Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Options Abound in Grave Peril

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I said in the first article of this series that Butcher admitted that the series really picked up pace around book three. Let it be said, that I never expected the change to flip this hard. There were options for every single positive category this time, where previously the only options were for the worst moments.  Grave Peril, first published in 2001, is the turning point in the series from something to struggle through, to something I genuinely enjoy. Let’s get into it.

Spoilers for all of Butcher’s previous works.

So, What Happened?

Grave Peril opens with Harry and Michael Carpenter, a Knight of the Cross, running to a hospital to sedate the ghost of Agatha Hagglethorn. She almost kills all the babies in the hospital before they stop her. Harry remembers fighting a demon summoning sorcerer with Michael and Murphy’s Special Investigations. He also describes giving a ghost protection amulet to Lydia, a young seer being hunted. Unfortunately, Harry and Michael are arrested after they stop Agatha and run into Harry’s fairy godmother, Lea. Their significant others bail them out of prison. Charity, Michael’s pregnant wife, gives Harry a verbal lashing.

Harry researches the spell rousing ghosts, and SI drags him to Carmichael’s house. The spell and something called the Nightmare attacked Carmichael. Harry and Michael hunt down Lydia. Two of Bianca’s vampires kidnap her. They retreat back to Harry’s house, and the Nightmare attacks them and steals some of Harry’s magic. The Nightmare attacks Murphy and kidnaps Charity. They rescue her and protect Murphy, but Lea steals Amoracchius.

Without options, they attend Bianca’s party, honoring her as new Red Court nobility, hoping to find who created the chain spell and unleashed the Nightmare. Susan sneaks in with a false invitation, and they mingle with monsters of the worst sort. Bianca threatens to unmake Amoracchius after Lea gives it to her. A fight breaks out. Susan is taken, and Harry mounts a rescue the next day with Michael and Thomas, a White Court vampire who stole Amoracchius back from Bianca.

Harry fights the Nightmare after Bianca captures him, and uses his ghost to kill Kravos, the sorcerer from the flashback and the Nightmare. Then he unleashes the ghosts in Bianca’s house on her, and flees with a newly half-vampire Susan. She leaves because she can’t control her bloodlust around Harry.

Best Moments – Harry, Michael, and Thomas’s Banter

Butcher really comes into his own with the snappy dialogue in this book. But nowhere does it come through more than when Harry, Michael, and Thomas are in scenes together. They’re the perfect comedy trio. The depraved and traitorous Vampire, the moderate wizard, and the ultimate straight man in a Knight of the Cross. Butcher has fun writing these scenes, and they’re fun to read. He introduces two excellent recurring characters in this book and tosses them in the deep end with Harry. They work at cross-purposes sometimes, but when they have no other options they can rely on each other to pitch in.

Butcher kicks their dynamic off when Harry and Michael attend Bianca’s party. Everyone stares at Harry. “I still can’t believe,’ Michael said, sotto voce, ‘that you came to the Vampires’ Masquerade Ball dressed as a vampire.’ ‘Not just a vampire,’ I said, ‘a cheesy vampire. Do you think they got the point?’ … Thomas was staring around at the courtyard with undisguised glee, then flashed me a smile and a thumbs-up.” (251). Thomas also makes a joke later to cool tempers.

Later, there will come such brilliant one liners as Thomas’s. “And I swear to you, by my own stunning good looks and towering ego, that I’m not lying to you.” (341). Thomas wants to rescue Justine, Harry wants to rescue Susan, and Michael wants to rescue everyone. Cross-purposes, but still aligned.

But most emblematic of their banter is when they confront Lea in the Never-Never on the way to Bianca’s house. They each take turns speaking in turn, bargaining with her so that she’ll release Harry in exchange for the antidote to the poison he just took. The three of them fit together so well, that it’s a shame Butcher didn’t use them more here.

Best Moments Options

Of course, this wasn’t the only choice I could have made. I had three other options. When Harry rescues Carmichael from the chain spell, he opens his Third Eye, and sees the wreck of his friend’s spirit. Then, towards the end, Murphy comes in to help Harry. He sees in her, “Murphy, the guardian angel, coming through the door in a blaze of wrath.” (127). It’s a moment that reveals the core of her character, the protector, vengeful to those that would hurt her people.

The second option for this category was when Murphy and Michael bring over a care package at the end of the book. After Susan left, Harry threw himself into research on how to fix her vampiric condition. At the end, Murphy and Michael remind him that he isn’t alone. He still has friends. It’s a tender moment that provides some closure after a book that upended the status quo. Susan is gone. The Wizards are at war with the Red Court because of Harry’s actions. But Harry still looks out for people, and they still look out for Harry.

My final option was Harry’s capture by Bianca and her coterie. Butcher uses language in an interesting way here, creating an aura of horror that’s spine-chilling. Harry never fully describes what happened when the vampires fed off of him. He just says, “The monsters got me.” (381).

Most Improved – Harry and Susan’s Relationship

Grave Peril marks the first moment where I could believe in Harry and Susan’s relationship as something genuine. I’m not someone that invests easily in romantic subplots, but Butcher managed to make me feel for the relationship here. Of course, then he goes and destroys it over the course of the novel, but I felt for it here and the destruction felt natural. Or as natural as something influenced by the supernatural could be.

Michael spends half of the first chapter badgering Harry about saying I love you to Susan, and how he doesn’t talk about his feelings. It sets up the entire basis of the relationship and how it works and how it doesn’t. Harry and Susan are now so significant to each other’s lives that Harry’s friends badger Harry about them. Then, Butcher deliberately juxtaposes and parallels Susan and Harry with Charity and Michael. We see, “Michael with his quiet strength and unfailing reliability, and Charity with her blazing passion and unshakable loyalty to her husband.” (60). Then Butcher describes Harry and Susan. She calls him out on her not being as important to her, and Harry chokes on ‘I love you’ again. We see how they’re able to speak more openly. In Michael and Charity we see what they might become.

Then Susan sneaks into Bianca’s party, and trades away a year of her memories to Lea. Then Bianca imprisons her, and starts turning her into a vampire. Harry pushes his magic along the bond between them, and breaks her out of bloodlust with three words. “I love you.” (398). It breaks her out of bloodlust and through Lea’s spell. Butcher ties together their emotional intimacy then, and then Susan leaves to protect him, flipping their usual dynamic. We see them work and fail. It’s heartbreaking.

Most Improvement Options

For this category there were only two options, Harry and Susan, or Harry’s Isolation tendencies and the fixing thereof. During his conversation with Harry about his love life, Michael talks about how Harry constantly isolates himself and how it worries him. But what Michael doesn’t realize is that his own existence is in part, a solution to that.

Michael, and his position as friend to Harry, is a new character type for The Dresden Files. The closest to him previously was Mac, who served as bartender. Murphy alternately uses him or tries to arrest him. Harry has clients, allies, but no friends, not until now. Murphy and Michael at the end when they bring a care package continue to prevent Harry from burying himself in grief alone.

Best Worldbuilding – Harry’s Past and the Leanansidhe

Over the course of this book, Butcher unfolds more information about Harry’s past. He also discusses the Leanansidhe, Harry’s fairy godmother and how she intersects with that past. Harry mentioned having a fairy godmother in an earlier book, but now we meet Lea, and she provides us with a wealth of information on the Sidhe.

First, we learn more about Justin and how Harry defeated him. We knew Justin tried to turn Harry to dark magic, and Harry killed him. The White Council had him watched for that. But now we know how Harry gained the strength to kill him.

 “’It began in a cave, its walls made of translucent crystal, … I looked to the left and the right and watched my blood glide down over the manacles from where they pierced my wrists like thorns, then fall into a pair of earthen bowls set out beneath them. … Cold pleasure, faerie magic, coursed through her lips like a drug, … ‘Justin’ I whispered. In the end I couldn’t watch any longer.” (79-80).

Here we see how faerie magic, or sidhe magic works. In blood and in pleasure. No wonder Lea consorts with vampires for most of this book. We also learn how the sidhe operate in a wider world through her friendships. “Happily, as is the custom of my people, I have brought [an equal gift], to exchange with you.” (313). If she didn’t, she would be beholden to the giver. This is fairly common faerie or sidhe lore, which Butcher expands on in later novels.

After Harry bargains his way out of immediately going with Lea, she exercises her options, and calls in favors with others who owe her. Sticking to the very letter and word of deals proves typical of sidhe in fantasy.

Best Worldbuilding Options

One of the other options I could have pursued was vampire hospitality. Harry spends a good deal of time at Bianca’s Ball, treading on vampire hospitality. Mavra, a Black Court vampire with a grudge against Michael threatens Susan because hospitality doesn’t extend to someone without an invitation. Bianca sets up her party so she can cozy up to various powers, and get rid of inconvenient people, namely Harry, Thomas, and Justine. That tests the limits of hospitality, but doesn’t break them because she orchestrates it very carefully, slipping vampire venom in the wine. It’s obviously a mistake that Harry can’t process vampire venom, being human.

The other option for best worldbuilding was Harry’s sense of magic as morals. Talking about his breakdown after he sets the fire in Bianca’s mansion to escape the party would be interesting. Butcher talks a lot about faith in this novel. Harry doesn’t quite believe Michael, when he says that Amoracchius has a nail from the Crucifiction in the handle. But, “That kind of belief is a power of its own. Maybe that’s enough.” (63). After Harry burns several of Bianca’s victims alive escaping, he has a crisis of faith in his own magic. Even though he was out of options, he still blames himself and his powers weaken because of it.

Worst Worldbuilding – Kravos and Bianca and Harry’s Stupid Plan

There were no other options for this segment. Because while I adore this book and the turn it creates in the series, I have a problem. And that problem is that Butcher tries to do too much, plot-wise. He tries to balance Lea, Kravos/the Nightmare, Bianca, and various ghosts to weave a coherent narrative. I admire that, and he succeeds somewhat. But, there were so many options that he could have taken instead that it becomes highly annoying.

Kravos became the Nightmare after he committed suicide. Then he proceeded to attack the people that caught him, going after Carmichael, Murphy, Michael, and Harry. This makes sense. An evil wizard, out for revenge. The problem comes with some of the side effects of the Nightmare and Bianca’s collaboration. The Nightmare’s uses a certain spell. “And wound around him, starting at his throat and running down one ankle was a strand of black wire, oversized barbs  gouging into his flesh, … Just like Agatha Hagglethorn.” (120). Other targets than his nominal ones.

Bianca helps the Nightmare by casting spells, and lending Kravos power. We have no idea how Kravos and Bianca started collaborating, and the barrier had to thin in order to create a Nightmare-level ghost in the first place. But the barrier started thinning because of the Nightmare. It’s a total crapshoot.

Then Harry decides to use his ghost as backup. Susan gives his body CPR and he dies in the spirit world inside his mind, instead of any of the other options Butcher could have used. Say, the id Harry we met last book. Or weaponizing his emotional turmoil over burning those people alive. Nope. Ghost Harry that then dissolves.

Moment of Regression – Secrets in SI

Harry originally thinks that the Nightmare grew from the demon that Kravos summoned, instead of Kravos himself because of Murphy’s Special Investigations people. Not content with secret keeping being Harry’s own flaw, Butcher now extends it to Murphy and the rest of SI for dramatic irony and general drama.

“Cops were tight, a special kind of brotherhood. They’d work with you, but if you weren’t a cop, you were on the outside in a billion subtle ways — one of which was that they didn’t let you in on the department’s secrets. What could have happened to Kravos? Something serious.” (221).

It’s particularly ironic because if you asked Murphy, Stallins, or Carmichael, they would certainly say the same thing about wizards. It spiraled badly enough in the first book that Murphy put out a warrant for Harry’s arrest. But SI had options other than being completely silent. When Harry finally figures out that the Nightmare is Kravos, he thinks about how, “Susan had been gone for a day or two, where I had barely been able to talk to her.” (351). Susan is technically a journalist, so various other journalists would also likely be interested in a ‘satanic’ murderer that committed suicide. Probably publishing several articles that SI would know about.

Even if they didn’t want to tell Harry, they could let him know why they would be reluctant to give him Kravos’s book. Maybe leaving a copy of an article on a desk somewhere where Harry would see it. Other options would be warning Harry that Internal Affairs might come to talk to Harry about Kravos in the future, or just straight up telling him. All of this occurs in service of Harry figuring out that the Nightmare is Kravos mid-fight.

In Conclusion

While I have several quarrels with the plot, overall Grave Peril remains a cut above the previous two novels. Having a glut of options for the positive sections made me very happy. All of those positives had to do with character, which is why my negatives probably had to do with plot. Butcher grows into his characterization before he grows into his currently unwieldly plots.

Grave Peril marks a new phase in The Dresden Files, one I am excited to start examining closer over the next few months. Let me know what you thought of Grave Peril and if I picked the right options or the wrong ones to explore deeper in my article. I look forward to hearing from you in the comments.


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