Death Masks by Jim Butcher

December 3, 2007 at 5:55 pm (Jim Butcher, Reviews)

Jim Butcher - Death MasksI came into Jim Butcher’s Dresden Filesseries a few months ago, the uproar that was going on at Westeros bringing it to my attention.  In the four books that I’ve read through thus far, I’ve only been disappointed once, and that with Summer KnightDeath Masks, the fifth book in the series, fortunately pulled the series back on track.

This book makes me want to start spouting off a bunch of clichéd movie taglines like “rollercoaster ride!” and “takes no prisoners!” Eugh, even the feeling of that temptation disgusts me. But regardless of my own revulsions, it really was “action-packed.” The frenzy came on early and drove the story along to the end.

Ortega (wait, isn’t that a salsa brand?), a Duke of the vampire’s Red Court, has come to town to challenge the affable Harry Dresden to a duel. The stakes? If Harry wins, Chicago will become a neutral zone in the war between the Red Court and the White Council. If Ortega wins, it may curtail the war altogether. The Shroud of Turin, the ancient artifact speculated to have covered Jesus of Nazareth in his tomb, has been stolen, and, surprise surprise, brought to Chicago. And the Vatican, naturally, has recruited the redoubtable Wizard PI to find it. The police have turned up a handless and headless mystery corpse, and Murphy, head of Chicago PD’s “Special Investigations” division, is looking for a little unofficial, and unpaid, consultation to aid in its identification. The Denarians are running loose and have it in for Harry.  And on top of all that, Susan, Harry’s half-vampire ex-girlfriend, is back in town.

What seems at first like a plot overload, especially for such a short book, quickly dissolves into two rival storylines: the duel and case of the missing Shroud. Two villains, the Duke and the Denarians. With the latter taking up the majority of the focus.

The Denarians , or the Fallen (as in Angels), don’t follow the same rules as the other demons we’ve met up to this point. Ancient coins serve as prisons for the fallen angels, but they are also their route to power. Humans who come into possession of the coins are tempted and beguiled, by the demon trapped inside, into turning over their own will in favor of Denarian control. They’re pretty much indestructible, vulnerable only to the sacred swords wielded by the Knights of the Cross. Conveniently, a team of Knights are on hand to deal with them.

The two cases threaten to get in each others way throughout, helping to increase the tension of an already hectic story.

The humor is crisp and remains Jim Butcher’s greatest attribute. Harry brandishes his sharp wit on nearly every page, and serves up numerous amusing one-liners. Sporadic pop-culture references help to lend the story a more authentic real world flavor. But Harry’s personality has infected the rest of the cast, specifically Susan and Thomas, making the characterization a bit redundant. Jim Butchers penchant for wisecracks kept it entertaining, and he did throw in a few more serious characters to keep it from getting out of hand.

Despite the intimacy of the first-person narrative, Harry still manages to retain an element of mystery. [Jim Butcher] continues to parcel out information on Harry’s background and family, offering just a pinch more in each book.

The action itself has gotten better as well. I’ve always found that action sequences come off as clumsy when using the first-person perspective. To remedy this, the brunt of the fighting is handled by Susan, Michael, and the other Knights of the Cross, allowing us to pull away to something resembling a more traditional third-person view.

The prose is simple and straightforward, alleviating the need to dig for clues within the text as many of the more ambitious epic series require. And we are treated to some interesting plot twists that are believable without being overly predictable.

But it’s not all good news. The action an comedy take their toll on other aspects of the story. Though it’s probably nit-picking on my part.

I understand that he’s trying to keep the story set in a real world timeline, but without any political references, mentions of current events, or concern for the latest technological advances, it’s pointless. The story is set a year after the last volume, (indeed, all of them so far have been set a year apart), but it could easily have taken place two or three months later. It would have been more readily believable considering that nothing has actually happened in that time.

Between the third book, Grave Peril, and the fourth, Summer Knight, we had a lot going on. There was Harry’s downward spiral, and obsessive research to find a cure for Susan’s condition, and various attacks on the White Council by the Red Court. In the gap between that and Summer Knight and Death Masks? Not so much.

The war against the vampires has ground to a standstill. Even though the vampires were winning, they apparently decided to let up. It seems as though the author has lost interest with the Vampire War story arc, only two books after it was introduced. Either that or his neglect is a stalling tactic so that he can drag it out over a few more volumes.

Besides the annual movement in the war, Harry also seems to only get big cases on the same schedule. If we have a year between each story, then by the end of this series Harry will be close to 50. So he’ll retain his virility by the fact that wizards age more slowly than regular people, which works fine to justify the action, but he’s pretty high profile and people are going to notice that he’s 100 years old and still has the body of 25 year old. Harry could take a lesson from the Highlander immortals who were more circumspect.

After the fist book, Storm Front, the investigative aspect has taken a back seat, and serves as more of a façade than anything else. After all, how else is he going to get into these situations? The first lead seems to turn up the villain, and start the action extravaganza that stretches the next 300 pages. And the cases are always solved within a few days. Not that I’m complaining too much; I didn’t pick these up because I’m a fan of Mystery novels.

Death Masks was uncharacteristically rife with consistency errors, with the details sometimes shifting within only a few paragraphs. I blame sloppy editors for those. Other times it was more broadly confusing, which falls on the author himself. If I’m noticing this trend now, as imperceptive as I am, then other more discerning readers have probably long since become annoyed at this.

So what’s next? We’ve already averted the end of the world with the threat of a second ice-age, and now it’s a stand off with demons trying to bring about Armageddon. I don’t see how he’s going to be able to raise the stakes much higher the next time around, but I am looking forward to seeing it.

Overall Impression:  Pretty good. 

Final Thoughts: Death Masks, and The Dresden Files in general, is mindless fun that will satisfy the guiltiest of guilty pleasures. 

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