Death Masks by Jim Butcher
Dresden Files 5, so lets make this snappy. If you don’t what the deal with the Dresden Files is yet, read my other reviews. Death Masks opens with Harry in unfamiliar, uncomfortable ground: being interviewed on a TV show about occult matters. One of his fellow guests is a local psychic, Mortimer, who is the reason Harry is on the show. Mortimer won’t meet Harry in private, given the still-existing risk that the Red Court vampires might try to kill Harry at any moment. A safe public meeting ground is needed, hence meeting via the show.
The other two guests are also interested in Harry. The first is a priest from the Vatican, who, despite not believing in magic, wants to hire Harry for his private detective skills, to hunt down an artefact that’s been stolen from the Catholic Church: the Turin Shroud. And the third guest is Don Paolo Ortega, a Red Court vampire who is there to challenge Harry to a duel.
All the stress gets to Harry pretty sharpish, leading to some inadvertent TV equipment destruction. Sadly, things don’t get any better for Harry outside, as he’s the victim of an (unsuccessful) assassination attempt and, in chasing the would-be assassin down, manages to run into Ursiel, a hugely powerful fallen angel bear monster. Honestly, the guy just can’t catch a break.
Fortunately, Harry has friends in the supernatural community, and one of them, Michael Carpenter, turns up with two allies to save Harry’s ass. Michael was introduced in the Grave Peril as one of three Knights of the Cross, religious knights who wield swords containing nails from Jesus’ crucifixion. Predictably, Michael’s two buddies here are the two other Knights of the Cross: a wise old Japanese chap called Shiro, and a young, agnostic (!) Russian called Sanya.
It’s a fast-paced opening, and Death Masks doesn’t ever really slow down from there. It’s probably the fastest paced of the series so far, as Harry tries to track down the Turin Shroud and gets involved in the 2,000 year old battle between the Knights of the Cross and the Order of the Blackened Denarius, thirty fallen angels controlling folks through the thirty denarii paid to Judas. Yep. And on top of that he has to deal with the whole fighting a duel against a vampire lord thing.
We get visits from returning characters, including Chicago’s top mobster, Gentleman Johnny Marcone, whose involvement is always welcome. And vampire-playboy of the White Court, Thomas Raith, also shows up, and he’s always pretty good value.
We get introduced to a range of new characters as well. On top of the two other Knights, we get the top dog for the Denari folks, Nicodemus, and he’s an entertaining villain, with some fun lackies in tow. We also meet The Archive, a human child who is the repository for all of human knowledge (!) and is tasked with adjudicating Harry’s duel with Ortega. Accompanying The Archive is Kincaid, her bodyguard and general gun-for-hire. All of these folks are good fun.
Death Masks only stops for breath for a couple of reasons. A couple of times in the book, characters question Harry on why he does what he does (saving people, hunting things), which make for some interesting scenes. The other main time the pace slackens is to give more details of Michael’s family, and his wife’s (Charity) dislike for Harry. I don’t really like these scenes. Her point is that Michael always gets hurt when he works with Harry (and last time they worked together Michael’s youngest kid almost died). But Michael only helps Harry because he thinks what Harry is doing is right, and he does it out of free choice. I get where Charity is coming from, but it seems odd. She knows what Michael does, she knows the risks involved. I dunno, maybe it will be developed further in future books, but for now it just seems a bit petty.
The rest of the breathing room comes from the return of Harry’s ex, Susan, who’s back in town and helping Harry out. And she’s different now. Her brush with the Red Court in Grave Peril threw her into the supernatural world, but out of Harry’s life. It’s clear from the get-go that her plan is to say one last goodbye to Harry before committing to her new life as part of the Order of St Giles, a vaguely anti-Vampire organisation. Given that the war between the Red Court and the White Council shows no sign of abating I imagine we’ll see Susan again at some point, but it’s good to give Harry some closure and allow him to keep moving forward.
At this point, I know there are 13 books in the Dresden Files series, and this is book five. At this point you do kind of worry that there’s going to be a lack of peril. You know that Harry is going to be shaken up but pretty ok by the end of things, you can figure he’s going to stop the bad guy and save the world (possibly literally), so it’s a danger that formula will just set in. But it’s not the case here. Death Masks is almost flawless. It’s beautifully paced, it’s funny, it’s smart, it’s full of heart, and there’s at least three interesting twists in the final pages that keep things very, very interesting going forward.
Read if you like: the others in the series.
Don’t read if you like: not the others in the series.
Next up: The Game Players of Titan by Philip K. Dick