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The Dresden Files Reread and Review: Death Masks

Conjure at your own risk.

Conjure at your own risk.

Welcome back to the Dresden Files Reread and Review! This time we’re taking a crack at Book Five, Death Masks with everyone’s favorite gangly smartass wizard Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden. As always, major spoilers for this book, and minor spoilers for other parts of the series.

When we last left off, I was a bit annoyed about having to read another book with Harry Dresden’s lover, Susan Rodriguez, in it. However, keep in mind that I read these books incredibly fast the first time around, and so all I remembered was that she was in it and that was enough to make me grouchy. I’m actually happy to say that you won’t see me constantly complaining like I did in my review of Grave Peril, mostly because Susan is actually only in about 1/3rd of the story rather than the whole novel. Score one for me.

We begin Death Masks with another delightfully weird opening scene where poor Harry has been roped into appearing on the Larry Fowler show, which is a spoof of the Jerry Springer show. Yes, you read that right. Fowler asked Harry and Mortimer Linquist, whom you might remember from Grave Peril as the fake psychic, and the only reason our dear wizard has showed up is for the paycheck he rather desperately needs. It’s been mentioned before but wizards and technology do NOT go together. Harry can actually only be around things powered mechanically or by steam. Any items powered by electricity tend to explode in his presence, so he’s got a suppressing spell running while the cameras are rolling. To quote Harry, “I’ve been in house fires I liked better than this.” Gotta love ‘im.

Shortly after the segment starts, it turns out Fowler invited two surprise guests: Father Vincent and Dr. Paolo Ortega. Important thing of note? Ortega is a Red Court vampire, as in the vampires whom all want Harry dead as a doornail for allegedly starting a war between them and the White Council.

Understandably, Harry is freaked the hell out and Ortega tells him he’s in town to challenge Harry to a duel. The duel is actually to serve as a small scale ceasefire between the wizards and the Red Court vampires. Regardless of Harry winning or losing, the duel will mean that both sides stop killing each other. The only downside is that it’s a freaking duel and Ortega is a Duke of the Red Court, meaning he is no one to be trifled with. What’s worse is that Ortega insists that if Harry doesn’t agree to the duel, he’ll have his minions hunt down and murder all of Harry’s friends. Harry doesn’t take kindly to threats, so he demands that the duel’s rules be put in writing and agrees.

Father Vincent, the other guest of honor, is also interested in Harry in order to hire him for a job, but they are attacked in the parking lot by professional hitters. Harry manages to drive them off and takes Father Vincent to his hotel. Vincent explains that the Shroud of Turin—yes, that shroud—has been stolen and the Church wants Harry to track it down. The suspects in question are called the Churchmice, a few very elusive thieves who have taken the Shroud to Chicago to auction it off to the supernatural community there.

Harry returns home to his apartment only to find Susan waiting for him. (Cue eyeroll.) I’ve had a continuing personal investigation as to why I dislike Susan so much, and I’ve uncovered yet another clue. Every time Susan is in the vicinity, physically or if Harry is thinking about her, my lovely wizard’s brain turns off and his dick starts talking. I highly dislike it. Sure, it’s accurate because I’m sure that some men really do get this way around women they are in love (or lust, but that’s a long discussion for another day) with, but it’s a really jarring feeling for him to ditch all sense of himself whenever Susan’s around. Harry’s boner starts calling the shots when Susan is in the picture, and it’s not a side of him that I enjoy reading. Not his sexuality in general, but just how he can’t think about anything else when she’s around and he gets so jealous and bitter with her rather than with how he is with other women later in the series. This is probably a good example of how hard it is to be objective during a reread, though, so keep that in mind. I guess the bottom line is I don’t like how Harry’s behavior changes in the presence of Susan. I don’t think she’s good for him. I don’t think she makes him a better man, and to me, that’s what love should do to both parties involved: make them better, not worse.

My personal feelings aside, Susan is back in town in order to quit her job at the Arcane, to officially break up with Harry, and to warn him about Ortega’s duel. They are interrupted a bit later by a vampire named Martin, who is apparently Susan’s escort. The above comments I had about Harry’s jealousy comes into effect here. It really cheeses me how he gets when he sees this little creep, and while it’s totally naturally for people to get jealous if their former lover shows up with someone else, it bugs me that Harry gets so petty and irrational over some guy he knows nothing about. Take a chill pill, dude. Seriously.

Mercifully, my queen, Karrin Murphy, head of the Special Investigations police department, calls and asks Harry to come in and look at a corpse. It’s here that the introductions to series-long characters begins, and delightfully so with Waldo Butters, MD. Butters is an M.E. at the Cook County morgue, and while his part here is small, it still makes me smile anyway knowing the person he becomes later on in the series. Like Thomas, Butters caught me off-guard with how much I came to like him, but since his role is pretty small here, I’ll press on.

Butters shows Harry a corpse that has two highly unusual factors to it: (1) it’s been decapitated and has been shredded from neck to toe with deep horizontal lines that look to be inflicted by some kind of razor, and (2) its insides show signs of almost every single kind of disease known to man manifested at once. (It bears noting that after Harry sees the body, his first comment is, “Gee. Wonder what killed him.” I was at work when I read this line and just about fell over laughing. Goddammit, Harry.) Harry finds a tattoo that might help him identify the victim, and then promises Murphy to find out more information.

As he leaves, Harry is attacked by a freakish monster resembling a bear and flees, but he doesn’t get far, and what’s worse is he accidentally gets into a Soul Gaze with it. A Soul Gaze is something that happens if a wizard meets eyes with someone or something for too long, giving him a permanent picture of the makeup of a person’s soul and personality. Sometimes it’s a good thing, like when he saw Murphy’s soul as a beautiful powerful guardian angel. This thing, however, is a monster with a former human soul trapped inside, now laughing mad from sin and evil. Sounds fun, right?

Just before it can squish him, a Japanese man and a black Russian guy spring into action and drive the bear-demon Ursiel off of Harry, revealing that they are Knights of the Cross, just like Harry’s friend Michael Carpenter. The Japanese man, Shiro, and the Russian, Sanya, get it to back off and Michael shows up to deliver the final blow. They explain that Ursiel was one of the Fallen, as in a fallen angel from heaven that manifested in one of the thirty silver coins paid to Judas. (Sound familiar? Heh.) They take Harry to the St. Mary of the Angels Cathedral to rest and heal, and Michael asks Harry to leave town or quit his search for the Shroud because the Denarians, those who are possessed by the demonic coins, want to recruit Harry as one of them.

Harry heads home to read the written rules of his duel with Ortega and orders Bob the air spirit to go find information about Ortega so he can prepare accordingly. He then summons Ulsharavas, a spirit of knowledge, who tells him that the Shroud is on a small boat at the harbor. She also warns him that there is a prophecy if he seeks the Shroud, he will die. Well, that’s nothing new. It’s Harry, after all.

Harry’s mentor, Ebenezar McCoy, also calls and offers Harry a chance to hide out on his farm instead of participating in the duel, but Harry declines because he knows that while it sounds like a nice idea, the Red Court would find him and make hell for Ebenezar in the meantime. Bob returns badly worn out from wards around where he was investigating, and then Harry’s alarm spell goes off as something incredibly powerful approaches.

Turns out to be a little girl.

Yeah, I know.

The Archive shows up as the emissary for the duel, and we discover that she is the living embodiment of knowledge. The Archive is also escorted by a mercenary-for-hire named Jared Kincaid. She comes to explain the terms and asks him to choose which methods to fight during the duel: will power, skill, energy, or flesh. Harry chooses energy. A smaller note is that Harry also gives The Archive her own name, Ivy (tee hee), and it’s kind of really adorable and endearing.

Harry updates Father Vincent about the case and finds out he has one of the threads from the Shroud to help him locate it. Harry also leaves a message with Charity Carpenter to have Michael contact him. Charity, who absolutely loathes Harry to the umpteenth degree. This will be important later.

Harry heads to the harbor and locates two thieves who have the Shroud: Anna Valmont and Francisca Garcia, who trick him with the old ‘naked lady about to take a shower’ ruse (*rolls eyes at Harry*) and handcuff him to a pipe. They’re about to either kill him or leave him in the lurch when a nightmarish Denarian crashes through the window. Instead of a freakish bear-demon, this one is a killer Medusa with razor-strips for hair who murders Francisca, but Harry manages to blast her out of the boat before she can kill him and Anna and get the Shroud.

Anna whacks Harry on the head and takes the Shroud, and Harry’s magic-protected coat, and bails. I fully admit that I screeched “BITCH!” at this scene, but to her credit, at least she regrets her decision and goes back to drag him out so he won’t drown.

Harry updates Father Vincent again and stumbles home. Not long afterward, Susan drops by (*groans*) but to her credit, while I absolutely hate the conversation they have about her not being involved with Martin, I do like that Susan reveals she’s been working to stop rogue vampires from wiping out villages in Central America ever since she left. That’s good. That gives Susan agency, which she has been missing since her introduction. It’s the first thing I’ve ever liked about her, to be honest. Believe me, it’s been much needed after all this time of her being basically nothing but a sexpot.

Harry drops by the Carpenter’s house to see if Michael is around and bumps into Molly, the eldest daughter, who is fourteen. Molly is another character who we see in cameo form this time who becomes important later, and I like her a lot, but I’m not quite in love with her. Yet, anyway. She has a long way to go as a character, and I’m quite interested to see how things end up for her. However, while I only like Molly, I LOVE Molly and Harry’s relationship. By our calculations, Harry is somewhere in his 30’s, and she’s 14, and so of course he feels like an old man around this rebellious teenager with piercings and ripped up clothing who is scarily aware of things like sex and rough roleplay and it’s quite the amusing scene of them in the treehouse waiting for the Carpenters to come home.

Charity and the Carpenter babies arrive, and Harry tries to explain what he’s doing there, but Charity ignores him and puts him to work bringing the groceries inside. Shiro and Sanya are with them this time as well. However, the important part is that there is a scene that honest to God made my heart feel like someone put a hot-water-bottle on it. Charity is clearly upset that Harry needs Michael’s help because hanging around Harry tends to get Michael in trouble, and she is fiercely protective of him. She’s in the kitchen chopping vegetables, and Harry notices how angry she is, and so he gets up and starts helping her and actually manages to get her to open up about it. That is so unbearably sweet, to me. Charity hates Harry with the fire of a thousand suns and she has been pretty much nothing but nasty to him since Day One, but he cares enough about her and her family to try and make her feel better. This is what makes Harry such a likable character. He gives a shit. He always gives a shit, even to his own detriment or even when it’s about someone who has no regard for him at all. Scenes like this are why I fell in love with Harry as a character so quickly.

Since Michael is unavailable, Shiro agrees to meet with him and Ortega instead later that night. Harry returns home to find Murphy waiting for him with more bad news. Someone reported seeing him leave the harbor and the police found the body of Francisca Garcia, meaning he’s their prime suspect. She’s also been booted off the case thanks to a snooty higher up and she warns him to keep out of the public light until they find the real killer.

We also get this tidbit: “I spent a moment indulging myself in a pleasant fantasy in which Murphy pounded Rudy’s head against the door of her office at SI’s home building until the cheap wood had a Ruldolph-shaped dent in it. I enjoyed the thought way too much.”

Nothing says OTP like picturing your S.O. bashing someone’s head into a door. Marry her, Dresden. Do it now.

Susan calls and finally has something useful to say: she’s located the auction where they suspect the Shroud will be sold. She invites herself along, again, but don’t worry, at least this time she’s a ridiculously strong vampire so it’s not half as annoying.

Harry takes the Shroud thread that Father Vincent sent him out for a spin and goes to pick up Shiro to head to McAnnally’s for a formal meeting with Ortega and his second before the duel. It turns out that Ortega’s second is in fact Thomas Raith, the White Court vampire, and my aforementioned third favorite character in the series. Kincaid, Thomas, and Shiro get the details down on paper while Ortega and Harry sit at the bar. Ortega actually offers to forgo the duel if Harry surrenders and agrees to let the Red Court turn him into a vampire. Harry takes a moment to think about it, considering the fact that he doesn’t want to get murdered in the duel, but then discovers that the Red Court feeds on children and shoots the offer down with extreme prejudice.

Thomas comes by to chat and reveals he was forced into becoming Ortega’s second because his father, the King of the White Court, finds him to be a dangerous annoyance and this duel would be a good excuse for him to get bumped off. He also implies that Ortega is going to cheat by either having Harry killed before the duel or doing something illegal during the duel before leaving.

Susan shows to pick Harry up and once again Harry’s boner starts narrating the story, to my epic annoyance. He changes into a tux in the limo and they head to the shindig where the Shroud is to be auctioned off.

To Harry’s horror, “Gentleman” Johnny Marcone, the premiere Chicago crime boss, makes an appearance, which leads Harry to believe he’s gunning for the Shroud since he is not only aware of the supernatural but often involved with it during his criminal activity. Harry accuses Marcone of hiring the goon who tried to kill him at the Larry Fowler show, but Marcone is surprised, meaning Harry’s theory is wrong. Harry’s presence motivates Marcone to try and get him booted out of the party so he can’t interfere with the auction, so Harry and Susan use the thread to locate it. Harry finds Anna Valmont in a room with the Shroud, but they are interrupted by the Medusa Denarian and her even scarier partner, Nicodemus.

Boy, how do I even begin to talk about Nicodemus?

First of all, of all the baddies and villains Harry has faced before, Nicodemus is pretty damn singular. He’s just…evil. Pure, unadulterated, unapologetic, nasty, shudder-inducing evil. He’s not just an adversary. He’s a force of nature. He’s by far one of the most disturbing villains I’ve seen in fiction, so kudos to Jim Butcher for thinking this sick bastard up.

Nicodemus demands the Shroud, and since he and the Snake Bitch are responsible for killing Anna’s friend Francisca, she unloads her entire pistol into his chest. Unfortunately, Nicodemus carries around the rope that hanged Judas Iscariot, and he’s a Denarian, so he’s 100% immortal.

Well, shit.

Harry manages to blast the them aside with a  fire spell and he and Anna haul ass back down through a vent to the laundry level of the hotel, but Snake Bitch—her name is actually Deidre, if that helps—pursues. It is then that Susan Rodriguez finally, finally, FINALLY pulls her goddamn weight in this series and does something relevant.

She kicks Deidre’s ass.

Oh, yes.

Now that’s what I’m talking about. Grudge match between a Red Court vampire and a Denarian? Sign me the hell up for that. A++

However, a second snake Denarian attacks Susan with literal snakes that bite her, and she’s all but phobic of them, and Harry manages to knock them free and Martin takes the girls away in the limo before Nicodemus and Deidre catch up to Harry and knock him out.

And now, for another scene in this series that makes me want to curl up underneath a comforter and pray that the monsters won’t get me.

Harry wakes up tied upright under freezing cold running water in a basement somewhere. This is because wizards, or most supernatural folk, can’t conjure magic under running water because the element naturally cancels magic energy. Nicodemus enters and, I’m not kidding, sits down and eats a full course breakfast in front of Harry while explaining why he is interested in him. He offers him one of the coins in exchange for not killing him, because he knows of Harry’s reputation for destroying his opponents, and Nicodemus knows that somewhere down the line, they will have to face off, so he’d rather nip it in the bud. Harry, of course, says no (To quote my beloved soulmate, “Fuck off, Nick.” Why can’t I propose to a fictional character, that line was amazing.) and Nicodemus goes to slit his throat. Even though I’ve read all the books and stories, the scene where he comes at Harry with that knife STILL makes me squirm every time. It’s just horrifying.

And then Shiro shows up and kicks the living shit out of everyone.

While the delirious Harry sings the lyrics to the cartoon “Underdog” in celebration.

No, I am not kidding. Yes, you read that right.

Again, I freely admit that I bowled over laughing during this scene. Howling, in fact. My soulmate, ladies and gentlemen.

However, the laughter is short-lived because the only reason Shiro showed up is to trade himself for Harry for 24 hours. It is as heartbreaking as it sounds.

Nicodemus cuts Harry down and takes Shiro into custody, but of course orders Deidre to kill Harry before he can escape the basement. Harry hauls ass and meets Susan halfway out before eventually escaping back to his apartment. He sets up an emergency spell to keep the entropy curse Nicodemus sends after them at bay, but there’s a catch: it seals them inside his apartment for around eight hours, and Susan just so happens to need to feed.

If you have any sense, you know where this is going.

Have you ever liked someone but they have a boyfriend/girlfriend and you see them kiss and you’re just not having ANY of it? Yeah, that’s me reading the sex scene between Harry and Susan.



This one is different from the other scenes of Harry and Susan, because up until this point, they’ve only made luuuuuuuuuurve to each other. That has emotions and whatnot. This was pure sex.

It’s 100% certain that I don’t like Susan and I don’t like Harry with Susan.

That being said…the sex scene is pretty f@#king hot.

I hate to say it, but yeah. It rustled my jimmies a bit. I’m not proud of it, but damn it all, the set up was smoking hot and while I burned with envy, I begrudgingly admit it was well done. Let us never speak of this moment again.

So after bangin’, the spell lifts and Harry and Susan go to meet with Father Forthill to discuss the Denarians. They also visit the Carpenters, which is where they sent Anna Valmont to recover from her last fight. She agrees to help, after she’s had a shower, and of course she gives them the slip, while stealing Harry’s car in the meantime. Do you see what I meant about Harry’s boner? This is why he’s only allowed to have eyes for Murphy. It doesn’t screw him over half as much.

Harry also figures out that Father Vincent isn’t Father Vincent at all: he’s a shapeshifting Denarian named Cassius who replaced him in order to manipulate Harry into finding the Shroud for Nicodemus. What follows is a massively satisfying, dark, complicated scene where  Cassius fake-surrenders to Michael and Sanya and gives up his coin, meaning they cannot take violent action against him. Harry is infuriated by this, but realizes they are bound by their religion to follow certain rules, and that he is NOT bound by those rules.

So he gets a baseball bat and breaks the son of a bitch’s legs and ankles.

I. Love. This. Scene.

It’s such a fantastic example of the “He Who Fights Monsters” trope. Harry just goes off and whales on this evil, sick, demented freak and it’s an ugly thing to do, but sometimes smiting evil ain’t pretty. Sometimes good guys don’t do the right thing for the right reason. I love the grey area of it all, that Harry is torturing a bad guy for information in order to save Shiro and the rest of Chicago from whatever awful thing Nicodemus is about to do. It’s an amazing study of how Harry’s temper is a character flaw and how he is still a good man who can occasionally just snap when someone he cares about is threatened.

To seal the deal, Harry tosses the bleeding, barely conscious Denarian a quarter and says, “There’s a pay phone on the other side of the parking lot, past a patch of broken glass. You’d better get yourself an ambulance. If I ever see you again—ever—I’ll kill you.”

My body is ready

Also, Michael and Sanya later note that pay phones cost more than a quarter and Harry says, “I know” and they all crack up laughing because that was some cold blooded shit and it was really amazing to do to such an evil monster.

So Cassius spilled the beans that Nicodemus is going to use the Shroud to power a curse that will basically infect the entire city with terminal diseases as well as anyone coming to or leaving the city within the time frame of the curse, as it will be performed at the airport. It’s his version of the Great Flood, wiping out civilization to start anew. Harry tells Murph the news and then it’s time to head to the duel.

Ortega and Harry face off using will power to push a very scary little artifact called mordite, which immediately kills anything it touches, towards each other. It should be noted that Thomas shows up to the duel drunk off his ass and high as a cloud wearing a Buffy the Vampire Slayer t-shirt. Slow clap for Thomas, please. Thank you.

The duel begins and to Harry’s horror, it turns out Ortega does indeed cheat: he’s wearing a fake arm underneath his clothing to make it look like he’s still trying to will the mordite towards Harry, but instead pulls a gun on him. Just before he can kill Harry, Martin shoots the hell out of him from the stadium stands and all hell breaks loose. A bunch of Red Court vampires attack and the gang has to fight them all off. Susan is injured, but they all make it out alive, and Harry rushes off to the airport to help stop Nicodemus’ curse. He, Sanya, and Michael have Murphy call in a bomb threat to evacuate the innocent bystanders and then get to work. Unfortunately, they arrive too late. Shiro has been used as a sacrifice to power the curse.

Shiro’s death scene hits you like a ton of exploding bricks. It’s honestly hard to read in certain parts because of how guilty Harry feels at being unable to save him, and that the old man gladly gave his life for him without hesitation. The only thing I dislike about it is something we find out later about him, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.

They chase after Nicodemus, who has boarded a train, with the help of Marcone and his helicopter. Harry tries to keep Marcone from coming with them, knowing he’ll find a way to betray them, but Marcone refuses to aid them unless he can assist, and Harry very amusingly says he “sucks diseased moose wang” and then they go after Nicodemus. They are fortunately able to thwart his plan and get the Shroud, but Harry passes out just as they get it and it’s nicked by Marcone in the end.

But it’s around here that we see one of the few things I actually dislike about this novel. After recovering, Harry gets a post-mortem letter from Shiro exposing that he has cancer. I really hate this trope, the trope where a secondary character we all like has to die for some reason, but they do it willingly since they have a terminal disease, so that makes it “okay.” It really is a last ditch effort to avail Harry of the guilt of being partially responsible for Shiro’s death, and I don’t like it at all. It’s surprising since Butcher sucker-punches our feels with no regard for how hard it makes us sob like infants. This feels borderline corny to me, considering how fresh and original his writing style is. Harry has a lot of bad choices to live with, and so it irks me that he felt the need to wipe the slate clean with this letter. Shiro’s sacrifice is weakened a lot by giving him cancer and making him a martyr. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth, personally.

On the upside, Harry also gets his trenchcoat back from Anna Valmont as well as his car. We also find out that Ortega survived, but he was badly hurt so they had to return him to his homeland to recover.

There is also a detail I actually forgot about during my first read-through. Harry trails Marcone in order to find the Shroud, and it turns out that he wanted to use it on someone who could quite possibly be either his daughter or a relative who was comatose. I mean…wow. Like, wow. That’s damn good writing. I don’t care for Marcone. I find him to be too much of a Lex Luthor type character, since too many stories have the stereotypical gentleman mob boss, but this is a great angle of vulnerability for an otherwise uninteresting character. It also makes Harry realize that while he still demands that Marcone returns the Shroud in three days to the proper authorities, he does admit that he’d have done something like that to save someone he loves as well.

In our final scene, Harry sees little two year old Harry (the baby who almost died in Grave Peril, so they named him after Harry, which is precious) outside looking at something shiny. It’s one of the Denarian coins, and big Harry manages to snatch it up before the toddler touches it. Nicodemus, the slime, is in a car on the street, having dropped it as a way to get them back for spoiling his plan. See? SEE? DO YOU SEE WHAT I MEAN WITH THIS GUY?

Since Harry touched it, he now carries a latent amount of the demon’s imprint, but he buries the coin underneath his basement to keep it from falling into the wrong hands, including his own. He also keeps Shiro’s sword above the mantle and takes down the photos of Susan, closing the book on their relationship now that it’s over.

Overall, I ended up liking Death Masks far more than I expected to, especially considering it’s a book with Susan in it. It has a lot of really fantastic introductions to characters we come to know better later on, it has some chilling elements, some amazing moral quandaries for our hero, and an engrossing plot that makes you keep turning those pages. It doesn’t drag the way that Grave Peril or Fool Moon did at times, and it hits all the right spaces between humor, drama, and action.

Overall Grade: 4 out of 5

Join me next time for one of my absolute favorite books in the series, Blood Rites. Aka the one where our precious flower Harry Dresden finally starts to realize he has feelings for a certain short, blond, incredibly awesome lady cop. See ya then.