Blood Rites does so many things right, but also does several things wrong. Don’t get me wrong, Jim Butcher’s writing in 2004 is a decided improvement on his 2000 era debut. That’s the point of the series after all, to track how the writing improves and still pinpoint the weaknesses. But there are days I wish that he got better at some things just a little bit faster. The focus paid to Harry’s family and Murphy’s character delights. Yet there are things I would still change about it. Blood Rites deals with sensitive topics, so the fumbles stand out more than usual. It still remains a good book, just with a few more unpleasant quirks than usual.
Spoilers for all of Blood Rites and Butcher’s previous works. Content Warnings for referenced sexual assault and incest.
So, What Happened?
Blood Rites opens with Harry and Thomas rescuing a stolen litter of puppies from demons. After Harry returns them, one stayed behind and warns them about a Black Court Vampire. From this, they deduce that Mavra is in town. Thomas hires Harry to protect Arturo, an ethical producer of erotic films, who just launched his own company. Several women associated with it were killed in bizarre ways. Harry takes the case and wrangles a promise that Thomas will explain why he constantly helps him as a reward.
Harry assembles a party to fight Mavra, including Murphy, the mercenary Kinkaid, and Ebenezer McCoy, wizard and former mentor. He poses as an assistant on set for Arturo’s case. The curse strikes and almost kills two actors, but injures the actress so she can’t return to filming. Her replacement is Lara Raith, Thomas’s vampiric sister, who brings Inari, his other unturned sister. Lara dislikes Harry and attempts to kill him and Thomas after Thomas suggests bringing down their father. Then Mavra’s minions attack. They band together to stop them, and Lara brings them to their mansion. Thomas feeds on Justine to heal the wounds sustained in the fight, which should kill her.
Harry lashes out at Thomas the next morning, and Thomas reveals why he keeps helping Harry. They are half-brothers. Harry coordinates the plan to attack Mavra. He discovers that Arturo’s three ex-wives want to stop his new marriage, and plan to kill every woman around him to do so. Afterwards they raid Mavra’s hideout, then Harry discovers that Lord Raith kidnapped Thomas. Murphy fools Lord Raith, and they stop the last ex-wife from finishing the spell. Lara takes control of the Raith family, using her father as a puppet. ‘He’ kicks Thomas out, and Harry lets him move in.
Best Moment – Harry Gets a Family Reunion
One thing I really enjoy about Butcher’s writing is how he uses family and found family. The previous novels show how Harry grows from an isolated person to one with friends and found family. Now, one of those found family members reveals that he’s a blood relative. The set up also shows a lot of skill. We open with Thomas doing Harry a favor. Afterwards, Thomas asks why Harry keeps involving himself in trouble, and seems concerned. Harry takes the case, then says. “You’re going to pay me to do it … I want to know why,’ I said. ‘I want to know why you’ve been helping me.” (29). From the beginning the dynamics between the two of them delight, and Butcher shows them in fine fettle here.
Thomas exudes grace, and Harry clomps behind with no delicacy whatsoever. They prove good foils to one another. After they seek refuge in Lord Raith’s Chicago home, after a hectic morning, Thomas takes Harry to a hall, lined with portraits. He explains Raith paints one for women who bore him children, and they arrive at the last one. Harry recognizes his mother, and Thomas says she’s “Our mother.” (195). Harry reacts badly, and demands a soul gaze. During that, he sees a vision Margaret implanted in both their minds, where she gives Harry a gift of knowledge. Afterwards they both feel elated.
Butcher handled it so well. We say the set up at the beginning, and know Margaret dabbled in dangerous things (the Leanansidhe, anyone), he builds to it. One thing about both Harry and Thomas that we know from the past three books, is they fight best when protecting other people. Now, they have family to protect, and it makes them stronger. That’s what family does. That’s what brothers do.
Most Improved – Murphy’s Character and Backstory
It’s fitting that in a story where Butcher explores Harry’s backstory, that he also explores Murphy’s backstory and character too. One of the things so touching about Murphy and Harry’s friendship in Blood Rites is that it feels so comfortable. They prove themselves willing to help one another, that you can forget their previous arguments. Murphy looks up Arturo for Harry, and you can hear the friendship in their words.
Her own interactions with Ebenezer also entertain.
“‘You got a driver’s license? You driven Chicago streets lately?’ The old wizard scowled at her. ‘Thought so,’ she said. ‘Move over.’” (278).
She makes Ebenezer McCoy move, within five minutes of meeting him. When driving is supposed to be his job. She poses several philosophical questions. Mavra creates Renfields, living, human thralls. When Murphy discovers that they have to kill them, we see her struggle with that notion.
In addition, we discover more about her family. The Mavra hunt takes place on the same day as her family reunion. Murphy throws herself at the opportunity to get out of it. Harry picks her up from the event halfway through, and meets her family. Like her sister and Murphy’s FBI ex-husband, who plans to marry said sister and move to Chicago. The scene oozes awkwardness, and Murphy’s righteous fury at the notion rings true.
Beyond that, her mom also brings up something interesting to Harry. We know Murphy became a cop because her father also served on the police force. Harry compliments Murphy and her work to her mom, and Momma Murphy reveals that her husband served in the precursor to Special Investigations. “My Colin never spoke of it, but I can read between the lines as well as anyone. I know what my daughter is facing.” (275). It deepens Murphy’s history.
Best Worldbuilding – He Who Walks Behind, the Blackstaff, and White Court Inhibitions
To get the least complicated out of the way, Arturo’s ex-wives summon He Who Walks Behind as the demon powering their entropy curse. Harry previously encountered the Walker when Justin Morneau sent it after him, when Harry split from the warlock. When the summoner dies, it speaks to Harry for a moment. “I am returned mortal man … And I remember thee. Thou and I, we have unfinished business between us.” (408). Afterwards, Harry talks with Bob, and they both sound concerned that the Walker regained a connection to the human world. It sets up later events in the series.
The other main worldbuilding that affects Harry is the revelation of the Blackstaff. When Kincaid and Ebenezer meet, Kincaid recognizes him, and threatens him. Later, Ebenezer explains the Blackstaff to Harry. One Wizard of the White Council that can break all the Laws of Magic. Who can “kill … enthrall … invade the thoughts of another mortal” (344), and several other things that could cause many problems. Harry then proceeds to call him a hypocrite, since Ebenezer taught him to respect the Laws of Magic, while being free to break all of them himself.
Beyond things that have an effect on Harry, the best bit of pure worldbuilding comes when dealing with the White Court. The effect of love on White Court Vampires is fascinating. Before Thomas shows Harry the portrait of their mother, he explains why Inari got burned when she almost assaulted Harry earlier. “Love is a primal energy, Harry. To actually touch that kind of power hurts us. It burns.” (193). It makes sense, given that the White Court incubus power derives solely from lust, or sexual desire absent love. This reappears tragically at the end of the book, when Justine and Thomas can no longer touch.
Worst Worldbuilding – Thomas’s Family Troubles
I felt sad that the first article after I made Worst Worldbuilding unnecessary, that I had to put it back in. But Blood Rites deserves it.
The thing that makes it so abhorrent that it needed to be discussed is Thomas’s family. More specifically, Lord Raith. During their stay at the Raith’s place in Chicago, Thomas explains a lot of White Court lore to Harry. He talks about how his father could kill someone by kissing them. Then, he goes into how Raith educates his children. He tells them nothing about their powers, lets them kill someone to become a vampire. And then comes the worst.
“His voice broke. He had to cough before he continued. … ‘Like what happened to my other sisters.’ … ‘He establishes that he is their superior. He overpowers them. Pits his Hunger against theirs.’ My stomach twisted. ‘You mean he feeds on his own . . .’ I couldn’t finish the sentence.” (198).
Because of Raith’s own personal predilections, he doesn’t control his sons by sexually assaulting them, he just kills them when they become inconvenient. All of this is classic abusive tactics. Deprive the victim of information so they don’t know what’s happening or how to get away. Hurt them and force them to obey you. Thomas says Lara “turns into an obedient dog” (198) around their father.
But the other problem with this is how Lara turns it on Raith’s head. She discovers that Raith only put on a show of strength, that he had not fed in several years. She then proceeds to do exactly to Raith what he did to her. Using her Hunger to take control of him and the White Court by proxy. Rather than breaking the cycle, she continues it.
Moment of (Continued) Regression – Sexualization of Every Female Form
Yes, my particular soapbox is back again. Though it’s not really a soapbox given the continuing pattern of creating moments specifically to sexualize the female form. We saw it with Molly last book, and now we see it with Murphy and Lara.
Lara’s case stretches credulity. After Lara appears on the set, Harry goes off to interrogate Thomas. She follows them, and there’s a standoff. Harry notices her clothes before he notices her weapons. “She was wearing black lacy things with stockings and heels—” (144-5). They then proceed to fight each other, and then to fight two Black Court vampires, with Lara in said skimpy clothes. The other vampires continually make sexual comments about her, and manage to pin her down and bite her breasts. They could have bit her anywhere, but no, it’s her chest. So that the readers can imagine what this ethereal, half-naked vampire woman looks while being bitten there by other vampires. It’s pornographic.
Butcher’s portrayal of Murphy during the fight with Mavra also proves problematic. Harry, Kincaid, and Murphy find a group of children hidden behind an explosive with infrared beams as triggers. Only Murphy can fit through, since she’s small. Even so, she has to take off her pants to fit below the beam. “Her legs were pale, pretty, and strong. And I had to admit that Kincaid was completely correct about her posterior.” (314). Kincaid complimented her on the state of her posterior before he took her pants off for her. The infrared beam could have been a quarter of an inch higher and no one would have questioned it. The only reason it happened, was because Butcher wanted to take Murphy’s pants off, and have Harry tease her about wearing pink underwear.
Reinstating the Worst Worldbuilding was the worst part of Blood Rites, but I would still say that Butcher keeps improving. Some elements of his storytelling rub me the wrong way, especially the constant sexualization of women. But he also pulls off things that he seeded very well in previous books. We find out about Murphy’s father, about Thomas and Harry’s mom. The emotional turmoil that Harry goes through after Ebenezer explains about being the Blackstaff pains me. Overall, the emotional hooks for the characters pull me in more than the plot, while still remaining well plotted. That’s a first for this series as a whole, and a milestone.