written for inclusion in anthologies and magazines when the author was invited to contribute. Each story has a foreword giving context around the writing of the story and placing it within the Harry Dresden timeline.
The very first short story was never published before because it was written while Jim Butcher was developing his writing ability. Although an atrocious story in many ways, I loved reading it because, well, really, because I’m a fan. I could see all the basic elements of the series in this short story that had been taken and refined. This was an exercise in development of skill, which is not something writers often share. Also, this story that was previously unpublished is also canon: other Dresden books refer to some of the events in this story, thus incorporating it into the whole. Let’s just pass over the trolls. And the plot holes. It’s fine.
The other stories vary in tone and content, showing more of favourite side-characters, having some fun, giving Harry a hard time…
One of the issues I have with short stories is that often I’ve finished reading them and felt dissatisfied. By definition, a short story cannot have great character development or world-building – there isn’t the room. My grade six English teacher said that every short story should have a twist at the end. I can still remember a few of the stories we studied, which has deeply impacted my attitude to short stories. In my quest for science fiction reading during high school, I found anthologies including stories that compensated for two dimensional characters by including twisty conclusions or intelligent exploration of philosophy, ethics or social comment. Later these seemed to disappear from shelves, so the only short stories I seemed to read were the ones in the magazines in doctor’s waiting rooms. Then it got to the point where I couldn’t read these any more.
The short stories in Side jobs may not allow for character development in themselves, but the larger series of novels provides the necessary character development and world-building. This frees these short stories to be anecdotes in a much larger framework. Sometimes there are unforseen twists, at others Dresden just seems to barrel through the story to the end. Throwing fireballs that do not comply with RPG (role-playing game) rules. Seriously.
I have really enjoyed having Side Jobs sitting on my coffee table, waving at me when I’ve had a spare half hour or so, or as a sorbet between courses of epic fantasy. Side Jobs could be the beginning of me reading more short stories.
Side jobs is highly recommended for fans of the Dresden Files. If you’re not a fan and don’t mind jumping in to a short story anthology without the surrounding character development or background knowledge, then I recommend skipping the first story and reading the rest. You never know, you might find yourself embarking on the longer journey with the Dresden Files.
Originally published in Dark Matter issue 6, November 2011. This blog has been pre-dated to reflect the date of original publication.