The Face of Evil – A Review of Jim Butcher’s “Death Masks”

Book cover for “Death Masks”

The nature of evil has proven to be excellent fodder for fiction since the inception of storytelling. Few villains ever see themselves as evil, unless purposely written as such by the author. What are often shown are rationalizations, half-truths, and misperceptions the villain uses as justification for their behavior. There are characters in fiction that possess no redeeming qualities, who typify the debased, selfish nature of evil. In Jim Butcher’s “Death Masks”, the hard-boiled wizard detective Harry Dresden is confronted with true evil, which reflects on the morally gray landscape of his world so far established.

Dresden’s adventures up to this point have not dealt with truly evil antagonists. One could make an argument that the villains of “Storm Front”, “Fool Moon”, “Grave Peril”, and “Summer Knight” are evil. Each one of those villains from those previous books in the series are children throwing temper tantrums compared to the Denarians, the primary antagonists of “Death Masks”. Given Butcher’s earlier foray into Christian Apocrypha with Michael Carpenter’s introduction in “Grave Peril”, it was only a matter of time before Butcher devoted significant page time to the Christian mythology. The Denarians are the closest Butcher has come to creating irredeemably evil characters for the Dresden universe. The character of Nicodemus serves as an excellent version of the Moriarty Trope in detective fiction, something I’ve been waiting for Butcher to add to the series since its inception.

“There are things you can’t walk away from. Not if you want to live with yourself afterward.”

Jim Butcher, “Death Masks”

The events of the novel allow Butcher to continue expanding both Dresden’s rogues’ gallery and the supernatural universe the wizard inhabits. Each novel prior to this has introduced a classic element of horror fiction, from werewolves to vampires and so on. In “Death Masks”, Butcher includes artifacts and characters tied to Christianity in interesting and surprising ways. The Shroud of Turin (the supposed burial shroud of Christ) is a well-known holy relic in the real world. In Dresden’s world, the question of whether or not the Shroud actually is the burial cloth is left open for the audience to decide. As Dresden points out in the story, the Shroud has power because people believe in it. The Shroud serves as the McGuffin for the story’s main plot, which manages to bring disparate threads from the previous novels together.

The Knights of the Cross make a full appearance in this novel. In “Grave Peril”, Dresden observes that there are three Knights of the Cross, each one wielding a sword which supposedly carries a nail from the Crucifixion in it. In this novel, the other two Knights are introduced. Shiro and Sanya are given enough space in the novel to show off their personalities and abilities. Sanya in particular is an intriguing character because he claims to be agnostic towards God despite wielding a Sword of the Cross. The three Knights serve as the noble, honorable counterpoint to the Denarians by being humans who have devoted themselves to an ideal greater than themselves.

“So. You get handed a holy sword by an archangel, told to go fight the forces of evil, and you somehow remain an atheist. Is that what you’re saying?”

Jim Butcher, “Death Masks”

Speaking of the villains, I find their inclusion in the Dresden universe intriguing. Butcher has shown demonic beings before as spirits summoned from the Nevernever by Dresden and others. The Denarians are distinguished as being The Fallen, the angels cast down for joining Lucifer’s rebellion. The name for the group is derived from their connection to silver denarii, implied to be the 30 silver pieces given to Judas Iscariot for his betrayal of Christ. It makes sense that these coins exist (whether they are merely symbolic or the actual coins) because they represent temptation in all its forms, an overriding theme that Butcher visits from time to time.

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“Gentleman” Johnny Marcone reappears in this novel as well. In my review of “Storm Front”, I mentioned that Marcone would make an excellent reoccurring antagonist. In “Death Masks”, Marcone is fleshed out even more as a morally grey character. The mob boss serves as another counterpoint to Nicodemus and Cassius, two of the Denarians. Where the Fallen wallow in evil acts, Marcone shows restraint, resorting to violence only when necessary. Butcher continues to add layers to this character, refusing to leave him as a flat, two-dimensional character. There’s a scene late in the novel between Dresden and Marcone which creates a more nuanced understanding from Dresden’s point of view regarding the amoral mob boss.

Dresden undergoes a reaffirmation as to who he is and what his place in his universe. As pointed out by Shiro, the Knights of the Cross are almost required to see the world from a black and white point of view. Dresden subsists in a world of constantly shifting grey. One of my favorite scenes in the novel is during the interrogation of Cassius. The Knights are left with only one option during the interrogation due to their code of ethics. Dresden stands as one of the good guys but he’s not a white knight. His actions, while reprehensible, are completely understandable for the character and don’t feel out of place in the slightest. Butcher also manages to have Dresden reach some resolution in his love life that has spanned the first four novels. The lone sex scene in the book is not forced or superfluous but completely organic. Butcher handles the explicit nature of the scene deftly, giving the scene an electric, sensual feeling.

It’s rare for me to enjoy so many books in a series by a single author. I keep expecting the next book in the series to disappoint me. Butcher keeps pushing away such expectations. The novels have become increasingly mature and I can see the confidence in his storytelling that has grown since the first Dresden book. The Dresden Files, as a series up to book 5, show me that Butcher is one of the prominent authors in the modern fantasy genre. I cannot say enough positive things about this series without sounding like a paid shill. Suffice it to say, you should buy this book and all the previous books in the series.   

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