Jim Butcher,
Blood Rites
(Roc, 2004)
Dead Beat
(Roc, 2005)

I first ran across Jim Butcher's Dresden Files with the first two volumes in the series, Storm Front and Fool Moon. I liked the premise, and liked Harry Dresden, but wasn't otherwise overwhelmingly impressed, and passed on the next three installments. I've now read books six and seven, Blood Rites and Dead Beat, and realize I have to go back and fill in the gaps. Butcher has developed into a very, very good writer, and the series has grown up.

Blood Rites, as might be expected from the title, revolves around vampires -- but we don't know that at the beginning. By way of background, there are three Courts of vampires: the Black, the Red and the White. The Black, as exemplified by the Black Court vampire Mavra and her scourge, who have arrived in Chicago and are probably after Dresden, are bloody killers with the look of corpses, able to draw on immense power; the White Court vampires, on the other hand, feed on human emotions and drain life force from their victims bit by bit -- the incubi and succubi of medieval Christian legend. (The Red Court, which is not really involved in this story, is at present at war with the White Council wizards, of whom Dresden is one, which means that the other Courts are, in the final analysis, enemies -- as if they weren't already.)

The immediate concern is a job Harry, who is Chicago's only wizard for hire, has taken at the behest of an acquaintance, Thomas, a White Court vampire who, like all of his kind, is beautiful and irresistible. The job is protection: two women on the staff of a movie producer shooting in town, Arturo Genosa, have met bizarre deaths, and Genosa is worried that he is the real target. He suspects a malocchio, the Evil Eye, and wants Harry to put a stop to it. Genosa, it turns out, is a truly revolutionary filmmaker; his genre, however, happens to be pornography.

There is also a hex on his set, but not aimed at him: the victims are all women. There are, of course, too many suspects. So Dresden, aided by Karrin Murphy, head of Chicago PD's Special Investigations unit (the "spook squad"), has to figure out who and why (and in the meantime, stop Mavra from whatever she is up to, which more than likely involves finalizing him).

Dead Beat sees the arrival in town of a group of necromancers, the darkest of dark wizards. The prelude involves Mavra, who has found a new way to get to Dresden -- by destroying Murphy's career. Harry must find and deliver the Word of Kemmler, a legendary necromancer, to Mavra within three nights -- that is, by Halloween. Now, no one knows where the Word of Kemmler is, but that makes sense -- why else would Mavra need Harry to find it? The real problem is that he doesn't know what it is, or why all the necromancers are looking for it.

Butcher's publisher calls the books in The Dresden Files "supernatural thrillers," and that seems the best description to me. These are not really "dark fantasy" -- the emphasis is on the mystery, not the horror, even though the cast of characters is drawn from all of our nightmares: vampires, demons, ghouls, necromancers, golems and more. Butcher has, however, taken these stock figures, along with those of the realm of Faerie, the arcane societies of the Renaissance, fallen angels -- even Chinese demons -- and woven them into a coherent, consistent, fascinating universe. His approach is light-hearted -- Dresden is the archetypal smart-talking PI with a heart of gold, somewhat reminiscent of Archie Goodwin or, perhaps even more, Vlad Taltos (himself based heavily on Rex Stout's character). Butcher also manages to include pop culture icons, very current events and some broad humor that never seems forced. (Blood Rites begins with Harry fleeing a demon in the form of a winged monkey that, as its main weapon, flings, as Thomas so succinctly terms it, "incendiary poo." How can you not love a lead-in like that?)

The one thing that seems to trip Butcher regularly, although he's gotten better at it, is Chicago geography. The most glaring example in Dead Beat is the sun peeking through the Chicago skyline as Harry and Thomas go for a morning run on North Avenue Beach. The sun would have to rise due south of the city for that to happen, and you'll have to share the path (which is paved) with cyclists and dog walkers, even at dawn. Trust me on this. Nor is the University of Chicago to be found anywhere near Lincoln Park, as related in Blood Rites: Lincoln Park, North Side; U of C, South Side. North, South. Get it? (It may seem trivial, but to a Chicagoan -- well.)

However, that cavil dealt with, read these books. Go back and read the whole series, because Butcher carries characters and situations from one to the next -- sort of like the old Flash Gordon serials. Harry Dresden is a lovable character, and a real hero: he may not always be on top of things, but he's not an underdog, he's a powerful, if somewhat ingenuous, magician with enough vulnerability to make you want to take him home and feed him. His supporting cast is equally winning, the puzzles are multlayered and, at least in the two latest examples, the books are real page-turners.

by Robert M. Tilendis
24 September 2005

Buy Blood Rites from Amazon.com.

Buy Dead Beat from Amazon.com.