Throwback Thursday – Death Masks by Jim Butcher

Death Masks Cover

Publication: Penguin Audio (Audiobook – 1 August 2003)

Series: Dresden Files – Book Five

Length: 11 hours and 17 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For my latest Throwback Thursday, I highlight another excellent entry in Jim Butcher’s iconic Dresden Files series, with Death Masks.

Fans of this blog will know that I have been having a magical time (pun intended) discovering and getting into the long-running Dresden Files series by acclaimed fantasy author Jim Butcher.  Set in Chicago, the Dresden Files novels follow the adventures of Harry Dresden, wizard for hire and protector of the city against any supernatural threat that comes its way.  This has been Butcher’s major series for years, but I only got into it back in 2020 when I checked out the 17th entry, Battle Ground.  Due to its exceptional plot and the all-out magical war for Chicago that it depicted, this was a pretty epic novel that was not only one of the best books and audiobooks of 2020 but also an excellent recruiting tool for new Dresden Files fans.  It didn’t take me long after reading Battle Ground to check out some of the earlier entries in the series, such as Storm Front, Fool Moon, Grave Peril and Summer Knight, as well as the novella, The Law.  I have had such an epic time with this series that when I felt like a guaranteed five-star book, I immediately decided to check out the next book in the series, with the fifth Dresden Files entry, Death Masks.

Harry Dresden, Chicago’s resident professional wizard, is once again thrust into the middle of far more trouble than he ever dreamed of when a television panel show introduces him to an array of people who want something from him.  Not only does he find himself forced into a duel against a powerful Red Court vampire noble but he is also hired by a Vatican priest to recover a revered stolen holy relic, the Shroud of Turin.

Determined to make the most of these new events, Dresden takes the case and begins to search for the shroud while also preparing for his upcoming fight to the death.  However, many people are interested in obtaining the shroud for their own use, and Dresden finds himself under attack by hitman, gangsters, criminals, and far, far worse.  The Denarians, an ancient and despicable group of fallen angels, have designs on the shroud, and not even Dresden’s most powerful and holy allies, the Knights of the Cross, may be enough to save him.

As Dresden attempts to recover the shroud, he finds that the Denarians and their deadly leader, Nicodemus, have a nefarious plot for the shroud that could destroy everything that Dresden holds dear.  Working with allies old and new, Dresden must overcome the Denarian threat before it is too late, while also managing to defeat the Red Court vampire gunning for him.  With everything on the line, has Dresden finally bitten off more than he can chew?  And what happens when the lost love of his life returns to town, battling her own demons?

Wow, Butcher just cannot strike out!  This is yet another book from him that I have no choice but to award a full five-star rating to.  Death Masks has a deeply addictive narrative that grabs your attention from the very first page and refuses to let go, and some complex and entertaining characters to match.

Death Masks has a pretty awesome story to it that got really addictive very quickly.  Starting off a few months after the events of Summer Knight, Death Masks contains several, great layered storylines, all of which are pretty exciting and intense in their own way and which cross over well to create a complete and powerful narrative.  The first of these immediately places Dresden in the path of several dangerous enemies and opponents as he is dragged into a new case, recovering the stolen Shroud of Turin.  Despite being warned off by his allies, the Knights of the Cross, Dresden naturally pursues, which sets him against established foes, like Chicago’s gangster king, and a powerful new cadre of enemies, who represent one of the biggest threats that Dresden has gone up against at this point in the series.  At the same time, the protagonist is forced to accept a formal duel to the death against a powerful vampire lord, as part of the ongoing storyline about his war with the Red Court, and he also helps the police investigate a disfigured corpse that seems to have been simultaneously infected by every disease known to man.  These events are further complicated by the re-emergence of Susan Rodriguez, his former love interest whose romance was crushed when she was partially turned into a vampire, and who he still holds a massive torch for.

Each of these storylines is quite interesting on its own, and Butcher writes some interesting scenes around all of them, with the primary focus being on the search for the shroud and the fight against the Denarians.  These storylines start pulling together about hallway through the book, and Butcher really raises the stakes for the protagonist, especially when he experiences some major and heartbreaking setbacks.  I really loved the unique blend of character development, fantasy and urban crime that is utilised throughout most of this story, and it is always so much fun to see the protagonist attempting to understand the complex plots arranged against him as he tries to save his friends and city.  Everything leads up to an extremely exciting final third where Dresden and his allies are thrust into a series of battles with massive stakes involved that leave them broken and nearly beaten.  I honestly could not stop listening to the final few hours of this book, and I pretty much powered through the entire second half in less than a day.  There are some epic and very moving moments featured in the big conclusion, and Butcher did a brilliant job of bringing everything together and ensuring that the reader will come back for future instalments of his work.  I particularly loved the final little twist that saw the book’s major villain get one over the protagonist, and I am extremely keen to see what happens with that storyline going forward.

I have so much love for Butcher’s writing style when it comes to the Dresden Files novels, and Death Masks was a particularly good example of this.  Like the rest of the series, Death Masks is told exclusively from the perspective of its central character, Harry Dresden, and this places you right into the midst of all the action and investigations, and you see all the steps as Harry tries to outwit his various foes.  This use of Dresden as the central figure also ensures that the reader gets quite a lot of humour in the story, and the continuous jokes and funny insights really help to make the story that much more fun to enjoy.  There is a great focus on character development and introductions in this novel that I deeply enjoyed, and this works really well with the mystery elements and established fantasy setting to create an excellent narrative.  Butcher keeps the pace of the book sharp and fast here, and all the big events quickly and effectively fall into place where needed.  I liked how the protagonist dealt with multiple problems and cases simultaneously, and Butcher did a good job of balancing and combining these initially separated storylines and threats where necessary.  I did think that Butcher did go over the top in places when it came to the romance sequences, and some of the scenes were a little questionable at times.  Still, this didn’t impact my overall enjoyment of the Death Masks, and I had a blast seeing everything unfold.

Death Masks proved to be a particularly significant entry in the Dresden Files series, and it is a must-read for all fans as a result.  Butcher perfectly sets up several ongoing storylines here while also successfully continuing some established character arcs and introducing a whole new batch of great and interesting characters.  There are so many key events and interactions going on in Death Masks, many of which will be vital for the rest of the series, and I know it helped to give some additional context for some of the events in the later books I have read.  However, like most Dresden Files novels, Death Masks is extremely accessible to new readers, and Butcher always makes a point to expand on the existing storylines and characters in a way that new readers can understand and follow without boring the existing fans.  As such, this is a book with a lot of appeal to many readers, and all fantasy fans can dive in extremely easily.

Death Masks is also a major book for character work, and readers who love the impressive and exciting Dresden Files cast are in for a great time here.  I felt that Butcher presented a great balance of established and new characters in this novel, and there is an excellent focus on development and the emotional issues impacting the protagonist.  Many of the new characters will become major recurring figures in the series from now on and deeply enjoyed seeing how their story started.  Most of the character work hinged on protagonist Harry Dresden, who is the true heart and soul of the book.  I always enjoy quirky and rebellious protagonists in novels with a first-person perspective, and the Dresden Files are a great example of this.  Dresden was his usual funny and disrespectful self for the entirety of Death Masks, and it was so much fun seeing him sass every person he encountered, especially when it enrages the villains.  There is also a great emotional component to Dresden in Death Masks that I enjoyed, as he is still going through a lot of issues.  His already complicated feelings about his past failed romance come full circle here when the girl that got away (well, got turned into a vampire) returns and he is forced to finally confront his repressed feelings for her.  There are also some major moments where Dresden is forced to confront the consequences of his mistakes, especially when they cost other characters, and I loved some of the interactions that occurred as a result.

One of the big returns for Death Masks is the character of Susan Rodriguez, Dresden’s love interest who has been missing for a couple of books.  Susan was partially turned into a vampire during her last appearance and left Dresden as a result.  This book sees her return, and there is a complete change of character because of her transformation, being a lot more confident as well as some more notable abilities.  I liked most of the Susan storyline in this book, not only because fans finally get some closure for the romance between her and Harry but also because she now has some mysterious connections and is working as a covert anti-vampire agent.  There are some great moments with Susan in the book, although I did find one scene to be pretty ridiculous, even though it was supposed to be the sequence that served as the climax of the Dresden/Susan romance arc.  Who knew that all you needed to cure vampiric thirst was a bondage session (I’m barely joking here, that happened).  I mostly ignored this awkward scene (try listening to it whilst on your lunch break at work) from my overall grading of Death Masks, just because it was so much of an outlier, but it was a little weird.  Still, I’m glad we got a return from Susan, and it was interesting to see how much she had changed since the last book.

I also enjoyed the use of the Knights of the Cross in Death Masks, and they served as excellent comrade characters for Dresden.  The Knights of the Cross are three modern day crusaders who wield legendary holy swords and serve as God’s fist on Earth.  We had previously met one of them in Grave Peril, Michael Carpenter, and I loved seeing him again, especially as he is essentially a badass Ned Flanders with a sword and a mission from God.  His mentorship of Harry is a key part of his character arc in the series, and it is really interesting to see him serve as a conscience to the rebellious and faithless Harry.  The two other knights introduced in this book also add a lot to the plot.  The rookie knight, Sanya, was really fun, and I liked his more refreshing take on the role and responsibilities he wields.  However, the best of them was Shiro, the elder knight who acts as the group’s guiding light and who has stood against evil for decades.  I love the depiction of this Japanese badass who literally has fallen angels quaking in their boots, and he was a wise and brilliant character that did a lot in a few short appearances.  Shiro was probably my favourite of the three in this book, and his fantastic dialogue with Harry, especially that description of how he became a Christian, was some of Butcher’s best writing.

Finally, I must talk about the villains, who added a great deal to the story.  Readers are spoiled for choice in Death Masks when it comes to villains, as there are several different groups and individuals who turned up looking to kill Dresden throughout the book.  The first of these is Don Paolo Ortega, a Red Court vampire who seeks to end the war between his people and the wizards of the White Council by killing Dresden in a duel.  Ortega appears to be a mostly reasonable and honourable figure despite his desire to kill Dresden, and I liked the fun banter he had with the protagonist.  I was also glad to see more of Chicago gangster Johnny Marcone, who is one of the best recurring figures in the series.  Marcone always serves as such an excellent foil to Dresden, and their constant sparring and back and forth is a lot of fun to see.  It was particularly interesting to see Marcone become even more involved in the mystical world in this novel, mainly due to the respect he has for Dresden’s abilities, and this serves as a major step towards his current incarnation later in the series.

However, the best villains in the story are probably the group known as the Denarians, a collection of fallen angels possessing desperate or evil humans.  The Denarians are some of the most dangerous beings in the entire Dresden Files, and Butcher gives them an impressive introduction in this novel, showing them as agents of chaos determined to cause as much grief as possible.  Their leader, Nicodemus, is probably one of the most intriguing and sinister figures I’ve yet see Butcher write, and he pretty much always had Dresden on the ropes.  I particularly loved his first major interaction with the protagonist, especially as he was able to completely rattle Dresden, who could barely do anything in response.  The characters were barely able to survive his machinations throughout the book, and he truly showcased how much of a threat he could and would be.  A masterful villain, I cannot wait to see more of him in some of the future books.  All these characters, and more (future superstar Butters has an interesting introduction this book), really add to the captivating story, and I loved how well Butcher developed and featured them in Death Masks.

Unsurprisingly, I chose to enjoy Death Masks on audiobook, which was another excellent and impressive experience.  I really love the Dresden Files audiobooks and Death Masks was another good example of why.  Not only does the format really capture the essence of the story and help the listener become immersed in the urban fantasy world, but it also features some of the best voice work you are likely to find in an audiobook.  That is because Death Masks is narrated by actor James Marsters, who always does a spectacular job brining this series to life.  After providing narration for the first four books in the series, Marsters really knows what he is doing when he gets to Death Masks, and he swiftly dives in and gives the epic narrative everything it needs.  All the characters are voiced perfectly, with some extremely fitting and powerful voices given to them that expertly portray their personalities, ethnicities and mentalities.  Due to the great range of characters in Death Masks, Marsters is required to play a range of figures, from an evil fallen angel, three ultra-good holy knights, a gangster, multiple vampires and more, all of which come out really well.  However, the best work is saved for protagonist and point-of-view character Harry Dresden.  Marsters perfectly inhabits the role of Dresden, and you get the full breadth of his complexities, inner pain, and weird sense of humour, as Marsters narrates the book through his eyes.  You really get the best understanding of Dresden through Marsters’s voice work, and that really adds to the quality of the entire read.  As such, this format comes extremely highly recommended, and you need to try Death Masks’ audiobook as soon as you can.

Another Dresden Files book down, another five-star rating from me.  Death Masks was another epic and exceptional entry in this amazing series, and I continue to be impressed by how well Jim Butcher writes these great books.  Thanks to its excellent and utterly addictive narrative and brilliant character work, Death Masks is probably one of the best Dresden Files novels I have read so far, and I had such a great time with it.  I can think of no higher compliment than to say it made me so happy, I instantly started listening to the next book in the series, Blood Rites, the moment I finished Death Masks.  Make sure to come back next week to check that Throwback Thursday out.

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Throwback Thursday – Grave Peril by Jim Butcher

Grave Peril Cover

Publisher: Buzzy Multimedia (Audiobook – 1 September 2001)

Series: Dresden Files – Book Three

Length: 11 hours and 55 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  In my latest Throwback Thursday article, I continue my dive into the bestselling Dresden Files urban fantasy series by Jim Butcher by looking at the third chilling novel, Grave Peril.

I am really getting into the awesome Dresden Files novels, a major long-running urban fantasy series that follows Harry Dresden, a wizard living in modern-day Chicago, as he investigates supernatural crimes.  Generally considered one of the best urban fantasy series of all time, I started enjoying this series last year when I read the latest novel, Battle Ground.  I absolutely loved Battle Ground (easily one of the best novels and audiobooks of 2020) and I have since decided to go back and check out the earlier entries in the series.  I already enjoyed the very first novel, Storm Front, a couple of months ago, and Fool Moon, which I finished and reviewed last week, was so much fun that I had to immediately go and read another Dresden Files book.  I have just finished off the third entry, Grave Peril, and decided to feature it in this Throwback Thursday article.

Something is stirring in the dark of Chicago and it is bringing all manner of ghosts and spooks with it.  Harry Dresden, professional wizard, is used to facing the supernatural dangers infecting his city, but he has never experienced quite so much chaos as the spirit world has gone crazy.  Powerful ghosts and tortured spirits are popping up all around Chicago, causing the walls between our world and the Nevernever (the spirit world), to weaken and fray.  As Dresden attempts to find out who or what is behind the current upsurge in spiritual activity, he finds himself under attack from a powerful and unseen force that can strike through his nightmares.  Scared, weakened and full of self-doubt, Dresden is near powerless to stop this creature as it begins to target his friends and loved ones.

With a righteous Knight of the Cross at his back and his reporter girlfriend hounding him for a scoop, Dresden looks for the true source of the entity coming after him.  But in order to find the truth, Dresden must place himself in the very heart of Chicago’s supernatural underworld.  With old enemies, bloodthirsty vampires, howling spirits, deadly demons and his twisted fairy godmother coming after him, can Dresden survive this latest attack unscathed, or will his enemies finally succeed in destroying him, mind, body and soul?

Is it even possible for Butcher to write a bad Dresden Files book?  I have yet to see any evidence to suggest this as Grave Peril, the fourth Dresden Files novel I have read and the third book in the series, turned out to be another epic and powerful fantasy read.  Butcher has come up with a fantastic novel in Grave Peril, and I loved the dark and compelling story that sees Dresden face various demons from his past.  Utilising some great new characters and serving as a major entry in the overall series, this was an outstanding read which gets yet another five-star rating from me.

I deeply enjoyed the cool and complex narrative that Butcher came up with for Grave Peril, especially as it takes Dresden and his friends into some sinister and dangerous places.  This book starts quick, with a great extended sequence that sees Dresden and Michael face off against a powerful ghost in the Nevernever.  This amazing opening to the novel is then followed by an intriguing central story which forces Dresden to investigate a new and unusual antagonist, the Nightmare, who is feasting on his dreams and using the power it steals to go after Dresden’s loved ones.  This central story is very intense and compelling, playing to the series’ detective novel inspirations as Butcher sets up a fantastic mystery while also showing a desperate Dresden coming under attack in some unusual ways.  There are some fantastic moments in this part of the book, and I really appreciated the author’s inclusion of multiple supernatural suspects as you try to figure out who is involved and how they are pulling off their plans.  All this leads to the book’s most memorable sequence, a vampire masquerade, which sees Dresden and his closest allies trapped at a ball, surrounded by a dangerous array of enemies and, trying to work out motivations and plans on the fly.  The story is eventually all wrapped up with a dramatic and clever conclusion that is exciting, emotionally rich and a little traumatising to the reader.  I deeply enjoyed Grave Peril’s cool narrative and it honestly did not take me long to get fully engrossed in what was happening.  While this novel is not as action orientated as the previous book, Fool Moon, it has a much darker edge to it with a particular focus on manipulation, emotions and intrigue.  Readers should be warned that some of the scenes can be a bit over-the-top at times (I am pretty sure the protagonist gets raped by a vampire at one point) and are a little hard to read.  However, this is an overall exceptional narrative.

Like most books in the Dresden Files series, Grave Peril can be read as a standalone novel without any knowledge of the previous entries.  Butcher always makes his novels very accessible to new readers, and while there are some references to the character’s previous adventures, most of the relevant details and re-examined and explained throughout this book.  Grave Peril is a fairly major entry in the overall series as Butcher starts to introduce some important storylines, key supporting characters and lasting world-building elements which become quite significant in future novels.  In particular, Butcher introduces lore surrounding vampires, spirits, and fairies, with the protagonist coming into conflict with all three.  Each of these fantasy elements are set up extremely well and have a dark edge that fits into the series’ distinctive tone.  I loved the author’s depiction of the fairy creatures as monstrous and shadowy manipulators, and it was quite cool to see all the lore around vampires.  Grave Peril introduces three major vampire courts, with each court made up a different sub-species of vampire with their own specific powers and weaknesses, from the Dracula-esque Black Court, to the sexually and emotionally powered vampires of the White Court.  Each of these different types of vampires are strongly featured in Grave Peril and are a fantastic part of the story.  The highlight for me was probably the various battles between Dresden and the members of the Red Court, who can be pretty freaky and repulsive, and Butcher sets up an intriguing, long-running storyline with the Red Court here.

It is near impossible to discuss a Dresden Files novel without mentioning the incredible and well-written characters that appear in each book.  Butcher has a real talent for introducing and developing memorable protagonists and antagonists, and Grave Peril is a particularly good example of this.  Not only do several amazing recurring characters reappear in a big way but Butcher also introduces some intriguing new figures who make a big splash.

The key character as always is series protagonist and point of view character, Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, the sarcastic and amusing maverick wizard who is constantly finding himself in trouble.  I always deeply enjoy following Dresden throughout these novels, mainly because he has a wicked sense of humour, an entertaining attitude and an uncanny ability to annoying and enrage everyone he comes across.  Most of Grave Peril’s humour comes from Dresden’s outrageous actions and observations, including his insane decision to arrive at a vampire’s ball dressed in a cheesy Dracula costume (that raised some eyebrows and lengthened some fangs).  Despite this fun and amusing exterior, Dresden is quite a damaged individual, and you really get to see that on full display in Grave Peril.  Dresden goes through some major traumatic events in this novel, several of which nearly break him as he is forced to encounter or do some very dark deeds.  Butcher really takes his protagonist to the edge in this novel, and there are some very intense scenes, including a glimpse of Dresden’s nightmares and deepest fears.  The author also continues to drip-feed hints of his protagonist’s dark past throughout this novel, especially when Dresden comes into conflict with an old enemy/mentor.  All this hurt and trauma is really touching and compelling, and the entire novel features a heartbreaking ending for Dresden, which really hits home, especially after you find yourself connecting with the character.

Aside from Dresden, there is a great collection of supporting and side characters I had a lot of fun seeing in this novel.  The most prominent of them is newly introduced protagonist, Michael Carpenter, Knight of the Cross.  Michael is a modern-day holy crusader, wielding a powerful blessed sword and his own unflappable faith to strike down evil.  Michael is a very intriguing character, and I deeply enjoyed the friendship he forms with Dresden.  Michael is a man of intense faith and goodness, who manages to balance family with his responsibilities as a knight, and this serves as a fantastic counterpart to the more flaky and irresponsible Dresden.  Like Dresden, Michael goes through some major traumas in this novel, several of which shake even his faith and resolve.  However, no matter how dark the situation, Michael manages to pull through and he and Dresden work together well as an enjoyable team with Michael serving as a mentor figure and conscience to Dresden.  I felt that Butcher did a great job introducing Michael in this novel, and I am excited to see how this noble knight develops in future Dresden Files’ entries.

Other great side characters in this novel include Dresden’s girlfriend, feisty reporter Susan Rodriguez.  Susan has not been my favourite character in the past, but she has a great story arc in this novel.  Not only does she attempt to do her own research into the case but she also serves as a major figure of emotional turmoil for Dresden as he struggles to prioritise her over his supernatural work.  While I did get a little annoyed at some of Susan’s decisions in this novel, I enjoyed the compelling story arc Butcher weaves around her, especially as it alters her in a big way.  My favourite haunted skull, Bob, returns once again and has several great scenes throughout Grave Peril.  I love Bob’s funny, if slightly pervy, personality, and all his appearances are very amusing.  There are some great new characters featured in this book as well, including Lea (The Leanansidhe), Michael’s fairy godmother.  Lea, who previously made a dark bargain with a desperate teenage Dresden, spends much of this book manipulating and hunting Dresden, attempting to claim him and his power.  I loved the use of this evil, manipulative and sexy fairy godmother through the novel, and she ended up being a pretty impressive secondary antagonist.  Grave Peril also sees the introduction of Thomas Raith, a White Court vampire who finds himself helping Dresden.  Thomas is a cool addition to the plot, and it was intriguing to see his introduction to the Dresden Files, especially as I know some spoilers about him.  All of these characters were pretty awesome and I had an outstanding time seeing their latest dark adventure unfold.

As I have with the previous entries in this series, I ended up listening to Grave Peril’s awesome audiobook format.  The Dresden Files audiobooks are a thing of beauty and I love how fun and exciting listening to these great books turns out to be.  The Grave Peril audiobook has a decent runtime of just under 12 hours, which is longer than the previous two Dresden Files novels, but readers will be too caught up in the amazing narrative to care.  I managed to power through it in only a few short days, mainly because of the outstanding narration from actor James Marsters.  Marsters, best known for his roles in shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Smallville and Torchwood, narrates all the Dresden Files books and does an exceptional job bringing each of these novels to life.  I absolutely loved the incredible gravitas and energy he infused in the Grave Peril audiobook.  Marsters really gets into the heart and mind of Dresden, and you get an amazing sense of what the protagonist is thinking and feeling through the narrator’s voice and tone.  I also enjoyed the enthusiasm that Marsters exhibited in several key scenes, as he attempted to highlight certain weird and dangerous story elements.  For example, he does a fantastic enraged and shrieking ghost wail towards the start of the novel that gave me a start, and I loved the dark and dangerous voices he pulls together for some of the more monstrous creatures.  It was also very cool to hear Marsters yell out some of Dresden’s spells in the heat of battle, and it really enhances the excitement of the scene.  All of this and more makes the Grave Peril audiobook the perfect way to enjoy this novel, and I plan to check out the entire Dresden Files in this format.

Grave Peril by Jim Butcher is an exceptional and incredible fantasy novel that serves as an amazing third entry in the bestselling Dresden Files.  Butcher crafted together a dark and compelling character driven narrative for Grave Peril which proved to be extremely addictive and powerful.  I had an outstanding time getting through this novel, and I loved all the clever introductions and memorable sequences the author loaded into the plot.  A highly recommended read, especially as an audiobook, I cannot wait to see what other madness occurs in the rest of this fantastic series.

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