Grave Peril is where the Dresden Files started to find their footing.
This isn't to say the previous volumes were bad but much of the series' trademarks start appearing here. We get the introduction to a number of important characters, the beginning of a major plotline which will occupy the characters for many volumes, and plenty of information on the series' mythology. There are also several shake-ups with the cast.
The premise of Grave Peril is Harry Dresden and his longtime associate, Michael Carpenter, successfully hunt down a ghost before taking on a job to protect a young seer. The pair receive help from a White Court vampire named Thomas who is unusually friendly. Harry's on-again, off-again girlfriend Susan Rodriguez returns to town, looking for a story. This is before all of the above converge at a party thrown by a group of murderous vampires out to destroy Harry.
If this sounds like a convoluted plot, it is. This is not a book with a single coherent narrative but multiple ones which all reach a climax simultaneously. This is both a strength and weakness because it's hard to keep track of everything yet always entertaining. Later books would have a stronger central narrative while not sacrificing the mystery inherent to the books' appeal. While everything does tie together, it does so in such a loose manner I doubt Jim Butcher would have done this book the same way if he wrote it today.
The real appeal is Grave Peril moves Harry Dresden away from the "case of the week" format which, while appealing, was nothing species. After this point, there's a central guiding narrative which, while mysterious, drives the plot forward. The Red Court, previously just a background element of the series, moves to prominence as enemies of the White Council and Harry in particular.
The new characters introduced in this book are also ones which start fleshing out Harry's world. Michael Carpenter, the Knight of the Cross, is a rare case of a positive Christian warrior in urban fantasy. The majority of individuals with strong religious convictions are depicted as fanatics so it's nice to have one motivated by his faith to do good. The fact Harry remains agnostic or, at least, irreligious means the two of them have some interesting conversations while maintaining a level of respect for one another.
Thomas the "good" vampire is a character who doesn't get fleshed out much but the very fact he's helping monster hunters makes the world a lot more complex. I also loved the characters of Charity Carpenter, Lea, and Susan Rodriguez in this book. The previous book had a heavy Noir tone which restricted women to questionable gender roles despite the subversiveness of Murphy.
Introducing a larger and more varied role for women in the books (as well as making the central villain here one) makes this a better book too. Fans of the latter books in the series may note a lot of the series' future plot twists are set up here.
There's many hilarious moments like Harry Dresden going to a vampire Halloween party as a cheap Dracula knock-off, Lea's attempts to "protect" Harry by turning him into a dog, and poor Harry realizing that it is NOT wise to bait a dragon. The drama is strong, too, with several events happening which change the status quo forever. Bianca and Kravos aren't very well fleshed-out villains but serve their purpose as foes for Harry to defeat.
In conclusion, Grave Peril is the first really good Dresden Files book. I am tempted to encourage fans to start there if they want to get a sense of what the books are about. This is where the series really began and it only gets better from here.
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