How dangerous are the dead? In our world, the only dangers the dead present are disease and a cause for more violence. In Harry Dresden’s world, the dead in all their various manifestations are unfathomably dangerous. Jim Butcher’s third entry in the Dresden Files, Grave Peril, is a tale all about consequences and the price they often exact on one’s person, one’s friends, even one’s soul.
For his third outing, Harry Dresden is joined by the stoic Fist of God Michael Carpenter (more on him in a moment). Set a year after the events of Fool Moon, Dresden finds the spirit world in complete turmoil. Ghosts rise and are driven insane by terrible magic, which allows Butcher the chance to delve into the increasingly tortured psyche of his protagonist. Dresden moves forward in development, showing vulnerability and ferocity in equal measure, far above what he’s shown in the previous novels. Butcher continues to reveal both Dresden’s hard edges (his love of the power magic gives him, for example) and his softer inclinations (his inability to admit his true feelings). Harry is the hero of the story despite his own desires, which can run a bit selfish. Rather than create a carbon copy anti-hero, Butcher shows in this book the layers that make up his main character run deep indeed.
The cast of secondary characters increases significantly in Grave Peril. One of the latest introductions is Michael Carpenter, a literary version of the Paladin class in the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game (complete with Holy Avenger sword). For those readers who are not table-top gamers, Carpenter is a Knight of the Cross, one of three warriors of the Judeo-Christian god who carries a sword that supposedly holds a nail from the Crucifixion inside it. One could call Carpenter a Knight Templar brought to the modern day (without the corruption and bloodshed attributed to that order). The character is an interesting choice as a companion for Dresden due to his faith and his ethics (which are even stricter than Dresden’s). For all his perks as a character, Dresden has a strong cynical streak running through his DNA. The interplay between Dresden and Carpenter (particularly during the climatic Vampire Masquerade Ball) works because they are diametric opposites who strive toward the same goals. Any other author would have made these two antagonists.
The other character introduced that I found intriguing was Leanansidhe, an Unseelie fae of devastating beauty and caprice. The idea that Dresden has a wicked fairy godmother from the Winter Court pulls the character deeper into the spiritual landscape of Butcher’s universe, referred repeatedly by Dresden as the Nevernever. Lea, as she’s referred to by Dresden, holds an accord of servitude over Harry’s head for the majority of the novel. While she is described in all her seductive glory by Butcher, the author doesn’t make her a mere femme fatale. There’s a fiercely cunning mind behind this character and her self-serving desires both help and hinder Dresden, forcing him to find creative solutions. She serves as an excellent indirect antagonist, giving the story more menace.
As mentioned in the opening paragraph, this book is all about consequences. Butcher uses Harry to explore the nature of choice and how circumstances conspire to remove many options from a person’s path. The author deftly lays the eggs out for his audience to find, referring to events in previous books and off-stage to seed the reader’s mind with red herrings aplenty. These dead ends are enough to dissuade all but the most perceptive readers to decipher the sequence of events before they are revealed. Dresden deals with the unintended consequences of his work, especially in regards to how his snap decisions often lead to greater problems and tragedies. The tone of the novel is appropriately macabre, with death constantly displayed through locales and characters.
A big part of this novel deals with vampires, one of the most popular forms of the dead in literature. Butcher wisely chose to incorporate all of the prevailing archetypes from popular culture and divide them into three separate Courts, each with a unique powerset and physiognomy. Each of the vampire types draws from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which receives a name drop in Grave Peril. The White Court vampires serve as the over-sexualized aspect of the vampire myth. Black Court vampires are the traditional corpse-like undead who have the classic weaknesses. Lastly, the vampires of the Red Court incorporate the beastly nature and shapeshifting abilities of Stoker’s literary vampire. Butcher’s take on vampires is rather refreshing after reading his contemporaries, many of whom simply add the vampire distinction to make a sex-bomb character slightly “dangerous”. He treats vampires as monsters who use the tricks of seduction to feed desires completely alien to the human mind. These vampires are not misunderstood loners in need of attention. Instead, they are takers, manipulators, and thoroughly inhuman, removed of all vestiges of romanticism.
Jim Butcher continues to bring excellent characters together with tightly-wound plotlines and refreshing slants on classic archetypes and tropes. The author also appears to have a firm grasp on continuity while still allowing new readers to pick up the book and enjoy the story. I continue to be enthralled by the Dresden Files series and highly recommend the third novel to anyone in love with this genre of fiction.