As Jim Butcher continues the Dresden series, the sensation of accumulated damage leading to massive shifts in the setting and characters are becoming more apparent. In Dead Beat, Dresden is put into a position where compromise is essential for his survival. The plot of the novel is a step up from Blood Rites, with stronger antagonists and a brief return of a wonderful villain. The underpinning of the plot is a story of a man taking his first step into the abyss of moral ambiguity.
In case it’s not apparent, there’s going to be some spoilers going forward. Back in book five (Death Masks), Harry Dresden made a decision to pick up a coin. Innocuous enough if the coin had not been the fetter of Lasciel, a fallen angel of the Order of the Black Denarians. In Dead Beat Dresden must confront the consequences of that decision. Despite putting the coin behind a powerful binding, a shadow of Lasciel has inhabited Dresden’s mind. One after-effect of this indwelling is Dresden’s magic being augmented by Hellfire, a powerful otherworldly substance.
As a character Dresden has always been a hero. He’s practical and pragmatic to a degree but he’s always been written by Butcher as possessing a strong moral center. In past novels, Dresden has been offered greater power but always turned it down. In Dead Beat, Butcher puts his main character into a fight Dresden simply cannot win. Rather than use a deus ex machina or some outlandish new power that appears simply to resolve the plot, Butcher has Dresden compromise his moral center just a bit to give himself a fighting chance. Dresden agonizes over this decision but he comes up with the necessary rationalization.
Lasciel’s shadow is an intriguing addition to the Dresdenverse. Temptress seems to be the easiest designation but that would be rather simplistic. Lasciel is cunning and I would venture to say she has the potential to be as diabolical as the Denarian attached to Nicodemus. While she makes multiple statements to her desire to simply help Harry, Dresden and the readers are left with the overwhelming feeling there’s more behind her pleas. It’s an interesting development and I’m looking forward to how it grows in future novels.
Speaking of interesting developments, Dead Beat progresses the war begun in Grave Peril to a zenith. One of the downsides of a first-person narrative is the lack of scope and scale. Having an overarching metaplot is excellent but with a first-person narration it requires characters to arrive and become exposition-heavy talking heads (as opposed to Bob the Skull, who’s a tongue-in-cheek talking head). Butcher handles such scenes well. The war update in Dead Beat drags on a bit too long but it serves a necessary purpose. Butcher is setting the stage for the war with the Red Court draw to a close but it’s a conflict that will leave the universe Dresden lives in worse for the wear.
The novel has the excellent set-piece moments a reader should expect from the Dresden Files. The title reveals plenty of the story elements. Butcher makes good use of the undead in this book. The standard zombies make an appearance as well as ghosts. Butcher uses the undead in a fashion similar to other supernatural in this series: he highlights how terrifying they can be. It wouldn’t be a Dresden novel without a fair amount of wisecracks and witty banter. Butcher devotes a good chuck of the opening to bringing Butters (a recent addition to the mundane human cast) into the fold fully. The conversation between Dresden and Butters concerning this universe’s version of the Masquerade is the first time Butcher has put the concept on paper in full detail. It’s a minor point for me (having read enough stories that use a Masquerade of some kind) but one I felt needed to be detailed. For others new to this concept, it might be a little difficult to swallow, especially considering the events of the novel.
I enjoyed Dead Beat as much as I’ve enjoyed the other books in the series. I can see some of the end-game threads start to form. Butcher is laying in place the foundation for the next several novels and the war that has consumed much of what Dresden cares about. To say I’m intrigued is a vast understatement. Seven books into this series and I still find reasons to enjoy it and to keep reading. I definitely recommend Dead Beat and would suggest getting into the Dresden bandwagon.