By Jim Butcher (Official Webpage)
Buy it here: Grave Peril
In Grave Peril, Jim's realization of both the world and Harry Dresden's character comes to life with incredible finesse. Combining white-hot action with clever magic and genuinely interesting characters, Grave Peril is the best book thus far in the Dresden Files. Those looking to start the series can't do any better than Grave Peril.
At long last, we finally see Jim Butcher at his best. After a debut that worked in concept but not on paper, a second novel that improved on the formula but didn't quite nail it, Grave Peril is what we've been waiting for. This is one of the funnest, cleverest, and downright most reckless books I've ever had the pleasure of experiencing.
One main comment though before going into full-on "review mode:" I didn't actually read this book. I listened to the audiobook, because I wasn't able to find a paper copy anywhere. The audio recording I listened to had one of the best readers I've experienced, who both knew how to emote expression in the dialogue, as well as do clever voice cues so you could tell characters apart. Because of this, I didn't notice the prose as much, instead focusing more on the story itself. I'm certain reading it would be a completely different experience, but from the audiobook side: it works. And works well.
Ok, the review. Grave Peril starts off in the middle of the action. Harry and his new friend Michael, a Christian zealot, are off essentially ghost-busting. Yes, this novel is about killing ghosts, primarily. Michael is a great example of why I love the magic in the Dresden files. While he doesn't actually contain any himself, Jim attributes such abilities as great faith as a power unto itself. Michael's incredible belief in God gives him a power that could potentially rival Dresden's. It makes near perfect-sense, as does all the magic in the book: there are multiple sources of magic in the world, faith being one of them. It works because it's natural, and because we want it to work.
Anyway, Michael is a great character, because of how different from Harry he is. While Harry is a hard-broiled, world-weary, morally ambiguous wizard; Michael is a god-fearing family man who abhors swearing and any form of commandment-breaking. How these two became friends is beyond me, but they play off each other extremely well.
It is while busting this ghost where we meet another incredibly unique twist on something we already know: Harry's fairy godmother. This isn't what you think, all "bibbity bobbity boo" and what not. Harry owes his godmother a debt, and his godmother is some hugely sexy woman who wants Harry's body (and all that entails) and will stop at nothing to get it. Not the fairy godmother you remember, right?
At any rate, things start getting crazier. A renegade ghost starts terrorizing Harry's friends, and he doesn't know why. Fight after fight eventually leads him to one of the best scenes thus far in the novel: Harry appearing as a guest of honor at a vampire masquerade party. Again, Butcher does the mythology right and makes vampires both incredibly desirable and inexplicably terrifying. It all culminates in a final showdown makes the other two books look boring in comparison.
I really enjoyed this book. The blend of action, hard-broiled cop, magic, and noir was near-perfect. I found myself staying up until 2 in the morning listening to the dang thing, wanting to know what happened next. It was intoxicating.
However, it isn't perfect. First off, the breakneck pace is great, but sometimes I felt it was going too fast. This is especially evident by what is perhaps the book's biggest flaw: If Harry ever thinks, "I sure hope x doesn't show up" or "There's no way y will happen," it always does. It gets to the point where it's almost a joke how predictable it becomes. Yes, it makes the book relentlessly exciting, but it's just too obvious. I swear Harry couldn't even walk to the supermarket to get some milk without being assaulted by demons, fairies, vampires, and who knows what else. Everything that could go wrong tends to, and it becomes cliche by the end.
The other issue is the goals of the characters, particularly the villain. Without spoiling anything too much, somebody wants Harry dead. However, the way they go about it is so convoluted and "clever" (this pertains to the final reveal) that it really makes you wonder: why didn't they just hire some ex-marine with a sniper rifle and off Harry that way? If you send magic at him, he can detect it. I'm pretty sure he couldn't detect a bullet from several hundred yards away going for his skull. Don't fight a wizard with magic, you idiots!
Lastly, while it made sense that Harry gets beat up all the time (what with everything going bad for him at every possible moment), he seems to recover awfully quickly. In the first book, Storm Front, Harry gets the crap kicked out of him a lot. In Fool Moon, he loses some magic ability. Wanting to one-up it "for the win!", Butcher makes Harry lose some of his magic and get beaten up over and over again! It makes it better, right? Well, not really, especially because he seems to have no recovery time. Or, when he does, he'll be groaning and struggling to walk from his bed one second, and blasting magic everywhere the next. Maybe magic makes you regenerate really fast, I have no idea. But, while the joke was funny the first two books, it is becoming a little harder for me to suspend my disbelief. (Luckily, only a few chapters into Summer Knight, and he already is hurt, but he complains about it and notices it frequently. I like this better; more realistic).
These qualms aside, this is really the Michael Bay of Dresden files, only without Megan Fox and with a coherent plot and characters you care about. One blockbuster scene after the next, on and on until the novel ends. If you plan on starting this series, Grave Peril would be a good point. While Harry does reference past events, he often gives enough background that it won't detract from the story.
However, don't start on the next book (Summer Knight) unless you've read this one. Tons of very key plot twists, including character changes and revelations, happen in this book that tie directly into the next one (and I'm fairly certain it'll keep this trend now that Butcher knows his underlying goals). Seriously, it won't make sense.
What else can I say? You should go buy it (see the link, hint hint) or check it out from the library and read it. If you can get an audiobook version, I'd recommend that even more, though they can be expensive. I've got Dresden Files fever now, and I don't plan on stopping until I've gotten all the way to book #12, Changes. And, of course, I'll keep reviewing them as I finish them.
On to Summer Knight!