Grave Peril by Jim Butcher
Yep, another Dresden Files book, number three in the series. You can read my reviews of books one and two here and here. My enjoyment of those should make it clear why I went for book three of the series.
Butcher dumps you straight into the plot in this one – Harry Dresden and a new ally, Michael (we’ll get to him) heading to a hospital to face down a ghost, just the latest in a series of ghost incidents in the last couple of weeks. This quickly leads to Harry and Michael crossing over into the Nevernever, the realm of ghosts, demons, hellhounds and suchlike. And Harry’s fairy godmother, Leanansidhe (or, fortunately, Lea for short).
Harry’s fairy godmother was mentioned in the opening book of the series, but more as a punchline than anything else ( “I didn’t have a godfather. I do have a godmother, and she is, inevitably perhaps, a faery”). Harry essentially owes her allegiance through previous agreements, which he’s consistently broken (which is probably a little foolish), and which she would like to collect. What with the claims to ownership and enslavement and what have you, their relationship isn’t exactly what you would call familial. Although I don’t know what your family is like, so maybe it is.
Anyway, avoiding the clutches of his fairy godmother soon becomes the least of Harry’s problems. The barrier between the real world and the Nevernever is getting thinner, meaning ghosts and suchlike can cross to the real world more easily, including a nasty piece of work that Harry dubs The Nightmare, which seems to fancy spending its evenings attacking Harry and his allies. And worse, it seems to be doing so in alliance with powerful parties unknown who wish Harry and his friends harm.
Harry seems to do a good job of collecting enemies. He’s got loads of them. There’s a line in Justified where Raylan Givens’ gives the startlingly un-self-aware advice that if “You run into an asshole in the morning, you ran into an asshole. You run into assholes all day, you’re the asshole.” Harry Dresden doesn’t quite run into assholes all day, but they do seem to make up a high proportion of his daily personal interactions. He has a few pretty decent friends, but he definitely has enough enemies to make you wondering whether he is, in fact, a bit of an asshole.
Three books into the series, it’s easy to see why he accumulates so many useful partners, and so many dangerous enemies. In any given day, he tends to face any three personal situations, and his reaction to each is pretty uncompromising: one, if he wants to help you, he’ll do anything within his (considerable) power to help you, or die trying; two, if he doesn’t agree with your ideas about things like whether it’s fine to go around killing folks, he’ll do anything within his power to stop you, or die trying; or three, if he doesn’t agree with your positions, but at the moment they aren’t a direct threat to anyone, and he needs your help, he’ll take it, make promises he has no intention of keeping, and then try to figure his way out of his obligations once he’s had the help. Situation one yields him allies. Situations two and three yield him enemies, and to them, they’ve got to think he’s kind of an asshole, always disagreeing with them in such an intransigent way.
As with previous books, new characters and new elements to the world are introduced throughout. In addition to the aforementioned new characters of fairy godmother Lea, and holy knight Michael, there’s Thomas, a charismatic and friendly (for now, at least) vampire. The good thing about these characters isn’t that they’re just good additions to the character list on their own, but that they also serve to introduce new features of the overall world and mythos.
Lea’s introduction to the story serves to give us more information about the Nevernever than has ever previously been the case. We learn, for example, that beings of the Nevernever are far more powerful inside it than outside it. And given that the ones we’ve been introduced to so far (demons and ghosts) are plenty powerful enough in Harry’s world, the possibly of further forays for Harry into the Nevernever make for some pretty promising episodes.
Thomas’ introduction gives further depth to vampires in Harry’s world. Like with the werewolves in Fool Moon, there’s more than one kind of vampire. Before Thomas comes along, the ones we’ve been introduced to are the Red Court vampires. They are the sort of stereotypically blood craving suave seducers, when under their human exterior they are complete monsters. The two other Courts (Black and White) feature noticeably different kinds of vampires, and overall have different levels of power throughout the world. There’s clearly tension between the Courts as well, which is a further promising avenue for Harry to get involved in. Especially given the conclusion of the book.
Michael’s introduction opens up perhaps the most interesting aspect of the world though: the power of religion. Michael is one of three Knights of the Cross, wielders of sword that contain a nail from the cross on which Jesus was crucified (Michael’s is called Amoracchius, because legendary swords have to have ridiculous names, and presumably vaguely means something in Latin). Harry repeatedly refers to Michael’s believes giving him quasi-magical power, which seems to manifests in his fighting skill, and there’s consistent references to churches being places of power and safety and so on. Most things-that-go-bump-in-the-night fantasy focuses on the darker, evil side of mythology, often drawing on demons, devils and such like. It would be fun to see the impact of the “good” side of mythological creatures on Harry’s adventures.
Michael’s introduction also brings in the element of family to the series. His faith-inspired work against the evil in the world is balanced against protecting his family. Up to now, all of Dresden’s allies on the good side haven’t had much in the way of family, and it’s an interesting aspect to bring up, about how the work they’re doing might put loved ones in danger.
I said in my review of Fool Moon that I was slightly concerned that formula might set in with this series. While Grave Peril generally sticks to the formula established in the previous books, it actually did a great deal to allay my concerns, largely due to the actual existence of the peril mentioned in the title. A lot of times in series like this, the danger the protagonist and his allies appear to be in doesn’t ring true, because you know everyone is going to get out unscathed in the end. The writer has established the characters and wants to continue with them. It’s a low risk approach, but it can take away from the story.
That feeling started to set in towards the end of Grave Peril and then BAM! Something happens to show that actually, Butcher will take risks and do things that shake up the series. Harry’s reaction to the incident that happens is great as well. By this point in the series he’s been established repeatedly, by both his words and actions, as chivalrous to the point of chauvinism, and his reaction leading to the (actually quite emotional) ending is absolutely dead on in terms of how you’d expect his character to react.
I’m a little concerned that I’m going to be reading a Jim Butcher novel once every two books for about the next year or so to get through this series. But I’m quite happy to do so while they keep being high quality. Then I’ll probably move onto Butcher’s (fortunately shorter) Codex Alera series.
Read if you like: The previous Jim Butcher books
Don’t read if you like: Not the previous Jim Butcher books
Next up: Kraken by China Mieville.