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Book cover art by Chris McGrath (left).
Review © 2008 by Thomas M. Wagner.

Consistency, thy name is Butcher. If the first four Dresden Files novels allowed Jim Butcher first to establish and then rigorously beta-test the template from which the entire "paranormal investigator" subgenre would operate, in Death Masks he virtually perfects that template. Here we get to see all of the narrative elements with which fans of this series have become familiar put into play in an impressively balanced story whose plot is, in its way, every bit as complex as those of thousand-page epic fantasies whose authors expect their work, and themselves, to be taken far more seriously than Butcher does.

Butcher's attitude is that just because one writes escapism doesn't mean it shouldn't be wicked-smart. There's a reason everyone's reading this stuff and half of them are trying to rip it off to boot. And stacking Butcher's work up to more traditional fantasy...well, no disrespect to the author of another bestselling series about a wizard named Harry (of whom I have been a staunch defender), but given the choice, I'd re-read Death Masks before I'd re-read Deathly Hallows.

Butcher is so confident in his creative space here that he makes the silliest of possible premises — that the Turin Shroud has been stolen, and while that's not a silly idea in and of itself, it's a bit much to ask readers to believe the theft could be kept secret and wouldn't be plastering headlines globally — work for him.

Dresden is hired by a rather shady priest fellow named Father Vincent to help him track down the Shroud, which has been spirited to the Windy City by a gang of thieves called the Churchmice. It transpires the Shroud is sought by Marcone, the leader of the Chicago criminal underworld, as well as the Denarians, a heinous collection of demonic badasses who seek to employ the Shroud's latent magical properties in a plot to wreak merciless havoc. And as if Dresden didn't already have his hands full, there's the war between the White Council and the Red Court of vampires, which has been going on since the end of Grave Peril. Dresden has been challenged to a duel by vampiric übernasty Ortega, who claims he's after an early end to the hostilities, which, he says, are no good for either side. But of course he has hidden ulterior motives. He wouldn't be a vampiric übernasty if he didn't.

Death Masks is where Butcher realizes The Dresden Files as not only a wildly enjoyable series of popcorn adventure yarns but a fully realized fantasy universe. Dresden himself is presented as a three-dimensional character in his most satisfying portrayal to date. A reunion with his paramour Susan, the journalist who was almost turned by the Red Court in Grave Peril, gives him a whole host of compeletely believable emotional vulnerabilities. The series' sprawling cast of supporting players are impressively fleshed out. We don't see all of them here; Billy and his gang of werewolves sit this one out. But Dresden's personal relationships have as important a role to play in the unfolding narrative as the plot or the action, and the reader's emotional stake is solid.

The plot this time allows Dresden to do just as much detecting as fighting — nice, as he is a detective after all — whereas the last couple of books have put the action at center stage and downplayed the mystery/thriller stuff. He even goes undercover at one point at a black tie affair, which offers the book a sweet (and boastfully acknowledged) James Bond homage. And finally, it's great to see Dresden have some purely human moments of coming unglued and getting just plain fed up with everything that's coming down on him. Probably the most viscerally satisfying scene has Dresden fucking a guy up with a baseball bat. If you'd been chased, beaten, attacked with spells, shot at, tied up and tortured, you'd be ready to play a little rough yourself. When you're battling demons and their minions, it's time to check political correctness at the door.

Followed by Blood Rites.