Dead Beat by Jim Butcher
A quick word on spoilers. This is book 7 of The Dresden Files. I tend to write reviews as if you’ve read the previous books in the series, but not this one. That means there may well be spoilers for the first six books in the series, but I’ll avoid revealing any major details that take place more than around a quarter or a third of the way into this one. So if you’ve not read the first six books, I recommend you do so, then read Dead Beat, then come back and read this review.
If you need an incentive, I’ll break my rule about avoid spoilers from past the first act of a book, and tell you that in this one, Harry Dresden rides to the grand finale on a zombie tyrannosaurus rex called Sue, accompanied by a drum and the motto “Polka will never die.” If that doesn’t convince you to read The Dresden Files, I don’t know what will.
Most Dresden Files books have a title that is a vague pun towards the plot of the books. Fool Moon was about werewolves (full moon, right?). Blood Rites was about Harry’s family. And Dead Beat? That’s about the dead.
In Blood Rites, Harry led an assault on vampire sorceress Mavra’s nest, along with Chicago cop Karrin Murphy and Dracula-descended mercenary-for-hire Kincaid, killing Mavra and her lackies. Now Murphy and Kincaid are a bit of an item, something Harry isn’t too pleased about, as he fancies a Murphy a little bit, and dislikes and distrusts Kincaid. Unfortunately, they are on holiday together in Hawaii, and Mavra is not as dead as first thought. She pops up with evidence of Murphy’s work during the assault on her nest (photos of Murphy killing Mavra’s human-looking lackies), and uses that to blackmail Harry into working for her. Mavra’s demand is simple: recover the “Word of Kemmler”, and give it to Mavra.
Kemmler, it turns out, was one serious necromancer (that’s a fella who raises dead bodies to fight for him), who the White Council smacked down during World War Two. It took the entire White Council to kill him (and they had to kill Kemmler multiple times to put him down for good), and the Council has spent the time since tracking down his apprentices and evidence of his teachings, to wipe them out.
Sadly for them, they haven’t, as a handful of apprentices remain, as does the Word of Kemmler: a book which will allow whoever performs the ritual within it to become Kemmler reborn – a dark wizard with almost godlike-power. Harry learns most of this from Bob, his human-skull dwelling knowledge spirit, who in his dark past, used to belong to Kemmler.
So Harry ends up pitted against a bunch of necromancers, all of whom outclass him magically, even without the undead hordes that they can call upon. And he has to do this as far as possible without the White Council, due to Mavra’s blackmail and the whole White-Council-not-really-giving-a-shit-about-mortals thing. Plus the Council still has the war with the Red Court to deal with; a war which Harry finds out, when he finally calls in the Wardens of the Council, they are losing.
One of the consistent highpoints of the Dresden Files series has been the wide cast of characters. Apart from simply being a whole bunch of fun characters for Harry to bounce off of, all the extra help (and enemies) that Harry has accumulated throughout the series to date really gives Butcher the opportunity to push Harry into ever-more-perilous circumstances, because he has people to help him survive them.
In the opening book, Storm Front, Harry had troubles dealing with one fairly novice summoner. By Dead Beat he’s happily matching himself against demi-gods and aspiring demi-gods. Sure, he’s out of his depth, but he’s been out of his depth in every book Harry. The massive cast of interesting characters (good, evil, and somewhere in between) has meant that the peril can escalate, but Harry still has resources to help himself out of it, just as he does here. And it helps when one of the resources you can call on is a zombie tyrannosaurus rex named Sue.
This time around, we get a bunch of good fun villains. Each of the necromancers has a distinct personality, motivation and goal (beyond simply becoming a lowercase god). And they also have their own distinct forms of undead hordes, which leads to some great action sequences.
We also get better acquainted with the White Council’s Wardens. Previously the only Warden we’d met at any length was Morgan, self-styled judge, jury and executioner to Harry, who was, from Harry’s perspective, nothing but a petty dick. Now we get to meet Luccio, the Captain of the Wardens, and Ramirez, a young, headstrong Warden. Both of them actually respect Harry, which is an interesting change of pace for him, and they make decent additions to Harry’s list of allies. Harry’s allies have also swelled by the two as a result of the folks he picked up during Blood Rites: the puppy Mouse (now grown to the size of a small horse and able to understand Harry to an eerie degree) and his outcast White Court vampire half-brother Thomas Raith.
My favourite new character though isn’t really bad or good. He just is. One of the rulers of the Wyldfae (the wild creatures of the Nevernever), King of the Goblins, and Leader of the Wild Hunt: the Erlking. He appears similar in power and temperament to the Queens of the Faerie Courts who’ve been introduced in previous books, which makes sense given that he’s a ruler within the Nevernever. Although Harry only gets to meet him fairly briefly, naturally he manages to get the Erlking equal parts pissed off and amused, so it’s a racing certainty that he’ll be making further appearances in the future.
All in all, Dead Beat is a slightly weird book. The first half of it is ok, rising occasionally above that level (especially scenes in and around Bock’s Books, a rare book shop that Harry frequents). But from around the halfway point it just gets better and better, rising to an absolutely brilliant finale. And that’d be the case even if it wasn’t a finale that involves our hero riding a zombie dinosaur into battle. That’s just the cherry on top.
Read if you like: The Dresden Files
Don’t read if you like: Things that aren’t The Dresden Files, I guess.
Next up: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman