Review of Dead Beat by Jim Butcher
by Jim Butcher
Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Let us take a moment to look back at how far Harry Dresden has come from busting a sorcerer in Storm Front. Since then, he has started a war between the wizards and Red Court vampires; he has killed a faerie queen and prevented a war between the Summer and Winter courts; he has been offered the mantle of Winter Knight and picked up the Blackened Denarius of Fallen Angel Lasciel. Last time we saw him, Harry was taking down a scourge of uppity Black Court vampires along with not-so-human mercenary Kincaid and all-too-human Chicago police officer Karrin Murphy. Harry's gone from "Chicago's only professional wizard" to "vampire-bane, faerie-killing wizard." As if losing the woman he loved wasn't bad enough, now Harry has to contend with the shadow of a fallen angel yammering at him to accept her coin so he can gain power.
Indeed, Harry and The Dresden Files have come a long way since book one. I'm reviewing this with you because long-running series can make it difficult to see this transformation take place (unless you read the books nearly back-to-back, as I've been doing). Dead Beat has a very high quotient of grey-area morality. Taken in context, it's clear that this is a result of all that's happened to Harry in the five years since the events of Storm Front. And on this second read-through, I admit that Harry seems a little less likable than I remember. I have to wonder how much of that is wishful thinking on my part and how much might be contrived drama on Jim Butcher's part.
Take Lasciel, for instance. Harry's excuse for picking up the coin—instead of the baby who was about to touch the coin—is that some part of him must have wanted the coin and the power implicit in possessing it. Later we meet his darker subconscious, who confesses to being the id to Harry's superego. OK, I can respect that. It is harder to believe, however, that Harry chose to bury the coin rather than turn it over to Michael or Father Forthill. I don't buy Harry's fear that Michael wouldn't look at him the same way, or worse, that Michael would somehow have to come after Harry and hunt him down. Harry has seen how the Knights of the Cross operate. They exist to save members of the Order of the Blackened Denarius; they would save Harry too. Maybe this is the work of Harry's subconscious again, but it all feels a little too contrived.
Likewise, I'm not so happy with the abruptness with which Harry hands over the Word of Kemmler to Mavra at the end of the book. I don't normally complain about loose ends, since I appreciate the series' ongoing arc. It feels out of character for Harry to cooperate with a blackmailer, especially one who is a Black Court vampire.
Although I don't think the writing here is perfect, I'm not going to blame all of Harry's characterization on bad writing. Dead Beat is about Harry as a person and how much he has changed in five years. Numerous characters, particularly Billy, express their discomfort with Harry's new attitude. Even though he's still a wisecracking badass, his development of that brand of weariness particular to heroes is far ahead of schedule. So I see how Harry's out-of-character behaviour is intentional on Butcher's part; I just wish it were handled more neatly and with more of Butcher's usual skill.
And no matter how awesome certain moments in Dead Beat are, they don't make up for the absence of Murphy. But you all know I'm on Team Murphy, so I won't belabour the point.
Similarly, I wasn't impressed by the small role for Gentleman Johnnie Marcone. He has some serious Magnificent Bastard crowning moments of awesome in later books, I know, which is why I wish that he didn't show up unless he had a significant role to play. In Dead Beat, I almost feel like he existed only as a deus ex machina to get Harry from point A to point B. (Incidentally, I hope there isn't a Team Marcone, but if there is, I am definitely not on it.)
Maybe I'm being harsh, but that's only because I love the Dresden Files so very much. Thus, in order to keep myself honest, I have to err on the side of criticism. I have to generate seven paragraphs of disclaimers before I can get to the good stuff. See, Butcher has discovered the secret to writing a good series novel. It is this:
I don't care about any of the stuff above if the main character goes into battle on a necromantically-reanimated Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton. Bonus points if the drum beat (required to keep the zombie under control) is provided by a polka-playing medical examiner.
So, yeah. Dead Beat is awesome if only for that reason. There are more, of course. Harry's moral dilemmas, although sometimes contrived, are very intense. Now that he's a Warden, Harry is in the interesting position of serving for the "Man" he's been thumbing since day one of being a White Council wizard. It doesn't help that the acting captain of the Wardens is none other than Morgan, who has single-handedly been persecuting Harry ever since Storm Front. Deals with Lasciel aside, Harry's induction into the Wardens is probably one of the most significant events in the book, since it's a big change in his lifestyle, pay grade, and responsibilities.
I can't be quite as enthusiastic about Dead Beat a I was about Blood Rites. Yet you can't go wrong with a reanimated T-Rex—well, not if you're reading a Dresden Files novel. So this is a solid instalment in the series, introducing interesting changes into the Dresdenverse even if the events of this book themselves weren't as compelling as previous ones.