Sound Off in the Forum

All reviews and site design © by Thomas M. Wagner. SF logo by Charles Hurst. All rights reserved. Book cover artwork is copyrighted by its respective artist and/or publisher.


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

By the time The Dresden Files reached its seventh volume, its superstar status was rock solid. The books were now turning up on major bestseller lists, and development of the television show was looming.

In Dead Beat, the series' new editor, Penguin's brilliant Anne Sowards, allowed Butcher to expand his scope significantly. The result is more of the same, but bigger. Of course, "more of the same" is not really a pejorative when referring to these books. However, Dead Beat does hint at the possibility of future titles falling victim to bloat. In their paperback editions, Death Masks ran 374 pages, Blood Rites ran 372, and Dead Beat runs 424. Sure, maybe size matters. But one factor that has made these books such sublime escapist fare up to this point is that they're all so tight. Butcher takes his time now and then in Dead Beat, where in previous books he was pinned into a ruthless but deeply satisfying narrative efficiency. In the end, sheer storytelling chutzpah — not to mention a plot much better than that of Blood Rites — wins the day. If Butcher can just keep delivering high-octane entertainment, then short of losing all restraint and drowning in Robert Jordan-level page counts, his gift for talespinning ought to supercede any temptation to indulge in the kinds of "epic" pretentions that have so often tripped up fantasy's brightest talents.

Once again, Harry Dresden finds himself thrown into a situation that seems deceptively simple at first, only to grow more chaotic and complex as it all unfolds. Faced with a threat against his friend Karrin Murphy from the sinister vampiress Mavra, Dresden agrees to recover something called the Word of Kemmler. Dresden learns that this enigmatic Kemmler was once the most fearsome necromancer that ever worked black magic — and he learns this from none other than Bob, the imprisoned spirit who now reveals it was once Kemmler's very own assistant.

Naturally, Dresden quickly discovers he isn't the only one after this dark magic. A host of Kemmler disciples are after it, too, and, like all good arch villains, will stop at nothing. Halloween is right around the corner, and Harry learns that if any of these baddies is able to cast the spells revealed in Kemmler's ancient Word, they'd not only wreak untold havoc, but likely energe from the ritual as a being of nearly godlike indestructible power. As this would be a bad thing, it's up to Harry to get to the Word first — or, failing that, throw whatever monkey wrenches he has at his disposal into the Kemmlerites' plans.

Dead Beat succeeds for the same reasons the earlier books do. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, and Butcher has had half a dozen books to figure out his formula is working for him. Yet he's deft enough to avoid repeating himself. He allows each volume to add a little something to the mythology that's been built up. There's a complex metastory at work here, and one wonders if Butcher really has an end point in mind; that one day we will, in fact, see Dresden's final battle.

Here, the layered story is, once again, fleshed out by adding dimension not only to Dresden's own character development, but that of the myriad supporting players. Some familiar faces take the day off — though she's ostensibly in danger here, Murphy spends the entire book on vacation in Hawaii with the mercenary Kincaid, which gives Harry some amusing little pangs of jealousy he won't quite admit to — while others who have up to this point had small roles advance to the front ranks. Harry is helped this time by Butters, the nebbishy coroner introduced in the previous volume, and Thomas's new role in Harry's life has led to both tension and a deep bond of friendship. (Though it is a shame, however Butcher gives good reasons for it, that Thomas spends most of his time bumming around Harry's apartment. I suppose he's the deadbeat of the title.) Finally, Harry's adorable little puppy Mouse is no longer such a little puppy — and Butcher drops hints there's more to this slobbery furry friend than meets the eye.

Despite the book's increased length, the story only has one or two brief slow sections. Mostly, Butcher's skill at keeping the whole thing a well oiled machine hasn't gone rusty yet. (If I may be allowed to torture my metaphors.) Throw in a bravura climactic battle on a dark and stormy night that doubles as a rousing parody of Jurassic Park, and Dead Beat beats just about all the other urban fantasy pretenders dead.

Followed by Proven Guilty.