Vampires and demons and ghosts, oh my! In his third outing, Jim Butcher's put-upon Windy City wizard Harry Dresden goes to the mat against all manner of evil and undead beasties, coming out as usual much the worse for wear but living to fight another day. In Grave Peril one gets the first real impression that the series is sliding into a comfortable episodic groove. It does so so comfortably, in fact, that its eventual transformation into a SciFi Channel TV show seems inevitable. (I haven't watched it, but from fan complaints I've read about the deviations SciFi made from the source material, I think I'd probably be unimpressed.)
So far, Butcher is managing to keep the adrenaline level high. There are a few basic rules to turning out great escapist entertainment. Stay on message; make your audience bond with your characters and then hurt those characters as much as you possibly can; keep the action coming; and don't let anyone get bored enough to want to change the channel. Butcher has all of these down. Now I'm eager to see how long he can go before violating the most important one: it's better to burn out than fade away. I've seen all too many series that have begun with great promise, only to lose steam a few books in and drag on ad infinitum despite the fact the well ran dry long ago, simply because neither the publisher nor the author can bear to see a lucrative property perish. I fervently hope Butcher retains both his creative energies and integrity for a preternaturally long time, and that he knows when it's time for Harry Dresden to hang up his duster and staff with grace.
Now is not that time, happily enough. Grave Peril opens about a year after the events of Fool Moon, and has Harry and his allies — the Catholic swordsman Michael; Murphy, the tough but tender cop; his spunky girlfriend/journalist Susan — facing the consequences of taking down a sorcerer whom Harry stopped in the act of raising an exceptionally nasty demon. Ghosts are woooing around Chicago like mad, and Harry believes someone, or something, has sufficiently weakened the boundaries between this world and the spiritual Nevernever in order to draw sinister power from these rampant hauntings. Through some of Butcher's most impressively intricate plotting to date, Harry ends up facing off against not only the demon and the ghost of the sorcerer, but learns to his dismay that the events may even be linked to his old nemesis, Bianca St. Claire of the Vampire Court. Who really, really, really wants to kill Harry. And if this weren't enough, there's Harry's godmother, a vengeful sidhe out to settle a bargain made long ago.
Grave Peril doesn't have quite the same kind of runaway-train pacing that Fool Moon had. Instead, Butcher realizes the mystery aspects of the series' noir motif to the best effect yet. Like any good suspense story, clues are built upon gradually, and the story unfolds with greater deliberation but no less a sense of excitement. Yet when it comes time to construct a bravura setpiece, Butcher jumps into overdrive in a lengthy but gripping sequence at Bianca's mansion that takes up a large chunk of the book's second half.
As the series progresses, Butcher adds bits and pieces to his ongoing development, not only of Harry, but several of the supporting characters. Murphy, surprisingly, sits much of this one out, but we're treated to a nicely rounded and likable sidekick in Michael (though sidekick does seem not altogether the appropriate term; I wouldn't mind seeing Michael get his own novel, honestly), and an interesting wrinkle in Harry's romance with Susan. If you haven't got the characters for readers to invest themselves in, all the bombast and action in the world won't save your story. Hollywood movies have that problem. The Dresden Files hasn't got that problem. There's a good reason it's one of the most popular series in fantasy today. Often imitated, never duplicated, I can only hope Jim Butcher maintains its high standards and steers clear of peril.