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

Another solid entry in The Dresden Files, Blood Rites only suffers in that Death Masks, the previous volume, was so superlative. Blood Rites is no less entertaining. Indeed, it's one of the series' funnier books. But Jim Butcher relies a little too heavily on clichés in the effort to bring more depth to Harry Dresden's character and backstory. True, Butcher is a savvy enough writer to know when he's doing this, and he's smart about deflecting the most damaging effects of a cliché by owning up to it right away with a little of the ol' self-deprecating wit. But "shocking revelations" and buried secrets that turn everything our hero has believed upside down, while certainly providing good dramatic meat, are also fairly hackneyed devices. In the end it's down to Butcher's raw storytelling skills — practically unparalleled in contemporary urban fantasy — to bring the story home.

As with all of the other volumes, Blood Rites opens with a deceptively simple story that becomes more twisted and dangerous as Harry unravels all of its clues. As a favor to the vampire Thomas, Harry agrees to investigate who might be trying to kill Thomas's buddy Arturo Genosa, an improbably avuncular porn empresario. Two of Arturo's female employees have already bought it, in melodramatic fashion. Harry goes undercover working as a production assistant on the set of Arturo's latest skin flick. I got a particular kick out of this, as I've worked as a P.A. on virtually every kind of film and television shoot except porn. I'd make a crack about some guys getting all the luck, except I suspect being present while it's all going down live is probably as dull/disgusting as Butcher describes.

The curse being employed against Arturo and his little crew — and Butcher's portrayal of one of them, petulant little wannabe diva Trixie Vixen, is a scream — is excessively elaborate, and not the sort of thing one tosses off casually, or alone. Harry suspects a plot, and sure enough, one emerges, tied to the vampiric White Court, from which Thomas himself hails. One of their most irresistible succubi, Lara, just happens to be another of Arturo's porn queens. And matters aren't helped by the fact that the fearsome Black Court have chosen this moment to strike against Harry as well, leading to a subplot involving another spectacular Butcher action sequence in a homeless shelter.

We get closer to a lot of the characters this time, particularly Thomas and Karrin Murphy, the tough little cop who's been Harry's Girl Friday and platonic leading lady all throughout. Butcher teases us with a tiny kernel of attraction between the two of them, but like the will-they-or-won't-they tension that The X-Files kept going for so long between Scully and Mulder, it's there to add a spark of tension and humor but not the sort of thing you'd ever want to see consummated.

Blood Rites does stumble a little with some of the aforementioned clichés — especially the "shocking revelation" bit — but the ultimate effect is a net gain for the series, as it adds new dimension to some key players and will certainly change Harry's motivations and allegiances in future volumes, giving him (and readers) far more of a personal stake in what he stands to lose.

On the other hand, we get an arch-villain in this episode who's archier than the archest thing you can imagine, including that big arch in St. Louis. He's the kind of guy who goes on at length taunting his victims in long-winded fashion instead of just torturing and killing them, and at one point during the climactic showdown, Harry easily dupes him into leaving his lair for long enough so that Harry can set up an ambush for his return. Again, Butcher knows what he's up to when he's getting ready to roast these old chestnuts, and he typically dodges criticism by way of snarky dialogue from Harry. But it does mean that this villain, cartoonish as he is, is ultimately less frightening — certainly less frightening than Mavra, the Black Court vampire queen who figures in the subplot.

Dresden fans will devour this entry no less eagerly than the others. Indeed, everyone who's followed the series for six volumes will, by this point, be such goggle-eyed fans that the series is pretty much criticproof. Like the others, Blood Rites is just a bloody good time.

Followed by Dead Beat.