Sunday, March 30, 2014

A Worthy Successor?

I’m currently listening to the third book in the Iron Druid Chronicles via audiobook.  While checking out what Wikipedia had to say about the book, I ran across this quote:

In their review of Hammered, SFFWorld said that “Hearne and Atticus could be the logical heir to Butcher and Dresden.”

Now, I’ve talked before about my enthusiasm for the Dresden Files (twice, even).  So obviously I’m keen to evaluate anything that might live up to that standard.  Does the Iron Druid fit the bill?  Well, the short answer is, it’s in the same vein, and it shows some promise, but (at least so far) it’s still a significant step behind.

First of all, of course, one must ask if Butcher and Dresden need an heir: the series is still ongoing.  I’m not exactly desperate for something to fill a void, seeing as the void doesn’t yet exist.  And secondly, we have to recognize that Dresden is pretty much the top of that game.  Something can fail to meet the excellence set by Butcher and still be pretty damn good.  It’s somewhat like comparing (say) Artemis Fowl to Harry Potter.  There’s no doubt that Colfer has written a damn fine set of books, and they’re interesting, engaging, and immersive.  I highly recommend them.  But, as good as Rowling’s masterpiece?  Let’s be reasonable here.

It’s also instructive to compare and contrast.  Dresden is classic urban fantasy, meaning that it’s like the best supernatural fantasy combined with the best detective noir.  The Iron Druid takes a small sidestep; it’s still urban fantasy, surely (although Tempe Arizona is never going to be mistaken for a major modern metropolis), but Atticus owes nothing to Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe.  While there are definite callbacks to Butcher, I actually see more similiarties to Gaiman—American Gods in particular.  And, since that’s Gaiman’s masterwork, that’s a pretty high compliment.  And, while there’s a strong comparison to be made, it isn’t just a cheesy rip-off either.  It’s an interesting take on the concept, exploring different avenues than Gaiman did.  (Although, to be fair, that’s a particularly large neighborhood, so Hearne and Gaiman and several other authors besides could all wander around in there for a few odd decades without needing to do more than cross each other’s paths occasionally.)

Iron Druid retains the general shape of urban fantasy—the vampires and werewolves are present, but slightly backgrounded, and the other legends and monsters are focused on for variety—but by mining the mythological vein that Gaiman struck with Gods (and, to a lesser extent, Anansi Boys), Hearne opens his story to epic quests such as those of Ulysses, Gilgamesh, or Bran.  The latter of whom is the most relevant, of course, since Celtic mythology is the source of the druids in the first place.  So it’s going in a slightly different direction than Dresden.

Additionally, Atticus is a very different man than Harry.  Atticus is over 2,000 years old, first of all, which puts him in a whole different category of wisdom and experience.  He remains surprisingly relatable (and modern) for all that, which sometimes works to the disadvantage of the story, as it can make him harder to swallow than Harry, who’s just an ordinary joe who happens to have some magical powers.  Atticus has very different goals than Harry as well, hiding from supernaturals as well as mortals, whereas Harry practices his magic openly.  And when Atticus goes into full-on diplomacy mode, mainly to deal with beings more powerful than himself, you definitely feel that Harry would be hard-pressed to match it.

On the other hand, both have a homebody streak, and seem constantly surprised and a bit annoyed that trouble keeps finding them, sort of reminiscent of Dante’s cry of “I’m not even supposed to be here today!”  And both have more than a dash of what I described previously as “insouciance,” although uses a definition that doesn’t capture all that I mean when I use the term.  What I mean is an irreverance—almost to the point of being ridiculous—in the face of serious, even life-threatening, situations.  Last time I talked about it, I specifically drew a parallel to Shawn from Psych (who completely removes the “almost” from that definition); if Shawn is at one end of a spectrum of what I’m calling “insouciance” and Harry is in the middle, Atticus is on the far side of Harry ... but not by that much.  So there are certainly parallels in characterization as well as genre.

And in overall story arc: in the first two Iron Druid books, just as in the first two (or so) Dresden Files books, there’s nothing much serious going on.  Just a typical sort of “monster-of-the-week” type plot.  Then, in the third book (pretty much the same time as in Dresden), things are starting to get more serious and world-shaking quest-y.  Although I have to say that the Iron Druid books feel more “fluffy” than the Dresden Files, and thus far I’m having a hard time taking the serious as seriously.  But perhaps that will improve if I stick with it.

I will give Hearne one leg-up over Butcher, though: as awesomely cool as Mouse is, Atticus’ Irish wolfhound Oberon is an amazing character.  Maybe it’s just the way Luke Daniels reads him in the audiobook versions, but I suspect Hearne’s writing deserves most of the credit.  Although I can’t recall if it’s specifically stated in the books, Oberon is most likely older and more experienced than a normal dog, and Atticus has taught him to speak English.  As a result, Oberon has a unique voice, a bizarre combination of canine wisdom and doggie innocence.  One moment he’s making insightful comments on the nature of mortality; the next, he’s begging for sausages.  Here’s a typical quote—in response to Atticus’ query about which movie Oberon would like to watch while he’s gone:

I think The Boondock Saints, because the Irish guys win.  Plus the cat ends badly.  It affirms my worldview and I feel validated.

So Oberon is damned entertaining whenever he shows up, and maybe even just a bit more fun than the conversations Harry has with Bob the skull.  But I would say that’s the only area where Atticus can edge out Harry, and even then it’s not by much.

Still, that doesn’t mean there isn’t some value to the Iron Druid Chronicles.  If you’ve caught up on all your Dresden and you’re looking for something else to fill some time, you could do far worse than this.  Particularly if you’re looking for an audiobook series—Luke Daniels is a great reader and does a fantastic job with bringing the books to life.  My only complaint is that they’re pretty short compared to a lot of the audiobooks I listen to, so I blast through them much too fast.  But they’re enjoyable, and I’m glad I discovered them.

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