Sexy Blood Magic – A Review of Jim Butcher’s “Blood Rites”

Cover Art for “Blood Rites”

Sexy vampires have been part of pop culture for the last 20-odd years. In literature, one could say Anne Rice began the trend of mixing eroticism into vampire storytelling. Later writers like Laurell K. Hamilton and Charlene Harris (of the Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series and The Southern Vampire Mysteries series, respectively) would continue the trend. In the Dresden universe, Jim Butcher first introduced the White Court vampire Thomas in “Grave Peril”. “Blood Rites”, the 6th book in The Dresden Files, places the White Court at the center of the plot. The White Court members are the seductive vampires, the ones who excel at manipulation and sexual slavery. But this is Harry Dresden’s world and sexy vampires are still vampires.

That clear distinction is what separates Butcher’s writing from Hamilton’s or Harris’s. Butcher never fails to remind the reader that while the White Court is the most human-seeming of the vampires, they are still predators capable of capricious behavior. The character that goes through the biggest transformation (aside from Dresden and Murphy) is Thomas, a supporting character who takes on a substantial role in “Blood Rites”. Up until this point, Thomas was cast as a playboy vampire, always looking for the next good time and secretly more serious than he let on. While he had always been honest about being a liar, he often seemed like the most honorable of the monsters Dresden has encountered. His arc over the course of “Blood Rites” shows the flippant Thomas is more like Harry than readers may have guessed.

“The building was on fire, and it wasn’t my fault.”

Jim Butcher, “Blood Rites”

The White Court isn’t the only group of vampires at play in “Blood Rites”. Mavra, an antagonist from “Grave Peril”, makes a return appearance along with a group of Black Court vampires. One of my favorite aspects of Butcher’s writing is the emphasis on the environmental effects of the monsters. A scourge of Black Court vampires, the cadaverous foils for the urbane White Court, has a deleterious effect on the slum they occupy, making the rundown, forgotten neighborhood worse. The details matter in stories like this and Butcher paints a sufficiently bleak landscape for the more horrific elements of his created universe.

I have to say I’m pleased with the progression of the character Karrin Murphy. One of my complaints of “Storm Front” and “Fool Moon” was that Murphy seemed one-note and stuck with the Idiot Ball. By the time “Blood Rites” comes to a close, readers are shown a more mature character, but a more damaged character as well. Consequences are inevitable and Butcher is great when he lets those consequences play out. Dresden used his Wizard’s Sight on Murphy in “Grave Peril” and saw an angelic being, resplendent and glorious. In “Blood Rites”, less than two years later, Murphy still appears as an angelic being in Dresden’s sight but she is no longer immaculate, in nearly constant pain, and wearing soiled robes. Murphy is a willing participant in Dresden’s crusades but there is always a price to pay. Having said that, there is a scene later on in the book that I felt was gratuitous and unnecessary. You’ll know it when you get to it. And you might roll your eyes as hard as I did when you read it.

For Dresden as a character, “Blood Rites” is all about changing the status quo. One of the dangers of serialized storytelling is the lead character exhibits miniscule changes; or in the opposite extreme, drastic changes that alter the character on such a fundamental level it’s no longer recognizable. Dresden has gone through such changes before in the series. In this book, Dresden is forced to confront his own need for family. Without spoiling things, Dresden’s family increases by two. The dog Mouse is an excellent addition and a great foil for Mister, the house bobcat who runs Dresden’s demesne. My understanding of Mouse is that he’s more than a simple dog, which is more than appropriate for Dresden’s world. But most importantly, Dresden is forced to confront the darkness of those closest to him. Hard truths are the most difficult to face but also the most necessary. A character’s worldview has to be shaken up every now and then. Butcher refuses to let his lead character stagnate, which gives readers like me something to look forward to in each book.

But on the flip side, this novel does showcase Harry’s wandering eye. Given the subject matter and the setting of the story, it’s to be expected but that doesn’t make it easy to read. One criticism I’ve seen leveled at The Dresden Files over the years is the casual sexism displayed by the lead character. There is a case that can be made for that. Harry is an old-school kind of guy, not toxic in that sense but his character was built from the foundation of the pulp detectives of the 40s and 50s, like Phillip Marlowe and Sam Spade. There’s also a deep-seeded repression of sexuality in Harry Dresden that Butcher has built into him. This isn’t a defense of the series or the content of it, merely an observation of where those traits come from. For me, there are times where it stands out more egregiously than others but overall, I take it for what its worth, particularly since Butcher has made it a habit of crafting plenty of strong, female characters with their own sense of agency and worth. I leave it up to an individual reader to decide if Harry’s eye for beautiful women and his attention to the details of their body is too much for them.

I must also admit to be unimpressed with Lord Raith as a villain. Even Harry admits someone so clichéd wouldn’t even exist in a Hollywood movie. Whereas the previous novels had strong villains, particularly “Death Masks”, Lord Raith felt stale and unmotivated. It’s a minor gripe because the point of “Blood Rites” isn’t the villain or the murders. Those are scenery for the real heart of the story: Dresden gaining someone worth losing. The personal growth of mainstays Karrin and Harry are what made this book an enjoyable read. Like the previous novels in the series, I highly recommend picking up “Blood Rites” for newcomers and fans of the series.  

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