Harry Dresden, Chicago’s only practicing professional wizard, should be happy that business is pretty good for a change. But now he’s getting more than he bargained for. A duel with the Red Court of Vampires’ champion, who must kill Harry to end the war between vampires and wizards… Professional hit men using Harry for target practice… The missing Shroud of Turin… A handless and headless corpse the Chicago police need identified… Not to mention the return of Harry’s ex-girlfriend Susan, who’s still struggling with her semivampiric nature. And who seems to have a new man in her life. Some days, it just doesn’t pay to get out of bed. No matter how much you’re charging.
I first picked up this series because I watched the TV show which is based on the books and wanted more of Harry Dresden and his supernatural adventures. Sadly the show only lasted for one season, which is not that surprising if you consider that cool shows get canceled sooner than they should be and we end up with naked people covered in bodily fluids prancing around on the screen. But I digress. I read the first three books and could tell that they were a promise of better things to come. I was right. Book 4, Summer Knight, finished setting up the world and established the over-arching conflicts for the future installments (the wizard-vampire war and Harry's troubled personal life) as well as the mystery of Harry's parents' lives and deaths. At that point I felt that Butcher was done flexing his writerly muscles and was finally getting to the meat of things, while at the same time the day-to-day wizardly detective work was not going anywhere. I really like this about these books, by the way, there's always a more short-term problem to solve while the big-deal problem demands attention at the same time. Back to the book at hand though.
I was right about the meat of things. Death Masks builds on the conflicts, with some steamy and deadly consequences, and feeds us a pellet of information about Harry's mom. He is either too busy or too reluctant to pursue this tidbit, conceivably because he is afraid of what he might discover. Yes, I'm talking about feelings while discussing a high-action urban fantasy with death waiting at almost every page. There's quite a bit of that in this book, actually. Soul-searching, self-analysis, reflection, Harry does all that, and it balances the near-constant action. It provides for some down time while still allowing for things to happen, as it does perfectly when Harry has a heart-to-heart with Michael's wife. This is one of my favorite scenes in the book, by the way. Another means of tension relief is the humor which permeates this book and the rest of the series. Harry is a really self-deprecatingly witty guy! I chuckled on so many occasions that my husband started raising his eyebrows in my direction. I ignored the eyebrows and kept reading.
We've already met all the key players of the series so Butcher's main task here is to develop their character arcs. I really liked that Susan didn't just move to the beach to suppress her vampiric tendencies, she is no damsel in distress and in this book we really get to see her in action. It doesn't hurt that she has an ace up her sleeve either. Gentleman Johnny Marcone (I love how Harry always refers to him in this way, no exceptions) is a very interesting guy and I look forward to seeing where Butcher takes his character.
I didn't expect any surprises in this book but there was one: by now I'm used to Harry getting pummeled into hamburger in the course of the novel and then having to go fight The Fight severely sleep-deprived and broken. Not in this novel. I won't go into details but the way things worked out was very refreshing and satisfying. I wonder what Butcher will do in the next novel. Maybe if I can stop taking on commitments like I have something against sleep I'll even find out, soonish.