Vampires on the set of a porno! Vampires who feed through sex rather than blood, no less! And one of them is Harry's half-brother.
Yeah, that's right. I dropped a major S-bomb in the third sentence of the review. You see that spoiler alert? I don't fool around with those things. Deal with it.
Speaking of dropping bombs, Jim Butcher does that a lot in Blood Rites. As with Death Masks, the story concerns Harry's personal life rather than a world-threatening conflict surrounding Harry. It's an intensely personal story, and one where Harry learns a lot of secrets. He learns he has family, meets his mother (after a fashion), and loses trust in his mentor, Ebenezar McCoy. In Blood Rites, Butcher turns Harry's world upside down. More than ever before, we know that the Dresden Files will never be the same again.
I love the mystery in this one. The mystery is, in most ways, deliciously disconnected from the supernatural world. Yes, the White Court soon proves integral to the plot. Yes, the murders happen through ritual magic. But the target of this malevolence isn't a supernatural being; he's just a porn star producer with a heart of gold. Those practising the ritual magic, while backed by the White King, are the producer's ex-wives. Their motives are revenge, a delightfully human concept.
Oh, but you know what's even better about Blood Rites? Yes, that's right: Murphy's back. And how! After a disappointingly dull role in Death Masks, Murphy has returned to help Harry kick monster ass. Not only that, but we get some serious characterization, learning about Murphy's relationships with her family and one of her ex-husbands, who is now engaged to her younger sister. Butcher juxtaposes Harry and Murphy's interaction with Murphy's family reunion. It says a lot about Murphy's feelings for her family that she prefers Harry's company. Oh, and she helps him take on some Black Court vampires and then go after the king of the White Court. 'Cause she's awesome like that.
This whole book is pretty much one awesome scene after another. There's a surprising amount of exposition, as Butcher manages to reveal all those surprising twists for the Dresden mythology. But it's sandwiched by a dizzying array of action sequences. First Harry rescues puppies, then he tussles with Black Court vampires (or "blampires" as he calls them), and before we know it, he gets in the middle of a dispute between Lara and Thomas Raith. Harry likes to find trouble.
And we like it when Harry finds trouble. Butcher has a way with fight scenes, managing to make them miraculous without resorting to too many deus ex machina moments. Case in point, as Lara prepares to shoot Thomas and Harry, Harry goes for the gun stuck in Thomas' jeans . . . and it doesn't quite work out as planned:
Thomas's damned jeans were so tight that the gun didn't come loose. I leaned too far in the effort and wound up sprawling on my side. All I got for my oh-so-clever maneuver was scraped fingertips and a good luck at Lara Raith in gunfighting mode.
I love watching Harry screw up. He's a powerful wizard and a good human being, but he's also fallible. (The falling frozen turkey that kills a blampire a few pages later is a totally deserved deus ex machina. Totally.) Once in a while, once in a very long while, Harry is able to draw upon his inner strength and "cut loose," as Kincaid so admiringly puts it. But only when it's to defend those he loves. So sometimes Harry can play action hero, but mostly he's the guy with the crazy plans, the plans that are probably suicidal, the plans that never quite work out right—but in the end, they do work out. Mostly.
And so, I've decided that Blood Rites is the first Dresden Files book that deserves a vaunted five-star rating. The plot is perfect, the story is scintillating, and Butcher's writing is at its best. Though this is not the best place to start reading the Dresden Files, mind you. Rather, this is the payoff. The first five books are great, but Blood Rites is nearly perfect. And from the loose ends that Butcher carefully plants at the beginning, end, and throughout this book, Harry's troubles are only set to get bigger.