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Death Masks
Jim Butcher
Roc, 371 pages

Death Masks
Jim Butcher
Jim Butcher lives in Oklahoma with his wife and son and a houseful of computers. He's also the author of Storm Front, Fool Moon, Grave Peril and Summer Knight, all part of The Dresden Files

The Jim Butcher Fan Attic
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Grave Peril
SF Site Review: Fool Moon
SF Site Review: Storm Front
Excerpt from Grave Peril
The Dresden Files

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

Harry Dresden, Chicago's only practicing professional wizard, returns in this fifth installment of the popular series.

As usual, Harry's in trouble. The war between the White Council of Wizards and the Red Court of Vampires, which Harry accidentally precipitated in Book 3, is still claiming casualties. Now Harry's been approached by Paolo Ortega, a Duke of the Red Court, with a challenge to settle matters in single combat. If Ortega wins, the Red Court will accept peace overtures from the White Council. If Harry wins, the city of Chicago will become neutral ground. It's an offer Harry can't refuse -- mainly because if he says no, Ortega will kill all his friends and associates.

Harry's also just been hired for an investigation -- by the Catholic Church, no less: the Shroud of Turin has gone missing, and the thieves have been traced to Chicago. As if things weren't complicated enough, Harry's former lover Susan -- bitten some time ago by a vampire of the Red Court, though she hasn't fully made the transition -- has suddenly turned up. Susan, who's still struggling with the dark urges of her part-vampiric nature, says she's only back to tie up a few loose ends, but Harry has a feeling there's more to it than that.

Then a body is discovered, its flesh shredded and its head and hands missing, and Harry is attacked by a terrifying demon, which -- he learns from the three Knights of the Cross who miraculously show up to help him fight it off -- is actually a Fallen angel, part of the terrifying Order of the Blackened Denarius. He's also being followed, for reasons unknown, by hitmen working for Chicago's notorious gang boss, Gentleman Johnny Marcone. And then there's the prophecy he's just learned about: if he continues to seek the Shroud, he'll die, but if he doesn't, everyone else will. It's the kind of high-stakes catch-22 with which Harry is all too familiar. This time around, though, there's more involved than fighting off the supernatural bad guys. The Denarians have something to offer Harry -- an offer that calls frighteningly to the darkness in his own nature.

Jim Butcher is going from strength to strength in this excellent series. Death Masks is his most assured book yet, a smooth melding of inventive storylines, dark supernatural themes, edge-of-your-seat adventure, strong characterizations, and irreverent humor. In the past, Harry has sometimes been put through the ringer a little too energetically, like those heroes in action films who get beaten to a pulp yet can still run five miles through the jungle with the heroine on their back; and his rebellious nature has occasionally crossed the line into gratuitous wiseassery (I wanted to smack him in Book 4, where he knows he's in deep crap with the White Council but still goes to their meeting in a bathrobe). But in Death Masks the balance is perfect. Everything works, even the over-the-top movie-style action scene at the finish. Part of the reason is the deft way Butcher mixes the frenetic action with quieter, more contemplative moments, never forgetting his characters' more vulnerable and human sides (even when they aren't human). In between the kickass adventure and supernatural fireworks, there's some pretty serious stuff about loyalty, love, faith, and loss.

While all The Dresden Files books work well as stand-alones, so that it's possible to pick up the series with any of the volumes, it's clear that a larger story is developing. There's the ongoing war between the vampires and the wizards (some hitherto unknown aspects of which are revealed by the duel with Ortega), Harry's bittersweet relationship with Susan, the unclaimed sword of a dead Knight of the Cross, and an interesting hint about Harry's mother (could it be that Harry was not, as he has always believed, an only child?). There's also that dark offer Harry receives from the scariest of the Denarians. At book's end, he buries it (literally), but I suspect that in future installments it will return to haunt him. I'll be looking forward to finding out how.

Copyright © 2003 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel The Garden of the Stone is currently available from HarperCollins EOS. For details, visit her website.

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