Jim Butcher,
Death Masks
(Roc, 2003)

Days don't get any harder than the one Harry Dresden is having. He's been challenged to a duel by a 2,000-year-old vampire, ambushed by minions of Chicago's head gangster and attacked by a demon-like creature with metal hair that can slash like a hundred knives. Don't you hate it when that happens? With all that, how's he going to find the missing Shroud of Turin and stop a horrible plague that may precipitate the Apocalypse? But Harry is not without resources. He's a powerful, if sometimes clumsy wizard with various odd and useful friends. They include three religious knights wielding blazing swords, Susan, who's been acting a little different since becoming partially infected with vampire saliva, and a skull that uses a disembodied form to search the city for information and clues. Well, thank goodness for Bob the skull. I was getting a little tired of Internet technerds who can break into NSA systems after two or three minutes of elementary hacking.

Death Masks is the fifth novel in Jim Butcher's Dresden Files. The series mixes tough-guy detective with Harry Potter for adults. The mixture makes for an enjoyable light-read, but the author will displace neither the wise-cracking-yet-noble Spencer nor the imaginative-yet-very-rich Rowling. The plot summary above is a good indication that Butcher attempts too much. A manic pace with continuous off-the-wall surprises works better for authors such as Adams and Pratchett who emphasize the laughs.

Overdoing it extends to Death Masks' emotional mix. It's tough to keep up plausible comic bantering amidst instances of viciously sadistic torture. Fans will be pleased though that many likable heroes and evil villains have been carried over from earlier novels, and there are some clever scenes, several of them describing encounters with the vampire, Ortega. The first is during Harry's appearance on a TV talk-show with a disbelieving host. Our wizard is startled when he learns Ortega is there in the role of a skeptic who will try to debunk the possibility of supernatural events. Klieg lights and monitors begin to pop as Harry is only partly successful at reining in his emotions and their unwanted effects on electronics. Much later in the story the enemies finally meet in a duel that takes place at Wrigley Field. It is a test of wills mediated by a mysterious anti-life bubble of deathstone, a material from a different plane of reality. Deathstone, with the least contact, sucks the life from living creatures. It surges back and forth between the combatants as they push with their minds.

Despite my quibbles, if you've enjoyed previous books in the series, you'll want to read this one, too. So will anyone who likes the idea of a detective battling the supernatural in an otherwise realistic modern setting. Butcher is out to entertain and you can be sure most of Dresden's enemies will soon be after him again.

- Rambles
written by Ron Bierman
published 3 April 2004

Buy it from Amazon.com.