Death Masks is a book which has plenty of problems, but not enough to yet bring it down to a point where it reaches the level of problems of Fool Moon. Jim Butcher seems to have this issue which was present in Summer Knight and is here that each book has three or four different plots going on vying for attention, but all centering on Harry as our point of view character so things seem cluttered. Other fantasy books with multiple plot strands often make the decision to split the viewpoint so each plot can be connected to a character and while those characters intersect, the plotlines can be essentially compartmentalized. With The Dresden Files, this really cannot be done and while that isn’t always a detriment, in fact it worked really well in Grave Peril, it doesn’t work as well when the main thrust of the book becomes the least interesting element of the entire thing. The plot of Death Masks, as promoted by the back cover of the book, has Harry Dresden hired to attempt to find the Shroud of Turin, a Christian artifact which wrapped the body of Christ in Christian mythology, which has been stolen and is discovered to be set to auction in the upcoming days. This plot does eventually become the main plot, but really it isn’t nearly as interesting as the follow up to the end of Grave Peril with Susan Rodriguez coming back to Chicago to deal with some final arrangements before she flees to South America permanently away from civilization. The war with the Red Court is also progressing in this book with the first chapter essentially opening with Harry being challenged to a duel by vampire Paolo Ortega where Harry gets to pick the weapons and Ortega picks the time and place. There are also fallen angels and Michael Carpenter and holy knights, meaning that Death Masks is packed full of things and not everything gets the time it needs to breathe.
Paolo Ortega actually makes a brilliant villain, being introduced as a vampire masquerading as a human professor, skeptic of all things supernatural. It isn’t a twist or anything that he is a vampire, Harry’s internal monologue gives the reader that fact right as he’s introduced in the first chapter, but there is this air of class about the character. He doesn’t actually appear much in the book, but when he does Butcher provides a slick villain. He has a village which he essentially rules over, being given tribute to sustain himself and in return he genuinely offers this town a good life, something that disgusts Harry (and rightly so), but as bad situations go it isn’t an awful one. I’m not sure that Butcher meant it as a criticism of class, but that reading is also there. The Denarians and their leader, Nicodemus Archleone, also make an excellent primary villain once they come into the forefront in the back half of the book with the final confrontation with Harry, Michael, and Shiro. Nicodemus essentially gives Harry an out and tries to tempt him in a Faustian bargain, however, as Harry essentially represents good that doesn’t actually matter. There’s also some setup for later books with some minor characters like Butters and Michael’s oldest daughter Molly, who don’t end up contributing much to the plot though they provide these little character moments which work incredibly well.
Susan and Harry’s relationship really is the thrust of Death Masks, though it is where some of the book’s problems can come to the forefront. Harry is childish, which is understandable: he knows that Susan will have to leave him simply for their own safety. This does mean that the passion of their reunion kind of comes out of left field and taints a lot of their future interactions, as Harry becomes jealous and convinced that she has moved on to someone else. This perhaps would work if Susan wasn’t turned into a half-vampire near the end of Grave Peril and just left Harry out of fear or something, but that trope of jealousy played here doesn’t work. Luckily by the halfway point of the book this gets worked out and they end up working together (meaning that Karrin Murphy is kind of sidelined which is a shame as while not a romantic interest her relationship with Harry and in The Dresden Files contributes to a lot of the fun) to track down the Shroud. The sequence at the auction actually has some of Butcher’s best character interactions with Johnny Marcone, done incredibly subtly and foreshadowing the twist as to why the man actually wants the Shroud. That twist won’t be spoiled here, but it humanizes a character who had tended to be simply a stereotypical mob boss trope, fun for a few books but not the best here.
Overall, Death Masks is a book which has plenty of potential and along with the previous two novels shows that Butcher is going somewhere with The Dresden Files, but some of the tropes used here brings it down. It’s a book which is a bit too stuffed for its own good, with three separate plots occurring all at once meaning there is an uneven pace, with some portions feeling underdeveloped while others work their best to be some of Butcher’s best so far. It’s a book which is good, but not great, though getting better. 6/10.