Dead Man’s Hand by James J. Butcher

Dead Man's Hand Cover

Publisher: Ace (Hardcover – 29 November 2022)

Series: The Unorthodox Chronicles – Book One

Length: 373 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Murder, magic and mayhem are about to be unleashed in the impressive urban fantasy debut from exciting new author James J. Butcher, Dead Man’s Hand.

I think it is fair to say that no recent urban fantasy book has intrigued me more than the compelling Dead Man’s Hand by James J. Butcher.  Not only did it have a striking cover, a cool name, and an awesome synopsis, but the author himself is very interesting.  Despite the fact this is his first novel, Butcher is a name that comes with some expectations, due to him being the son of legendary fantasy author Jim Butcher.  Jim Butcher has pretty much set himself up as the gold standard of urban fantasy fiction thanks to his iconic Dresden Files series that follows wizards in modern Chicago.  I am a pretty big fan of the Dresden Files and when I first heard that Jim Butcher’s son was releasing his own book, I was immediately curious about it.  As such, I made sure to get a copy of Dead Man’s Hand as soon as it came out, and I was very happy that I did.  The first book in his series, The Unorthodox Chronicles, Dead Man’s Hand was a superb read that I had an amazing time getting through.

On the mean streets of Boston, a dark murder has occurred whose ramifications will shake the city’s magical community.  The victim was Samantha Mansgraf, an extremely powerful witch and one of the most effective agents of the Department of Unorthodox Affairs, the government department that polices magic users and keeps the peace between the ordinary Usuals and the paranormal Unorthodox.  Her body has been found mangled and tortured, and the only clue is a secret message she left behind which simply reads, “Kill Grimsby.”

This message can only relate to one person, Grimshaw Griswald Grimsby, whose future as an Auditor for the Department of Unorthodox Affairs was unceremoniously ruined by the victim.  Now working in a terrible fast food job extremely close to where Mansgraf was killed, Grimsby seems the most likely suspect for her murder.  However, there is one major flaw in this theory; Grimsby is magically incapable of committing the crime.  Only able to cast a few minor spells and hampered by an old injury, there is no way that Grimsby could have killed the victim.  But this fact isn’t going to be enough to stop everyone coming after him.

Targeted by both the Department and the monsters actually responsible for Mansgraf’s murder, Grimsby finds himself in a whole lot of trouble.  His only hope of survival is to team up with Mansgraf’s old partner, the legendary Huntsman Leslie Mayflower, an expert at killing all things magical, and find out who is really behind this gruesome murder.  However, Grimsby and Mayflower soon find themselves caught in the midst of a deadly magical conspiracy, one where every potential loose end needs to be killed.  To survive, Grimsby and Mayflower will need to dig deep and uncover the darkest secrets from Boston’s magical community.  However, can an old broken down Hunstman and a failed witch manage to take on the evil coming for them, or are they about to be as dead as Mansgraf?

Butcher comes out the gate swinging with his first magical adventure, and I really enjoyed the result.  Dead Man’s Hand is a clever and cool new novel that sets up Butcher’s planned series while also presenting the reader with a captivating character driven story, filled with mystery, murder and magical mayhem.  I managed to knock this book out in a couple of days, and it proved to be a wonderful and impressive debut.

Dead Man’s Hand has a great urban fantasy narrative to it that follows two interesting and complex characters caught in the middle of a magical conspiracy.  Butcher kicks the story off quickly, with Mayflower getting involved in the hunt for his former partner’s killer, which leads him to Grimsby, who is initially a suspect, until it becomes very clear he couldn’t have pulled off such a destructive killing.  When Grimsby is attacked by the apparent murderer, the two start to work together and they focus their investigation into finding a dangerous artefact that the victim had hidden before her death.  That leads them into all manner of trouble, including demonic gangsters, freaky constructs, and Department agents, all of whom are coming after them with lethal intent.  This results in a great twisty and slick narrative, as the characters need to uncover multiple mysteries while also confronting the many unusual creatures coming for them.  There are several great action-packed confrontations loaded into this book, and Butcher makes excellent use of his distinctive new magical universe to create some memorable sequences.  Everything leads up to a big and powerful conclusion where, after some personal betrayals, the two protagonists are forced to come together to take out the culprit and save the day.  While the ultimate reveal of who the killer is was a little predictable, Butcher did it in an entertaining way and the stakes were pretty damn high by the end of it.  Butcher also ramped up the tension for the final confrontation and you honestly had no idea how the book was going to conclude and who was going to pull through.  I was personally hooked all the way to end and I came away pretty happy with the conclusion, especially as Butcher sets up some potential sequels in the future and I have a feeling that this is the first entry in an awesome long-running series.

I quite enjoyed Butcher’s writing style for Dead Man’s Hand and I think that the excellent story came across really well in the end.  The story moved at a very quick pace, and Butcher really did not slow down for anything, hitting the reader with a ton of action, intrigue and moving character development from start to finish.  Like most good urban fantasy novels, Dead Man’s Hand had a fantastic blend of mystery and fantasy elements, and you are soon swept up in the hunt for the magical killer, especially as it reveals a complex and deadly conspiracy.  This helped to create quite a compelling and exciting read, which comes across like a buddy-cop romp thanks to the entertaining partnership between the two main characters.  The story is broken up between these two character’s perspectives and you get to see how they come together as a dysfunctional but effective team, and I loved the fun veteran/extreme-rookie dynamic that their partnership achieved.  Butcher further enhances the story by featuring a ton of comedic humour, most of which was brought in by the chatty and snarky main character.  Readers will no doubt notice that Butcher took some inspiration from his father when it came to writing humour, especially when it came to the main character’s snark, as well as some of the very over the top scenes and inclusions.  There are some pretty ridiculous moments, especially surrounding the character of Grimsby (his stint as a food entertainer was fun at the start), and things only get more over the top as you go (let’s just say that there is something very interesting in a box, and leave it at that).  While this was amusing, I was glad that most of the focus remained on the more serious elements of the book, which came together extremely well.  This ended up being a very strongly written book, especially for a debut, and I was pretty impressed with Butcher’s great style and writing ability.

Butcher’s series, The Unorthodox Chronicles, has an interesting urban fantasy setting to it, and I was impressed with the new world.  While I am sure that some will try to unfairly compare it to his father’s urban fantasy world, I felt that Butcher did a good job making it stand out on its own the reader is successfully introduced to many cool key details in this first book.  This series takes place in a version of Boston where the world is aware that magic exists, and magical creatures and magic users are kept in line by the Department of Unorthodox Affairs and their deadly agents known as Auditors.  I was quite intrigued by the inherent bureaucracy surrounding an unhidden magical world and it was fun how wizards are treated in a world where people are aware of them.  The visible magic itself is pretty simple, but effective, with magic users drawing their own inner-magic (Impetus) from within and launching it out using simple keyword spells.  Some of the effects of these spells are pretty fun and the protagonist manages to achieve a lot with some very basic combinations.  Butcher further populates his world with some freaky magical creatures, who give the book a darker and intense edge, especially those human familiars, who make for quite an effective and deadly enemy.  However, one of the most distinctive features of this universe is the Elsewhere, a dark, alternate magical realm that most wizards can perceive and which have its own rules.  The Elsewhere is so weird and crazy that all magic users need eye protection on all the time or else they will be driven mad by the things they see.  One excellent extended sequence sees the protagonist forced to visit the realm (which can be achieved by travelling through mirrors), and it came across as a pretty gruesome place to journey, thanks to all the creepy creatures and its inherent time dilation.  I loved all the cool details contained in this new world and I am quite excited to see how Butcher plans to expand on it in the future.

Aside from the amazing story and intriguing fantasy elements, one of the main strengths of Dead Man’s Hand was its excellent main two characters, who Butcher uses to great effect as alternating narrators of the story.  Both central protagonists are very damaged and complex in their own ways, and their eventual team-up helps them both to develop and escape the ruts they find themselves in at the start of the book.  The main character is Grimshaw Griswald Grimsby, an orphaned wizard who was badly scarred as a child in a fire that killed his family.  Grimsby previously attempted to become an Auditor for the Department, but he found his path blocked by the murder victim, mainly due to his inability to do complex spells and because his scars weaken his magic.  Now trapped in an embarrassing dead-end job, Grimsby starts the book off depressed and resentful, with zero confidence in himself.  However, this changes as the story continues and he is able to prove himself to his new mentor character, Mayflower, who, while gruff, helps mould him into a better person.  The one thing he cannot change is his motor mouth as Grimsby is constantly talking and joking, giving off a magical level of snark.  Much of the book’s humour comes from Grimsby’s irreverent view of the world and there are some great jokes flying out his mouth here.  I also loved seeing Grimsby’s inventiveness throughout the book, especially as he can only really cast three weaker spells, which requires him to be very imaginative in how he uses them, especially in self-defence.  There are also some fantastic storylines surrounding his traumatic past, as well as some more contemporary storylines about whether he actually belongs in this dangerous lifestyle or whether he should seek a quieter life.  While it would be easy to compare Grimsby to another snarky urban fantasy protagonist (say the one written by Butcher senior), I think that Grimsby stands on his own, and there are still quite a few layers for Butcher to uncover in the future.

The other major character is Leslie Mayflower, better known as the Huntsman, a bitter retired agent who specialises in killing magical creatures and beings.  Eternally grouchy and bitter at the Department, Mayflower dives into the case seeking revenge and comes across Grimsby, eventually partnering with him.  Mayflower is the direct opposite to Grimsby for much of the book, and I loved how Butcher portrayed him as a past-his-prime killer who returns for one last job.  Shown to be full of regret, self-loathing and a desire for revenge, Mayflower was a powerful part of the book, especially once Butcher pairs him with Grimsby.  These two made for a great team, and watching the positive Grimsby start to have an impact on Mayflower’s personality was a fun part of the book.  Despite still being mistrustful for most of the book, Mayflower soon grows to appreciate the partnership with Grimsby, and it was quite moving to see the character have something to live for again.  While you do see a lot of his personality and intensity in Dead Man’s Hand, I liked that Butcher was a little vague when it came to his past, and I am hoping that the author will dive into more of his history in future books.  Both central protagonists were extremely well written and very damaged in their own way, and this makes for a great story focus, especially as there are some excellent scenes when they start working together.

Overall, I thought that Dead Man’s Hand was an excellent and captivating first book from James J. Butcher, and it is one that I had an amazing time reading.  Fast-paced, hilarious, and filled with all manner of magical chaos, Dead Man’s Hand served as a powerful and enjoyable first entry in the author’s new series, and it comes highly recommended as a result.  I will definitely be grabbing the next book in this series when it comes out and I look forward to seeing how Butcher’s career progresses from here.

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2 thoughts on “Dead Man’s Hand by James J. Butcher

  1. Pingback: Top Ten Tuesday – My Favourite Debuts of 2022 – The Unseen Library

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