Death Masks by Jim Butcher

Death Masks by Jim ButcherI find it hard to know what to say about Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files novels. I find it hard to know what i think about them. This is the fifth book now and I still don’t know if they are good or stupid.

Jim Butcher has obviously improved significantly as a writer from his first few attempts. His style and voice are more solid, less turbulence. His prose is more smooth. I think his writing would best be described as comfortable. In his first books he sounded like a first time writer with clunky dialogue, exposition in all the wrong places and way too much passive voice. He’s found a balance by now — as nearly everybody does after five books — and he knows how to tell the story without sounding like he’s unsure of himself.

One of my major problems with these books is that they are so unabashedly formulaic and predictable that they spend most of the book being tedious. Then the ending becomes something powerful and new and usually inventive enough to be worth the read.

Butcher has drawn a great deal of inspiration from Chandler and Hammett in his plot structure. There are always the same elements involved as a noir murder mystery down to the twist and betrayal, and the overtly sexist descriptions of every female character being typified by the way they look — which is shockingly beautiful, every, single, time.

Because of that each twist is given away one chapter ahead. Are we going to introduce a new character to this drama (or even an old one that we haven’t seen in a while)? Let’s mention that person one chapter before. (This is a great improvement on the first few books where characters would show up, completely unannounced, we’d get Dresden’s reaction, which is almost always one of shock or dismay, then we would have a lengthy exposition piece telling us who this person is.) The same goes for plot twists. The reader is always warned one chapter ahead when things are going to go south of Dresden’s plan — which it’s fair to say they always do so you probably know that the instant he hatches a plan.

Butcher is also a big fan of the escalating tension style of storytelling. That is the idea that the reader feels tension when the hero feels tension. By putting the hero in ever increasing moments of tension the reader will be unable to stop reading. Butcher is so good at building tension that he actually overshoots it and comes at it from behind… if that metaphor works. It’s possible for tension to rise so far that it falls over flat out of exhaustion. Butcher is constantly throwing Dresden into trouble, each moment more perilous than the last, and each book more scary than the last (which is some trick).

By the middle of the book I have stopped caring. How many times can Dresden survive encounters with super demons that instantly flay everything else but stop to monologue and question Dresden? How many times can he be drained of power from lack of sleep and still pull up just enough magic to escape? How many times can he just happen to get away in the nick of time, or get saved by a friend, or discover a new magical guard at the right moment?

I don’t want to read this any more, I just want to put it down and find something that doesn’t make me tired.

Then I read the last half of the book, where Dresden gets a plan, acts like an adult, becomes competent and brings in his friends — who are universally more cool than he is. Then the action becomes fantastic and the costs become real and failure ceases to be an option.

These are small scale fantasy. When demons want to harness the power of a blood sacrifice or a particularly fierce Chicago storm they want to do it to destroy Chicago — not the world. Why? Who knows, you got to start somewhere.

The question of why the bad guys always come to Chicago to do their business has to be ignored. It’s the same question as why did all the bad guys go to Sunnydale in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series. If you are a supernatural evil bent on destroying a large city for your nefarious purposes would you pick the city in which the only person on Earth capable of stopping you resided and maintained a vigilant perimeter of influence?

It doesn’t matter. There wouldn’t be story otherwise, so it must be overlooked or the whole thing falls apart.

In the end I have to say that Death Masks is a mediocre fantasy in a formulaic series that has channelled that formula for it’s tremendous success. I’m still undecided if this will be my last Dresden book or if I will continue. I’ll probably read at least one more.

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