Professional wizard and private investigator Harry Dresden is having a really bad day. The Red Court of vampires wants his head on a platter for killing one of their own, and they've been in a war with the White Council of wizards ever since her death. Under the auspices of ending the war, they've sent a champion to challenge Harry to a duel, and after they twist his arm by making threats against his friends, he has no choice but to comply. He is also hired by a priest to find the missing Shroud of Turin. The holy relic was stolen and suspected to have been brought to Chicago to be turned over to a mysterious buyer. Before he can get the whole story from the priest, hit men who work for the most notorious mobster in Chicago start taking pot shots at them. Then Harry is pulled into the CPD investigation of a headless and handless corpse that they found. On top of all that, Harry's old girlfriend Susan is back in town after a year-long absence. Her presence and the fact that she's brought another man with her are wreaking havoc on Harry's emotions. Can he pull himself together long enough to solve the mystery and find the Shroud before vicious demons get to it first, all while preparing for a duel that could end his life? It's just another crazy day in the life of a wizard PI.
Death Masks is the fifth full-length novel in Jim Butcher's Dresden Files and my favorite of the series thus far. I love how the author was able to take multiple plot threads and weave them all seamlessly together into an exciting story. First you have Harry forced into fighting a duel with the champion of the Red Court of Vampires in order to put an end to the war that is raging between the Red vampires and wizards. Then Harry is hired by a priest from Rome to find the Shroud of Turin that has been stolen and presumed to have been brought to Chicago. After that, Murphy brings Harry in on a case involving a headless and handless corpse that the police have found. And last but not least, Harry's old girlfriend, Susan, finally returns to town after more than a year's absence, with another man in tow, leaving Harry feeling quite jealous. Believe it or not, as disparate as these plot threads seem, they do all bear some relevance to one another, and made for a nail-biting story in which the action barely lets up for a second.
Harry is an intriguing and complex character who seems to grow and change with each story of the series. He reminds me a bit of Malcolm Reynolds, the ship's captain on the TV show Firefly, because he has both a good side and a bad side. His good heart makes him do what he does for the greater good of humanity, but he's been tempted by the darkness before and it happens again in this book. Unlike his Knights of the Cross friends who try to show mercy, he's also not averse to roughing up suspects when he feels the situation calls for it. While we didn't necessarily learn much more about Harry's past in this book, I have a feeling the events themselves will have a far-reaching effect on him that will probably play out over the books to come, and I can't wait to see where it leads him.
As I mentioned before, Susan finally returns, wreaking havoc on Harry's emotions. He still loves her and longs to be with her, but her pseudo-vampire condition hasn't changed. She, however, has changed as a person, and for the first time in the series, I can truly say I liked her. It's not that I disliked her before, but there were times when she seemed a bit self-serving in her motivations. Not to mention, she was working as a reporter for a sleazy tabloid. Now she's found a greater purpose in life and is making the best of a bad situation by using her condition for a good cause. She helps Harry in a number of different ways throughout this story. In fact, he might not have made it out of some scrapes alive if not for her. Susan and Harry also get to share a passionate interlude, which kind of surprised me by how well- written it was. I guess I didn't expect a guy to be able to write a love scene that was so intense and emotional that it rivaled some of my steamy romances, but that's exactly what Jim Butcher accomplished here, which made me very happy.:-)
In addition to Susan, there are a number of other memorable secondary characters, some old and some new. Knight of the Cross, Michael, returns with two new Knights, Sanya and Shiro, in tow, searching for the Shroud too. Despite only interacting with him for a few days, I have a feeling that Shiro's influence is going to stick with Harry for a long time to come. We also get a little closer look at Michael's large family. Mob boss, Gentleman Johnny Marcone, is back too, and by the end, more depth and complexity had been added to his character. Much like Harry, I can't really justify all the nasty things he's done, but I do understand him better now and can't really hate him. Murphy is largely sidelined by the department in this book, but it doesn't stop her from helping Harry as much as she can. We're introduced to the Denarians, a group of demonic baddies who get their power from the thirty pieces of silver Judas received for betraying Christ. With thirty of them out there and only a fraction of the silver coins recovered thus far, I'm sure they'll be back trying to kick Harry's butt in the future. My favorite new character though is The Archive, a little girl who is the keeper of all human knowledge and memories. She is sent along with her bodyguard/babysitter, Kincaid, to act as emissary in Harry's duel with the Red Court champion. I absolutely loved this kid who is equal parts sweetness and serious - possibly deadly - intent. She sort of reminds me of a kinder, gentler version of Hit Girl from the movie Kick-Ass, and I can't wait to see more of her.
Overall, Death Masks was a truly awesome book. I have no complaints about the story at all. It was very well-written and kept me thoroughly engaged throughout with a nice balance of intense action and calmer moments where we get to meet new characters and get to know old characters better. And as I mentioned before, there's even a little romance, which pleased this romance-lover very much. There were some loose threads left hanging at the end which I'm sure will be picked up in future stories and woven into the greater tapestry of the series, and I'm very excited to see where things go next for our intrepid hero, Harry Dresden.
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