Blood Rites

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IT WAS ALL A LIE

5 STARS

In the previous book in this series (Death Masks), Jim Butcher lays out four revelations regarding Harry Dresden that promise to be possible pivot points in the ongoing storyline. Using the character of Nicodemus, a demon collaborator with the Fallen, as his conduit, Butcher first provides both the reader and Harry an additional piece of evidence that his mother had been a practitioner of black magic. Secondly, Nicodemus tells Harry that he is not an only child but his mother’s youngest child.

Thirdly, Nicodemus informs Harry that he is not totally human and could border on being immortal. Harry actually misses that part, by the way, due to the pain and agony caused by Nicodemus torturing him at the time.

And finally, in the last pages, Nicodemus tricks Harry into picking up a coin bearing the sigil of one of the Fallen that he has thrown right at the feet of Michael Carpenter’s baby. Quite frankly, it never dawns on Harry to just grab the baby up. Instead, without a holy cloth barrier, Harry slams his hand down on the coin. When he does, a force shoots up his arm; he feels a soul stretching into wakefulness and then hears soft, indistinct whisperings. Oh, yeah – cliffhanger and pivot point all in one package!

Now, in this very next book, those four pivots morph into a fulcrum on which is mounted a catapult loaded with the fiery orbs of truth about Harry’s birth, his childhood and his apprenticeship as wizard of the White Council. And the unraveling of that truth starts out so innocently.

Thomas Raith, a vampire in the ruling House of the White Court, hires Harry to identify and stop the entity that is trying to kill Arturo Genoso, a movie producer who is trying to break away from a big studio on the West Coast and start his own production company in Chicago. From Thomas’ description of the two attempts that have killed women around Genoso, but not Genoso himself, Harry figures an entropy curse is in play. That type of curse is something Harry likes to steer well clear of, but Thomas plays the “I’ve-saved-your-hide-several-times-now-it’s-your-turn” card. So Harry signs on.

The remainder of the novel takes place in a little over 48 hours. But, in that short time, Jim Butcher doesn’t just throw Dresden and the reader the one bone of an entropy curse to gnaw on and digest. He hits us with the whole hog – an entropy curse seeking to kill Harry, flaming purple demon monkeys trying to burn Harry alive, Black Court vampires trying to tear Harry to pieces, other Black Court vampires trying to burn Harry alive, Kincaid and McCoy at each other’s throats in front of Harry, and White Court vampires trying to sacrifice – literally and ritually – both Thomas and Harry.

Then, in the middle of these life-threatening scenarios, Butcher decides to up the ante and releases that catapult, one pivotal orb at a time. Massive deceptions and lies of omission are revealed, one after another, even as Harry battles the vampires and the maker of the entropy curse, trying to keep Thomas, Murphy and himself alive. By the time the final sling of the catapult flies, over three decades of Harry’s life have figuratively gone up in flames. And the literal flames have not been so good to Harry either.

Even by the midpoint of the book, the savvy reader knows that the ramifications of the truths revealed to that point are not such that Harry is going to be able to just take them in stride, say “so be it,” and move on. And by the end of the book, the final slings of the catapult stand to shatter the very backbone of Harry’s existence and sever from it the tenets on which he was raised by his father and McCoy.

Butcher makes you feel the hurt, the betrayal, the rage, the need to replace helplessness with power, and the desire to kill that is now throbbing through Harry’s veins and brain. As you approach the final pages you cannot help but feel that the next book or two will be heavy and dark. And you wonder whether Butcher will, in that time, choose to lose the wise-cracking private investigator who champions human rights or will bring out, instead, a practitioner of the magic that is as black as the glove Harry now wears on his left hand.

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Death Masks

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PIVOTAL ENTRY IN THE SERIES

5 STARS

To read the promotional blurb on the back of the book, you’d think this was an entry very similar to the previous four. That blurb lists five different scenarios that will envelop Harry Dresden simultaneously, which is actually one or two more than normal.

For instance, the first 35 pages of the book encompass 2 hours of time in Harry’s life. In those 2 hours, Harry is blackmailed into a duel to the death with a warrior of the Red Court, a team of Johnny Marcone’s mafia goons ambush him in a parking garage, a Vatican emissary hires him to find the stolen Shroud of Turin and Susan Rodriguez reappears on Harry’s doorstep, after more than a year’s absence, and saves him from a vampire ambush. Add 2 more hours and 15 more pages and Harry has, in the morgue, a headless, handless, flayed corpse presenting multiple plagues to identify for Chicago PD’s Karin Murphy.

Yep, it seems like business as usual for a Harry Dresden book. However, four of the five episodes actually boil down to only two situations: the Vampire Red Court’s war against the Wizard’s White Council and the theft of the Shroud.

Susan’s returning is the wild card here, not only for Harry emotionally but for Harry’s mortality. The question is whether she is there extraneously to the other events or whether she is part of the War. Since the former leader of the Red Court was originally responsible for Susan’s current half-vampire, half-undead state, we don’t truly know if she is there to help Harry or to betray him.

This entry of the series appears to be pivotal to the ongoing story arc. All of the major players seem to make quantum, but believable, leaps in character growth and progression – Harry, Susan, Murphy, even Marcone. In addition, Harry is openly challenged by more than one major secondary character to examine his motivations and determine just why he chooses to protect mortals at the expense of his own health, wealth and standing in the supernatural community.

…SPOILERS FOLLOW…

Then we are introduced to a major secondary character who seems to know more about Harry than Harry does. Nicodemus, a collaborator with the Fallen who has been alive for millennia, claims to have known Harry’s deceased mother well and tells Harry that he has siblings. This is the second time that Harry has heard talk about his mother from a demon but it is the first time he has heard that he is not an only child.

But, most importantly, Nicodemus indicates that Harry is immortal. Not that he would be if he succumbed to the demon’s demands, but that he already is.

However, due to the fact that he is being tortured by Nicodemus at the time, Harry does not appear to comprehend the statement in its entirety. But I have a feeling that statement is laying the groundwork for much more to come. Since, as I write this review in 2014, there are currently 10 more novels in the series, I expect I’ll know soon enough if I understood that scene correctly.

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Grave Peril

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BECAUSE HE DID WHAT WAS RIGHT

5 STARS

In the first book of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series, Harry makes an immortal enemy in Bianca, a well-known and influential madame in Chicago. Bianca is also a vampire of the Red Court, a sect that has no compunction against killing the humans on whom they feed.

In the second novel, Bianca is conspicuous by her absence. Harry has little time to consider this, however, as he is busy subduing a demon under the control of Kravos, a sorcerer with a demented hate for Harry. With the considerable help of Knight Templar, Michael Carpenter, Harry dispatches the demon and Kravos is arrested.

Now, in the third book, Bianca is back, with her plans for revenge against Harry in place (think Kravos). Having been elevated to a position of power on the Vampire Council, Bianca plans a masquerade ball as celebration for her Court, with invitations also being sent to the designated representatives of each supernatural group within the Nevernever. Thus, Harry, as representative for the White Council, is invited, along with a guest of his choosing, to the ball.

Harry has no plans to attend that event. First of all, he really doesn’t want to walk into the lair of a vampire who has sworn to kill him, even if the “rules” of the Nevernever grant him safe passage. And secondly, he and Michael are up to their eyeballs in ghosts who have been slipping through a weakened wall in the Nevernever to wreck havoc, mayhem and death upon those who may, in some way, represent a contribution to their demise.

When one of the ghosts escapes them, Harry and Michael are forced to pursue her into the Nevernever. With his Sight, he discovers that the ghost is under the influence of a torture spell – ice cold barbed wire embedded in her neck and wrapped in coils about her body until it embeds itself again in her ankle. The tortures attached to the wire are for the purpose of causing deep emotional grief, unbearable pain and insanity.

Then, whoever or whatever is causing this spate of ghostly violence turns its attention to Harry. The entity, dubbed the Nightmare, first attacks one of Murphy’s former detectives in his sleep, wrapping the torture spell about him in his dreams. Then the entity attacks Harry while he is dreaming, but no barbed wire spell is included. Instead, within the dream, the entity guts Harry and consumes the organs, thereby removing the majority of Harry’s magic. The entity would have gotten it all save for Harry’s cat and the Bob skull managing to awaken him just before death would have been certain.

Now, virtually incapacitated magically, Harry cannot save Murphy when she is attacked by the torture spell. Continuing the rampage, the entity kidnaps Michael’s pregnant wife, and Harry must, for all practical purposes, sell his soul to save her. At this point, it appears that attendance at Bianca’s ball is going to be necessary if he wishes to find the perpetrator, retrieve his powers and end the carnage.

Just as in the previous books of the series, this one is non-stop mayhem, violence and angst. At least three supernatural entities want Harry destroyed, first mentally and physically tortured and then killed. Another creature wants him alive, but only so that she can possess him entirely in body, mind and soul. And through it all, Harry feels that he alone bears the responsibility for the safety of his friends. Even though these villains freely and purposefully choose their own actions, Harry still feels that he has forced them into their choices.

Sometimes you just want to slap Harry silly. But Jim Butcher has the character of Michael help him to get back on track with one of the most succinct and memorable pronouncements I have ever read:

“What goes round comes around. And sometimes you get what’s coming around. And sometimes you are what’s coming around.”

This urban fantasy series falls into that category where most of the supernatural creatures have an innate predatory and vicious nature. There is no compunction not to kill what they eat or not to cheat whom they bargain with or to ever tell the truth. Suspension of disbelief is simply a requirement from the opening words as far as dealing with the mental and physical stamina and the skills that these magical creatures, both human and not, possess. But in this third entry, Butcher drives home the strength of Harry’s character, his innate goodness and the forthright moral compass of his soul in such a manner that no belief need be suspended to accept.

DEFINITE SPOILERS FOLLOW:

The one major character that I have not yet mentioned is Susan Rodriguez, pulp news journalist and Harry’s girlfriend. From the very beginning of the series, I have disliked this character. Whether Jim Butcher means for the reader to dislike her, I do not know, but she has always come across to me as selfish and egotistical, a user. I have never doubted that she cares for Harry as much as she is able, but she always seems to place her wants and her needs first with no real concern for what Harry might need.

And finally, in this novel, her ego and her career goals do her in. Angry with Harry because he doesn’t want her to go to Bianca’s ball and because he won’t stop in the middle of a major spell to talk to her on the phone, she defies Harry’s warnings and slips into Bianca’s ball without an official invitation. Thus, she is also without official protection against attack. While there, she also bargains with a faerie to get part of Harry’s magic back without listening to Harry’s warnings about the “fine print” of the bargain.

As a direct result of both acts of stupidity, she loses her memory of what Harry means to her and she loses her humanity. As Michael said: “What goes round comes around. And sometimes you get what’s coming around.”

Using much of his little remaining magic, Harry helps Susan get the memories back and gets her away from Bianca’s lair alive. And, upon getting those memories back, how does Susan repay the man she swears that she loves? She leaves him in the hospital, poisoned almost unto death by vampire venom and mushroom toxin. She leaves him without a word and moves away from Chicago without a forwarding address.

When Harry is well enough to track her down, she tells him that she loves him, kisses him to sexual distraction, gets ups and walks away, saying “Don’t call me; I’ll call you.” Bianca may not have been able to kill Harry’s body, but through Susan, she has killed his heart. Harry is now a disheveled and broken man.

I have not researched the series far enough to know if Butcher brings Susan back, but I certainly hope not. With the vampires calling for war unless the White Council hands him over for execution, Harry deserves better than Susan. He deserves someone at his back, not at his throat, literally or figuratively.

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Hex Appeal

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SHE JUST CAN’T KEEP HER MOUTH SHUT

4 STARS

Jazz Tremaine is having nightmares, terrible nightmares. These are the kind of night terrors where you wake up sweaty and scared, remembering every detail and still able to feel every touch, every blow, hours after the fact. Her first one is so real, so physical, with the only other person in the dream being her boyfriend, that she accuses Nick Gregory of actually attacking her. Mistake #1!

Never mind the fact that as she roars awake, Nick is solidly asleep beside her. It takes hours for Jazz to convince herself that the attack was not real and she makes the appropriate apologies to Nick. However, she doesn’t give him the details behind her initial accusation. Mistake #2!

Trying to chalk the nightmare up to spicy food and graphic videos just before bed, Jazz attempts to get on about her daily routine. Unfortunately, this is not meant to be as Jazz’s wards are accused of the disappearance and apparent murder of a local carnival worker. She secrets the wards away but does not start her investigation into the charges immediately. Mistake #3!

Fortunately for the two wards, Jazz and Nick are not your typical couple. Jazz is a powerful witch, over 700 years old, and Nick is centuries older than that and a vampire. Because of her heritage and her potential, Jazz has suffered innumerable indignities and tragedies even at the hands of her own kind. And Nick has been an Enforcer with the vampire Protectorate for longer than Jazz has been alive. Self-employed, Jazz uses her skills to eliminate curses and spells put upon others and Nick has his own PI business, supposedly retired from Protectorate service.

And currently, someone wants Jazz, and probably Nick, dishonored, disenfranchised, destroyed mentally and physically, and ashes-to-ashes dead. Jazz and Nick don’t know it yet, but we, as readers, are informed early on that that is the case. We just don’t know who or why. Thus, as we read, every scene involving the dreams, the feeling Jazz has of a malevolent presence close enough to touch but not see, and even the framing of the wards is colored by our omniscience. Needless to say, we are faced with hundreds of pages of ever-ratcheting tension.

 This is not a standalone novel. In this 2nd entry in the series, Linda Wisdom makes repeated references to incidents that occurred in the 1st novel, without any synopsis or adequate background. Therefore, I strongly suggest that you read that entry first, or if it has been awhile since you read it, go back and quickly review the action. There is a definite correlation between what was and what now is.

Another tack that Linda Wisdom has taken with this book is to make our main protagonist, Jazz, an obnoxious “witch.” And I mean that both literally and figuratively. In the first novel, as we obtain her backstory, we can somewhat understand her emotional state. But in this novel, Wisdom has taken her character over the top, past snark and quick-wittedness, to an in-your-fact offensiveness that grates like fingernails scraping across a board.

Jazz’s anger is always at the tip of her tongue and at the tips of her fingers, ready to unleash her acid words or her witchflame at the slightest provocation. It is no wonder so many supernatural creatures despise her and that she has so few friends. And those same characteristics that make the others think her troubles couldn’t happen to a better witch – her belligerence, her sarcasm, her aggressiveness, and her self-absorption – make it difficult for the reader to empathize with her, also. Even Nick loses his patience and compares her to a five-year-old. After 700 years, you would think that Jazz would have learned the difference between honey and vinegar and the decided advantage of think first, speak and act later. But that is not how Wisdom chooses to write the character and I found myself skimming past the snit fits.

So even as annoying as Linda Wisdom paints Jazz, even as inscrutable as she writes Nick, even as you scream for the characters to “just communicate already,” the mysteries involved are well worth the reading time. Childishness aside, you just can’t help but want to know who is trying to take down Jazz Tremaine this time. And while there is no cliffhanger, there are a lot of little hooks, details not cleaned up in this entry, which just might provide fodder for future novels.

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Storm Front

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THE FIRST LAW OF MAGIC

5 STARS

Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden is a publically practicing wizard. He plies his trade in Chicago as a licensed private investigator, not as an entertainment personality. And he is a paid consultant to the Chicago PD, working with Lieutenant Karrin Murphy on situations that fail to fit “normal” parameters.

Now Dresden is not your basic garden-variety witch. He was born with power and has studied his craft long and hard to develop and control his talents. In fact, the power he seeks to control runs through his body to such an extent that any electronics in his vicinity are disrupted, from phones to elevators. And that power seriously affects his love life, and not in a good way. In fact, a sexual union can be so unpredictable that Harry hasn’t risked even a date in what seems like forever.

But Harry has a problem far nastier than the miniature EMPs he generates. He is under an impending death sentence imposed by the governing body of witches, the White Council. Several years ago, Harry’s mentor turned to the Black Arts. When Harry refused to turn with him, his mentor forced the issue and Harry killed the mentor in self-defense. Unfortunately, he killed him using his power, which is against the first and primary of the Seven Laws: Thou shalt not kill using magic.

The penalty for breaking the First Law is immediate execution by beheading, but the council voted to commute the sentence – temporarily. They imposed the Doom of Damocles upon him, which means that any further infraction of any Law is grounds for termination. To that end, Harry has been assigned a Warden, the equivalent of a probation officer, named Morgan. It is Morgan’s job to monitor Harry, to report his activities to the Council, and to behead him upon proof of any infraction. And Morgan hates Harry with the proverbial passion. We are not told the source of this hatred, but it is so profound that Harry has to be concerned that every breath he takes could be his last.

As our story sets up, Harry is practically broke, as jobs requiring a wizard have been lacking for some weeks now. Then two cases come to him within an hour of each other. The first is a consult with Murphy at a murder scene. The two victims are in the bedroom of a plush hotel suite, still joined together, even in death, in an obvious act of lovemaking. The rib cage of each victim is splayed jaggedly outward and their hearts are across the room, pulpy, bloody and decimated. It appears as if their chests just exploded from the inside out.

The second case is that of a missing person: Monica Sells wants Harry to find her husband. Victor Sells has lost his high-powered, highly paid job, has become depressed, has become enthralled with magic and has run away from home to join a coven. Now, if you are like me and don’t believe in coincidences, you figure that these two events, spaced so closely to each other, are somehow connected. The trick is to figure out how and why.

Since this is the first book in the Dresden Files series, the author does a great deal of world building. Butcher does not insert major info dumps but, instead, passes the information out piecemeal as it fits the situation at hand rather than in a logical, systematic history-of-the-world manner. Therefore, the gaps in that knowledge add to the mystery and the tension.

I really admire the character that Jim Butcher has created with Harry Dresden. He possesses, genetically, supernatural powers yet he is mortal. He can’t remember everything magical that he needs so he has acquired Bob, a centuries-old knowledge and memory spirit who, appropriately, resides in a skull. He is lean of frame and fair of face rather than the off-the-charts handsome creature with a gym-rat body that so many paranormal authors create. And Butcher has given Harry a droll sense of humor in his internal monologues, a way of observing people and situations that will have you nodding knowingly one minute and wiping the tears of laughter off your face the next.

But Harry is not a comedic character nor is this novel a farcical paranormal beach read. Harry lives with the fear of his life being summarily ended every minute of his life. He freezes when fear hits and vomits at the sight of carnage. He worries about not having enough work to pay the bills. He has all the same feelings and insecurities that any male, any human for that matter, would have. They are just complicated by his power and exacerbated by the Doom of Damocles.

And when Harry become the target of the villain, when he knows that his chest will be the next to explode, you cannot help but fear for him as his humanity works against him. You know that Harry is going to survive the ordeal in some form or another, supernatural or mortal, since there are currently 15 books in the series. But until you are within the last 5 pages of the book, you cannot really see just how this is possibly going to happen. And when the miracle he needs does transpire, Butcher does not bring it to either Harry or the reader as a deus ex machina. The save is logical, timely and credible.

While Harry is a fascinating blend of emotions and skills, Butcher creates a major secondary character for whom I feel no affection or sympathy whatsoever. That character is Murphy, who will, apparently, be a recurring personage in the series. She is obviously intelligent and she is aware of the existence of supernatural powers. She is also aware of the existence of supernatural creatures such as vampires and the spirit world called Nevernever. But she does not fully comprehend, and, because of the Seven Laws, Harry can only expose so much to her.

At a certain point in the storyline, Harry cannot accede to her wishes regarding the murder investigation because of the Laws. From this point on, every word Butcher puts in her mouth, every action he has her take shows a side of Murphy who honestly believes she can compel a man powerful enough to blast her into next week to tell her what she wants to know, just because she has a badge and a warrant. She comes across as egotistical, with significant power and control issues, and with her head buried deeper in the sand than her partner who has no belief in Harry’s abilities at all. It will be interesting to see how this newfound enmity and distrust between the two plays out in future novels.

And speaking of future novels, a third and relatively minor character made me literally sit up, widen my eyes and utter an “Oh, my God!” The character in question is Bianca, a vampiress who employed one of the victims in the initial chest explosion scenario. When Harry goes to question her about the girl, Bianca goes for his throat at the mere mention of the girl’s name. In defense, Harry releases an image of sunlight into the room. Within moments Bianca transforms from a beautiful, seductive woman into a bat-like creature, with hunched shoulders, powerful wings, leathery skin and claws.

Upon reading that description, my mind flashed to another vampire character written by an entirely different author – J. R. Rain’s Samantha Moon. While Butcher published this book in 2000 and Rain did not introduce Moon until 2009, the resemblance between the creatures that the two women transform into is uncanny. Whether this is a case of Butcher’s chicken hatching Rain’s egg, a case of great minds thinking alike, or a case of both authors playing on the ancient lore that connects vampires with bats, it is a fascinating connection.

Almost 15 years have passed since Harry Dresden first appeared in the urban fantasy genre. Chronologically, he follows Harry Potter and he precedes Twilight. Yet he is as unique as a fingerprint, one of a kind that I look forward to catching up on.

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