On every single level Death Masks delivers. While I had an overall glowing review of the previous novel in Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files, this 2003 novel surpasses it on every level. Jim Butcher has finally entered the big leagues, folks, (in more than one meaning of the term). Things are about to get really, really good.
Spoilers for all of Death Masks and for Butcher’s previous works.
So, What Happened?
The novel opens with Harry on a talk show. The other two guests show are Paolo Ortega, vampire of the Red Court, and Father Vincent, a Vatican priest. Ortega blackmails Harry into agreeing to a duel with him. If Harry kills Ortega, then Chicago becomes neutral. If Ortega kills Harry, then the Vampire-Wizard War ends. However, if Harry doesn’t agree to the duel, then Ortega’s assassins kill everyone Harry cares about.
Father Vincent hires Harry to find the Shroud of Turin. A fallen angel attacks Harry, only to be rescued by Michael and his fellow Knights of the Cross. After some exposition about the Denarians, fallen angels who possess humans through the coins paid to Judas, Harry leaves. With magic, he tracks down the Shroud, and the thieves capture him. Another Denarian attacks him, and steals a decoy shroud, and the remaining thief gets away with the real deal. Susan appears in his apartment, and tells him she joined a half-vampire group fighting against vampires.
She helps him track down the Shroud, and gets tickets to the event the thief plans to sell it at. Harry organizes the duel, with Shiro, a Knight of the Cross, as his second. Harry recovers the Shroud, but a Denarian kidnaps him. Shiro trades places with him, before Nicodemus can sacrifice Harry. Harry wins the duel with Ortega. Afterwards he uncovers the disguised Denarian “Father Vincent”. Nicodemus wants to unleash a deadly plague at O’Hare International Airport using the Shroud. Shiro dies, and they track down Nicodemus with Marcone, the buyer. They recover the Shroud, only for Marcone to sneak off with it. Harry tracks him down, and makes him agree to return it. Nicodemus tries to corrupt Michael’s son with a coin, but Harry intercepts it, and buries it in his basement.
Best Moment – Death Masks’s Villain Thesis
While easily the best moment in Death Masks, the confrontation between Harry, Michael, Marcone, and Nicodemus also tops the villain monologue list. When Nicodemus talks, you can hear the 2,000 year old vessel of a demon talking. It’s pure evil and it’s fascinating.
“The Apocalypse, as you refer to it, isn’t an event. … Nicodemus studied me for a moment before smiling. ‘Apocalypse is a frame of mind,’ he said then. ‘A belief. A surrender to inevitability. It is despair for the future. It is the death of hope.’ Michael said quietly, ‘And in that kind of environment, there is more suffering. More pain. More desperation. More power to the underworld and their servants. … ‘I like to think of it as simple entropy,’ Nicodemus said. ‘The real question, to my mind, is why do you stand against me? It is the way of the universe, Knight. Things fall apart. Your resistance to it is pointless.’ In answer Michael drew his sword.” (361-2).
There’s a common theme in stories I adore, where people stand up in the face of apathy and go on anyway. Death Masks hits every note of that here. Resistance is futile. Surrender to the inevitable ending. But you stand up because you have to. Not because you think you can kill apathy or the devil standing in front of you, but, “Because it needs to be done.” (362). Michael standing up this way parallels Billy’s speech in Fool Moon. It will be paralleled in later books in a gorgeous way.
In addition, Father Forthill mentioned that only two Knights faced Nicodemus and survived. Shiro and another unnamed Knight. Michael fights Nicodemus to a standstill before Dierdre intervenes, but still he survives. His strength and his survival stands a fitting testimony to his mentor.
Most Improved – Death Masks and Unfolding Charity’s Character
Like Monica Sells in the first book, you can see the arc of Charity’s character contained in Death Masks. In the opening of Death Masks, we see Charity openly, deliberately hostile to Harry. He assumes this comes from the fact that Michael gets hurt fighting alongside him, and the events of Grave Peril. Harry even thinks that Charity might consider not telling Michael about his request for a second to protect her husband and children.
However, far from remaining the only phase we’ve seen of Charity’s character, we also see more of her inner life. Shiro becomes Harry’s second on Charity testifying that Michael would do so. Harry talks with her, and we get two significant bits of dialogue. “He’s been hurt three times, you know … Three. With you. Every time.”(173-4). It’s not just that Michael gets hurt going on excursions with Harry that she cares about, but that those are the only times he gets hurt. Suddenly, all of her hostility makes sense.
The other significant moment in that scene is when Harry asks why she didn’t lie to Shiro. She responds that she doesn’t want to compromise her principles for him. “’So you’re taking care of me?’ I asked. ‘I don’t expect you to understand. … It would break his heart if you came to grief, and I will not allow that to happen.”(174-5). Charity protects Michael, physical and emotionally, and that’s her driving force.
But it’s not just passive protection either. Michael reveals that Charity plated his armor with Kevlar. “She made the breastplate? I asked. Michael nodded. ‘All of my armor. She used to work on motorcycles.” (370). She protects him with her words, and protects him with her actions. It proves a nice change from the damsel saved by Michael who dislikes Harry.
Best Worldbuilding – Death Masks Dissects Faith and Logic
It had to happen eventually. The Dresden Files deals so much with religion and folklore that this conversation had to come along. Especially given the Christian influence in Death Masks, this seems like an opportune place to have it.
To clarify, Faith does not refer solely to a particular religion, but to the concept of belief itself. Logic refers more to agnosticism, not tying yourself to a religious belief system, than denying that mystical things happen.
While Death Masks deals a lot with the Christian tradition, moments also show that it’s not just a Christian influenced book. One of the more beautiful examples is Shiro’s elephant story. Three blind men feel three different parts of an elephant and come to different conclusions about what an elephant is like. “Oh. I get it. All of them were right. All of them were wrong. They couldn’t get the whole picture.” (202). Shiro’s point seems to be that while all religions, all viewpoints have something right, there is no one religion that shows the whole picture, the whole function of the universe, despite various religions claiming to have that answer. It’s the fundamental thesis underlying all of Death Masks’ interactions with religion and mythology. Each has a piece of the puzzle, but not the whole picture.
Beyond that, we also see other religions represented in Death Masks. Harry summons a Loa in his search for the Shroud. It points him in the Shroud’s direction, and proves that other gods, other religions have power, not just Christianity. While a small moment, it’s significant with in implications.
When Harry returns to his apartment, he tries to send Bob to track the Shroud. Bob replies flatly in the negative. When asked why, he responds. “[The Shroud] doesn’t exist on the same wavelength as me. It’s out of my jurisdiction. … I’m a spirit of intellect, Harry. Of reason, logic. The Shroud isn’t about logic. It’s an artifact of faith.” (101-2). When applied to the elephant discussion, you see that Death Masks also makes a point of logic and reason having pieces of the universal puzzle too.
Beyond that, when Sanya talks to Harry, he asks how long it had been since he devoted himself to Wicca. Harry responds in the negative, that he’s a wizard, not a pagan. “Wicca is a religion … and I’m not really big on religion. I do magic, sure, but it’s like … being a mechanic. Or an engineer. There are forces that behave a certain way. If you know what you’re doing, you can get them to work for you.” (87-8). Harry’s conversation about magic reinforces things we knew before Death Masks, that he doesn’t follow a religion, but his magic works because he believes in magic. Not because he believes in gods. Harry later designates himself theological Switzerland. This places the protagonist in a logic based category, though he often goes up and stands alongside faith driven powers.
Worst Worldbuilding – Thomas’s Disappearing Sisters
This is the worst nitpick I’ve ever nitpicked. But, Death Masks just doesn’t do worldbuilding errors. Believe you me, I looked for them. So, to nitpick.
Thomas turns out to be Ortega’s second, as well as a person being stalked by Ortega’s assassins. When Harry asks if Thomas is still being followed, he replies. “No. I introduced him to my sisters.’ … If a couple of Thomas’s sisters had med the hired gun tailing Thomas, the assassin probably wasn’t going to be a problem to anyone. Ever.” (197).
We learn nothing else about Thomas’s sisters, despite the fact that we didn’t know he had siblings. I know we learn about them in future books. But, yeah, definitely scraping the bottom of the barrel for this category in Death Masks.
Worst Moment – Molly and Harry’s Treehouse Conversation
This moment, however, is not barrel scraping. Harry shows up at the Carpenter household and hides out in the treehouse for a little. Eventually Molly, Michael and Charity’s oldest daughter shows up in a very ‘rebellious teenager’ outfit.
“The skirt was essentially slashed to ribbons, and underneath it she wore black tights, also torn to nigh indecency. Her shirt and sweater had apparently endured the Blitz, but the bright red satin bra that peeked out from beneath looked new. She had on too much makeup. … She wore a ring of fine gold wire through one pale gold eyebrow, and a golden stud protruded from one side of her nose.” (165).
Harry turns around and she changes into modest clothes, and he notes that she removes the bra. That, unfortunately makes the outfit seem like it was meant to titillate the readers and in-universe viewers of the outfit, rather than support, since the outfit she changes into would have hid it. Either that or Butcher has a bad understanding of how breast support works. Sadly, both are options.
They wind up talking about Susan, and Molly displays a discomfiting amount of knowledge about sex, suggesting the handcuff on his wrist is a “fun-time handcuff” (167). She also suggests that Harry tie Susan up so they can have sex and she won’t bite him. Molly seems to have a too precocious amount of knowledge about sex.
The thing that most discomfits me about this scene, is that Harry takes Molly’s advice on tying up Susan and having sex with her. Susan went mad with bloodlust, and had to be restrained. They had break-up sex during that interlude. To repeat. Harry took sexual advice from a precocious fourteen-year-old, regarding his sex life.
I really liked Death Masks. The only truly bad scene was chronicled here. Butcher paced the plot well, and you can see Charity’s character growth. He also introduces several important worldbuilding elements with the discussion of the Denarians, and with the teaser at the end where Harry buries the coin. Butcher decidedly knows how to write well in Death Masks.
However, given how deeply I scraped the barrel for ‘Worst Worldbuilding’, that category will be optional from now on. If Butcher messes up the worldbuilding, then I will chronicle it in the review. However, if my only options would be similar to this iteration of the category, I’ll exclude it.
As always, I look forward to hearing from you, and seeing if you had different opinions about how I delineated the categories. See you next month!