I was actually going to post this several weeks ago, but I was seriously thinking about titling it "Turin about is fair play" or "Shrouded in Mystery." I blame the pain meds. Luckily, I managed to stop myself in time.
Actually, come to think of it, I must be missing something, because I'm not picking up on the pun in the title.
Death Masks (The Dresden Files, #5)
Harry Dresden's pockets are emptier than usual--to the point where he agrees to go on The Larry Fowler Show for a bit of cash. As it turns out, however, all three of the other guests on the show are there to see him: his old acquaintance to update him on the disappearance of his girlfriend, Susan, a priest from the Vatican to hire him to find a precious stolen artefact,...and a warlord of the Red Court of vampires has come to kill him.
Dresden's life is about to turn upside down again. Duke Ortega of the Red Court forces him to agree to a duel by threatening the lives of his friends. Lt. Karrin Murphy, Harry's friend on the police force, has a corpse on her hands that has apparently died of every plague in existence. The Denarians, a bunch of baddies with fallen angels whispering in their ears, are in town and want to add Harry to their gang. Harry's part-vampire ex-girlfriend is back--and with a man, the monotonous Martin, in tow. And if that is not enough, the artefact his client has hired Harry to find is the Shroud of Turin.
I have mixed feelings about Death Masks--not as in lukewarm feelings, but as in intense enjoyment and intense dislike of various portions of the book. My partitioned feelings match the book itself pretty well. The two separate plot threads, the vampire duel and the Denarian-shroud-debacle, intersect but remain distinct. Both parts swing into quite a bit of James Bond spoofing--Dresden even wears a tux at one point, although he spends time wolfing down snacks rather than drinking, he does end up both shaken and stirred. I really like Ortega as a baddie. He's more complex than the standard Dresden baddie--he wants to protect his people, and is willing to put his life on the line to do it. Machiavellian at heart, he believes that the ends justify any means, and his motivations are complex enough that I still don't completely understand them. The Denarians, on the other hand, are straightforward evil-for-the-giggles types. I find those characters to be superficial and irritating. I also don't find them to be particularly scary--evil girls with steel knives instead of hair, bears with horns and four eyes, and half-snake-half men just don't do it for me--they sound too much like something faked up with a bit of plasticine on the front page of the National Enquirer. Only Nicodemus, a smooth, affable (and, of course, British) gentleman whose shadow can jump out and grab you, struck me as even mildly frightening. The Denarians' motives seem forced to me. Who, in real life, does evil just for the fun of it? People have motives--power, etc--and twist them in their minds until they believe they are doing the right thing. The entire subplot, and the involvement of the Holy Knights of the Cross, feels morally heavy-handed to me, and altogether a false note for the generally more lighthearted, action-driven Dresden Files. However, even if the Denarians feel unrealistic, they provide extremely fun and altogether random interjections of gratuitous stock villain moments.
I like Susan better in this book than in her last appearance, Grave Peril, where she ditsily, selfishly, and stupidly wandered into a vampire fest and got bitten, leading to events that threw the whole world in chaos. Although she's not my favorite character, at least she's got guts and knowledge now, and is willing to assist Harry rather than just be an obnoxious whiner who complains about him missing their dates to save lives. I really, really don't like...um...a particularly explicit and rather (to me) disturbing BDSM scene that occurs in this book, but your mileage may vary. If you like romances and can tolerate Shades of Grey style scenes, you'll find this part fun. As with most of the Dresden Files books, there are some cringeworthy moments; in this case, although kudos to Mr. Butcher for having a Hispanic character, the descriptions of Susan always "exoticize" her by racial type. In addition, it turns out that in the Dresdenverse, South America is full of backwards people ruled by red court vampires.
I also enjoyed the reappearance of Michael Carpenter, with the addition of his compatriots, the other Knights of the Sword. The bunch, Michael, Shiro, and Sanya, are generally enjoyable characters and reassuringly straightforward, although a bit stereotyped (along with rather strong racial stereotypes, which grated on me) for my liking. A new character--the scarily intelligent child Archive--adds additional laughs. There's also a totally amoral blonde British cat-burglar who manages to twist Harry around her little finger, leading to completely hilarious scenes.
The writing style is workmanlike, although I do propose the following:
The Dresden Files Drinking Game!
Take a drink every time one of the following is used:
-"arched an eyebrow"
Despite all my grumbling. I think these books are tons of fun. However, one of these days, I'm gonna compute The Official Jim Butcher "Arched An Eyebrow" Census. It's gotten to the point that if any other author uses it, even once, I want to yell, "gahhhh!!"
Overall, the book has its fair share of totally awesome moments--cabbage patch homunculi, holdup via plastic duck, and more. Dresden continues to grow on me as a character and a narrator, and although I found myself wincing at times and agreeing with Marcone that he is "diplomatically challenged" and "should be in a shelter for the tactless," I found several of his quips genuinely funny, such as, "The next time I opened my eyes, I was in the morgue. This, all by itself, is enough to really ruin your day." The book also contains a few minor details that, in retrospect, I think were positively brilliant. I think my favourite is the sword Fidelacchius 'biting' Susan. It wasn't until #12 in the series that I realized it had pegged her as a liar for her deception in the duel. (Well, I suppose it's only brilliant if you disbelieve her claims of innocence. As it happens, I think she behaved too uncharacteristically to not know what was going on.) ] It might have what I thought were some rather uncomfortably icky scenes, and some of the characters were rather flat, but even if not the same quality as some of the other books, it's still a fun read.
Oh, one last repetition of my constant refrain: these books are better on audio. In this book, Marsters has really started to get into the swing of audiobook narration and has started to have a little fun with it. James Marsters is a brilliant narrator; he so captures the character that he is the voice of Harry for me even for the books that I read in print. So, as I say, these books are better on audio.
Believe it or not, I've written a review of every single book in the series. I may have addiction issues. Links to the complete set are below. The starred ones are my faves.
[#1] Storm Front [#2] Fool Moon [#3] Grave Peril [#4] Summer Knight* [#5] Death Masks [#6] Blood Rites [#7] Dead Beat* [#8] Proven Guilty [#9] White Night [#10] Small Favor* [#11] Turn Coat [#12] Changes [#13] Ghost Story* [#14] Cold Days