Death Masks by Jim Butcher
“Hell’s Bells” count: 16 (plus two editing errors – “break” for “brake” on page 24 and “shield” spelled “shielf” on page 319)
It’s the “Hell’s bells” that started it. I don’t usually make notes on spelling errors in books. I do notice them, of course – they practically jump out at me and dance around – but these are the only ones where I make a note of the page.
Anyway, on to the book. If you’ve been following the series this far, you know that Harry Dresden, Wizard for Hire, has really gotten himself into deep doo-doo. Aside from his usual problem of taking on cases in each book that end in his getting the everlovin’ beat out of him, there’s a larger story arc to take in – in this case, the war between the Vampires of the Red Court and the White Council of Wizards. Which, as much as he tried not to, Harry incited and, by all the ancient laws of not killing one’s host at a party, he is definitely guilty of. To be fair, the host that he killed, Bianca, was trying to get him to do break the Rules of Hospitality so that she could kill him because he made her so angry way back in Storm Front that she drained one of her favorite servants dry.
It’s a complicated world they live in.
So far the book-level arcs and the series-level arc have been pretty distinct, though I suspect that they will become more and more intertwined as the series goes on. Sooner or later they’ll merge, and all hell will break loose. Literally, I have no doubt.
In this book, Harry has two major problems to deal with. The first is a duel – the Red Court really wants him dead, and they’ve sent one of their oldest and most powerful representatives – Don Paolo Ortega – to challenge him to a duel. To, of course, the death. Harry certainly doesn’t want to die, but the consequences of not dying might be even worse. Should Harry try to duck out of the duel, hired mercenaries are spread throughout Chicago, ready to take out everyone who means anything to Harry.
If Harry should win, of course, the city will be declared Neutral Ground, and the Vampire-Wizard war will have to rage on elsewhere. Overseeing all this is The Archive, a seven year-old girl who has the entire history of humanity – every word written, every word spoken – in her head. She is a being of enormous power, and can be reduced to giggles by a cute kitty cat. She and her bodyguard/driver Jared Kincaid are there to see that the duel goes according to the rules, and are ready to exact very harsh and fatal punishment to he who violates them.
Again, the White Council, who by all rights should be standing by one of their own, is secretly hoping that Ortega will take Dresden down. The Wizards are losing the war to the vampires, and any excuse they can find to call a stop to the death and destruction is a welcome one. The trouble is, the Vampires may not want to stop….
In the other corner, Dresden has a paying job, one that is uniquely suited to him – find a certain relic for the Vatican. It’s priceless, of course. A length of linen cloth with a variety of stains and discolorations that may or may not have the imprint of the resurrected Jesus Christ burned into it. Yes, it’s the Shroud of Turin, or as Harry would call it, “The freaking Shroud of Turin.” It is, of course, an immensely powerful artifact, regardless of whether or not it really is the burial shroud of Christ.
Magic, as Harry tells us, is greatly about emotion and belief. If you want to do a spell, you have to really believe in that spell. You have to know down to your bones that it’s going to work, or it won’t work at all. It takes great hatred to make a voodoo doll work, for example, above and beyond the usual magical accoutrements that one needs. Millions of people believe in the divine nature of the Shroud. That gives it power, which can be used for benevolent or, as is the case in this book, malevolent ends.
This is where we meet some of the more dangerous foes in Dresden’s universe: the Denarians.
The Denarians (more formally The Order of the Blackened Denarius) are a group of fallen angels who are far, far nastier than the usual breed. There are thirty of them, each bound to a coin, an ancient Roman denarius, which may or may not have been the silver coins paid to Judas for a kiss. When a human touches the coin, the fallen angel is able to make contact and enlist that human as a mortal carrier. Some of the Denarians seduce their hosts, where others just use brute force to subjugate them. Either way, the Denarians are millennia old, nigh immortal, and evil down to their cores.
The leader of these creatures calls himself Nicodemus, and he wants the Shroud so that he can do terrible, terrible things to the world. Not end it, necessarily, but bring about the kind of chaos, panic and disorder that he and his kind thrive on.
Fortunately, Harry has the Knights of the Cross on his side – Michael (whom we have already met), Sanya and Shiro. The three of them are willing to fight the Denarians, but want Harry out of it. Why? Our old friend the half-understood, vaguely worded prophecy. Which, like so many other prophecies throughout history, should be regarded as highly suspect.
There are a lot of layers to this story. We get a fun new group of baddies to deal with, a better understanding of the war between the Vampires and the Wizards, and even another, more human look at John Marcone, the undisputed head of the Chicago underworld, who is also looking for the Shroud. For slightly less nefarious purposes, however.
Each book builds on the ones that came before it, yet each book lives on its own, which was a very good decision on Butcher’s part. While you will certainly want to jump straight into the next book upon finishing this one, you don’t actually need to. There’s a certain amount of closure, with just enough loose ends to fuel your speculation for the next book. I shouldn’t have to say this by now, but – go get ’em.
“The Council. Arrogant. As if nothing significant could happen unless a wizard did it.”
– Shiro, Death Masks