Death Masks

Jim Butcher
Death Masks Cover

Another Harrowing, Exciting Installment in the Dresden Files


Book 5 of The Dresden Files finds Harry in yet another pickle. Ortega, the warlord of the Red Court of vampires, has challenged Dresden to a duel to settle the feud between the Red Court and the White Council. If Dresden dies, the war might just end, and if he wins, Chicago becomes a safe haven for all. If he refuses? Those close to him die. On top of that, a representative of the Vatican has hired Dresden to help track down a prominent church artifact that has been stolen and brought to Chicago for sale. Of course, Dresden and the church are not the only ones looking for it. Powerful demons are on the hunt for the relic and for Dresden, and he will need the help of the Knights of the Cross and a more than generous helping of luck if he's going to survive the next few days.

What Death Masks Does Well

This book saw a much anticipated (by me, at least) return of Michael Carpenter to the series. Michael (an actual carpenter), is a Knight of the Cross who wields the holy sword Amoracchius, which contains a nail from the true cross (supposedly). Michael's steadfast and earnest demeanor made a nice counterpoint to Dresden's cynical stubbornness in Grave Peril (Book 3), and I was happy to see him reappear here. We also get to meet the other Knights of the Cross (also called Knights of the Sword, I think), and they are surprisingly similar yet distinct from Michael. I've always wondered how Butcher reconciled having holy Christian relics and what some would describe as pagan magic and traditions in the same piece of worldbuilding. Do the faeries and lesser gods coexsit with the Christian God? Do the Christian holy relics have power because God imbues them with it or because the faith is a kind of magic that empowers them (a chicken and egg question that real philosophers have actually attempted to tackle)? Instead of giving a straight answer to the question, Butcher complicates the issue by showing the other two Knights as holding different views of faith than Michael: while Michael is a devout Roman Catholic, one of the other knights doesn't follow a formal religion and another claims to be an athiest! This dumbfounds Harry since their power with their swords comes from their faith, but I think this is Butcher positing that being pious is not all that matters, but faith and having a good heart matter more. The whole cosmology of divine and semi-divine beings that Butcher is revealing as we go along seems like it might be more complex than I first realized, which is fine. The book doesn't denigrate religion or faith and takes a more broadly humanistic thematic than simple religious devotion might impart on the plot.

Harry's character is put through more trials and tribulations as Susan, Dresden's great love interest, pops back into the scene, and the difficult moments between them is handled well overall and is genuinely touching in several places. It does, however, lead to one very awkward scene about 75% of the way through the book (you'll know it when you come across it) that I felt was more than a bit over the top.

The action is good, as usual. I was a bit perplexed at the rules of the duel between Dresden and Ortega, since it wasn't going to be a straight-up battle of magic, but it was well carried and suitably tense. The monsters of the book were pretty terrifying as well. These monsters are demons bound to this world by a set of 30 pieces of silver (I'll let you piece that one together there). I've been listening to Peter Brett's The Warded Man which is set in a fantasy world where people have to stay in their homes at night as demons rise and try to get past the defenses established by magical wards the people have to create for themselves: every single night. All throughout that book (which I enjoyed a great deal) I kept thinking, man, I wish he could describe a monster as well as Butcher!" Butcher's writing still retains that cinematic quality in that it is visual, well-paced, and exciting without being laboriously described.

Between the enjoyable return of Michael Carpenter, the tensely emotional moments between Dresden and the returned Susan, the cool monsters, and the well-presented action, Death Masks was another enjoyable experience from Butcher. The thematics of faith are dealt with well without being overbearing or overly simplistic. One might expect from this type of book (paranormal wizardry and such) to find an overly-zealous religious fanatic pulling the strings like in The Da Vinci Code, but thankfully Butcher presents a compelling story involving religious artifacts with a wizard with a pentacle around his neck without oversimplifying Christianity or other religions as the opiate of the masses or an evil, deceitful institution at worst.

Where Death Masks Could Have Been Better

While I felt that Butcher included relics and mythology from the Christian tradition well without oversimplifying it or tuning it into a cliche, I wish I could learn more about how Christianity fits into the overall cosmology Butcher is working with. He surprised me and offered a more complex vision of how the characters are empowered by faith and how that is not necessarily connected to religion, but to character, that I was 100% behind, but I still would like to have a better idea of whether or not the Christian God exists in this world or if He is a greater or lesser god in Butcher's cosmology. Perhaps that would have led too much to cliche. More likely, knowing one way or the other would obviate the need for faith, which is what empowers even Dresden (faith in his magic) as well as the Knights (faith in themselves, in God). Still, it's a big question mark for me.

At this point I was hoping to see more of what is going on on the front lines of the Vampire-Wizard war, or at least to know more about what is going on. From Dresden's perspective we learn bits and pieces, but he is mostly isolated in Chicago, so we don't get to see much or even know much about what is going on with the war beyond what happens to him. Even Ebenezer, his old mentor, only makes an appearance via phone call. I suppose I wanted to see more of the White Council's workings as we did in the previous book, Summer Knight.

There was also subplot involving a portion of the police department suspecting Dresden of murder or at least actively looking for him to question him that never came to much and was just quietly diffused in the denouement. I kind of expected more from that, since one obvious tension in Dresden's, and indeed Miacheal's, world is that the human authorities don't look too kindly on people playing (well, to their minds "playing") wizards and knights wrecking up the place.

Concluding Thoughts

In between the whole ghost thing in book 3 and the hierarchy of the faerie courts in book 4, I was wondering how religion synched up with Butcher's universe and was hoping that Michael would return to answer some of those questions. Butcher seemed to be thinking ahead to this same thing by putting religion, or more accurately putting faith, as a magical centerpiece of his fifth novel in The Dresden Files series.

As with the other books thus far, the action has been satisfying, the suspense and pacing have been well-kept throughout (indeed, the very first scene is tense as hell), and the emotional and philosophical thematics are well included but don't become heavy handed or cliche. Butcher's plotting of the series thus far has been engaging and I look forward to seeing where he takes Harry Dresden next in book 6, Blood Rites.