Ranking The Dresden Files

Ever since he blew onto the scene in 2000, Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden has helped to redefine what we think of when we think of urban fantasy. Where would the genre be without the reluctant wizard private investigator from Chicago?

For eighteen years, Butcher has delighted fans with the exploits of his snarky, technology-phobic wizard, filling the 15 novels (and two short story collections) to date with a stable full to bursting with memorable villains and introducing  us to side characters cool enough to become archetypes themselves. From Mouse, the big dog, to Bob the sarcastic skull, these are… people (?) whom you won’t soon forget.

I’ve read this series since it began. At the start, I’d routinely spend my lunch money on the latest release; later, I’d crunch the numbers while at my university’s Barnes & Noble, trying to figure out how I could grab the next volume and still pay for my textbooks. The Dresden Files were my introduction to urban fantasy and for that I will always be grateful. The genre has become a mainstay of SFF, and in part, we have a snarky wizard in a duster with a broken down VW Beetle to thank for that.

In honor of today’s release of the latest Dresden Files short story collection, Brief Cases, and to keep myself busy while I wait in earnest for Harry’s 16th case (work on the long-delayed novel is said to be underway!), I’ve wracked my brain and poured over every novel so far to come up with rankings of each book. Eighteen years of my life well spent! With a tip of my hat to Harry’s favorite saying (“Hell’s Bells!”) the books are ranked from least best to best, and graded on a scale of 1 to 5 bells, with 5 being perfect. (And before you get too up in arms, remember: I recommend every volume of this series wholeheartedly, and grade them only in comparison to one another.)

Book 12: Changes
Unpopular opinion alert: plenty of fans rank this with the best of the series, but it’s on the bottom for me. With a title like that, you know something big is afoot. But the changes, when they come, aren’t quite as impactful as you might think. The reintroduction of Harry’s old girlfriend, who brings with her a surprise for him, have the bubbly scent of soap opera drama, and distract from the character journey Butcher has spent so many books building. This is the second book in the series that feels like a potential speed bump (we’ll get to the first in a minute), but readers would be missing out if they don’t get by it and head on to book 13. While it is full of “heck yeah” fist-pumping action and the promise of some big changes to the status quo, the ending is a bucket of cold water in the face, a shock that might leave some readers feeling betrayed. 1 out of 5 bells

Book 13: Ghost Story
Harry Dresden is just a little bit dead at the moment, felled by an unknown assassin’s bullet. Stripped of all his tricks, Harry must solve the case of his own murder and find a way back into the land of the living before it’s too late. This book moves slowly as Dresden comes to grips with his new reality. It’s heavy on the flashbacks and (a bit understandably) suffers from character inertia. Murphy refuses to investigate Dresden’s death, making his work from the other side harder than it needs to be. However, in Harry’s absence, we meet new characters with tons of promise—just the breath of fresh air the novel needed. 2 out of 5 bells

Book 6: Blood Rites
This is a rough one, mainly because it can be rather cringy. Chicago’s only wizard PI accepts a plea for help from a vampire friend and soon finds himself on a porn set, of all things, trying to find out how so many of the actresses are dying. There is a vampire subplot that makes things feel a bit overstuffed as well, like maybe Butcher stuck two books together to save time. Despite that, it contains one of the biggest turning points yet in the series. 3 out of 5 bells

Book 11: Turn Coat
Here, the format starts to work against Dresden. The series relied on a predictable format, volume after volume, and this is the first one where that feels like a hindrance. The plot is a little predictable, and while the magic isn’t gone, it was definitely clear the series needed to grow to prevent itself from getting stale. I expected fireworks, considering it concludes a rivalry that has dogged Harry since the very beginning. Unfortunately, it never quite crackles like I’d hoped. 2 out of 5 bells

Book 3: Grave Peril
I always felt like this book could be a stumbling block for new readers. There’s a lot of plot, and\ much happens off stage, as it were. It’s all connected to a mystery Harry and Murphy previously solved in the months before the events of this book, a decision that always felt disjointed to me (on first read, it can feel like you missed a book in-between). It’s just a brief downshift before the awesomeness that is book four, but still worth reading—who doesn’t love a good ghost story? 2 out of 5 bells

Book 14: Cold Days
Harry is (mostly) back to being alive, thanks to Queen Mab of the Faeries, who sends him on an impossible mission to pay her back for the favor. He has 24 hours to kill an immortal. Sure, why not? That should be a cake walk for the likes of Harry Dresden. Harry is still chewing on some of the deep thoughts that come with coming back from the dead, and is trying to sort out how to deal with Mab’s meddling. His new job as her Winter Knight messes with his emotions, making him angry, and (slightly worryingly) obsessed with sex, a slightly bizarre digression that detracts from some of the cooler parts of the book. Either way, we’re in another upswing. The series has bite again. 3 out of 5 bells

Book 5: Death Masks
This novel is a bridge builder, introducing new factions into the series and setting up new and major complications for our favorite Chicago wizard. Consequently, while still a fast-paced romp, it ends with more of a whisper than a bang. Meeting the new players is worth the price of admission, though. We learn more about the wizards and their rules, and how Dresden has broken them time and time again. 3 out of 5 bells

Book 10: Small Favor
The faeries are back! Man, Butcher writes some great faeries. Dresden has really come into his own now, and this novel feels like a building crescendo—like everything is swaying and threatening to topple right over. This is a story about the bonds the wizard has built over 10 books, and it sees Harry reliant on his friends and allies more than ever. When his back is against the wall, he learns he has people he can truly count on. He isn’t alone anymore. Harry is also much more assured of his powers, and feels like he’s leveled up from his earlier adventures. Yet at some point, something’s got to give. 3 out of 5 bells

Book 1: Storm Front
The book that started it all. Storm Front is our introduction to the world of Harry Dresden, Chicago wizard and private eye. It’s a fun novel, laying down a lot of what will become tropes in urban fantasy. It introduces us to many of the characters we will grow to love, such as Bob the skull and homicide detective Karrin Murphy. It’s aged a little poorly with time, but it’s still a crackerjack start to one of the most iconic urban fantasy series of the modern era. 3 out of 5 bells

Book 9: White Knight
Here, the Dresden Files is really hitting its stride, to the point that this truly ripping good adventure can almost be excused as just another solid entry in what has become an iconic series. Butcher keeps upping the stakes, pitting Harry against enemies ]new and old while trying to maintain a delicate web of alliances. It’s a hard balancing act, but somehow he’s managing it. For now. This book follows the now tried and true Dresden Files pattern: there’s a crime, Dresden goes to investigate, and shenanigans ensue. This volume offers several long-in-coming payoffs, with various long-running plot lines reaching resolutions. 4 out of 5 bells

Book 15: Skin Game
The most recent volume brought the series back with a bang. Harry is drawn into a heist plot with some of his biggest enemies, and must learn to work with them if he wants to get out of his adventure alive. It’s a return to form for the series, full of Butcher’s patented humor and magic. Harry, while deeply unhappy with his current gig as Winter Knight, seems to be back to his old tricks and making it work. It’s a fun outing that delivers the action of the first few volumes. The only bad part is that we’ve been waiting for the followup for three years now. (Fun fact: This volume was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel.) 4 out of 5 bells

Book 2: Fool Moon
Who doesn’t love werewolves? I mean, apart from Harry Dresden, who has to solve a murder in which all signs point to a shapeshifter as the culprit. Butcher builds on his first novel, setting up the formula and cementing his characters. We get some tantalizing hints about Harry’s backstory, and strap in for intriguing worldbuilding. All in all, a very solid sophomore novel. 4 out of 5 bells.

Book 8: Proven Guilty
Harry grows a lot in this book. We’re swiftly learning there’s no true good or bad in this world: “good” organizations do terrible things in the name of righteousness, and the “bad guys” are sometimes helpful and kind. Dresden turns away from the wizard council, trying to find ferret out a black magic user before they do. The council’s barbaric treatment of anyone who even puts a toe out of line turns Harry’s stomach. The morality of the series becomes more interesting as Butcher blends in new shades of gray. 4 out of 5 bells

Book 7: Dead Beat
And who doesn’t love necromancers? I mean (again), apart from Harry Dresden. Who can blame him, when they are out to thoroughly ruin the life of his best friend, Karrin Murphy? This is a book about consequences. For seven books, Harry has run around as if nothing he does has any larger ripples outside of his little world. This is when his sins and demons come back to bite him. His friends and allies are starting to wonder about his motives and his sanity. Murphy, swept up in the supernatural and the occult, is swiftly learning that a friendship with Dresden is a liability. It’s a real shift in the series, and clear hint that it’s going to get darker before the dawn. Also, Harry gets to ride a dinosaur. 4 out of 5 bells

Book 4: Summer Knight
I’ve always been a vampire girl. I can’t say no to a good (or bad) vampire book. Yet somehow, I love Butcher’s faeries even more then his vampires. There’s an cool maliciousness to them that I find irresistible. In this novel, Harry is tasked by the Winter Queen of Faerie to find out who killed her right-hand man, the Summer Knight. Harry is loathe to do this, considering his checkered history with the fae. Secrets are revealed, Dresden gets the stuffing kicked out of him. All in all, a fantastic time, and my pick for the best book in the series (so far anyway). 5 out of 5 bells

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