Dead Beat is a book that continues to build on the still on-going war between the vampire Red Court and the White Council of the wizards to some extent. But that's really more about setting - this book introduces new antagonists to make life difficult alongside the tense situation with the vampires that complicates things further.
In line with the title, this book tackles necromancy, a field of magic we haven't see all that much of in the past books. Sure there were the occasional efforts to commune with the dead or gain some sort of insights from spirits. But now we have full one masters of the dead. Definitely some interesting times for Harry Dresden.
Synopsis: Dead Beat is the seventh novel in Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files series of urban fantasy novels. It was originally released in 2005 and takes place about a year after the events of the last novel, Blood Rites.
Halloween is just around the corner and wizard and somewhat detective Harry Dresden agrees to meet Mavra, head of the vampire Black Court. She threatens to use evidence that would get Murphy imprisoned or worse in order to blackmail Harry to get something called The Word of Kemmler to her in 3 days. Her other condition is that he must not seek help from anyone and should tell no one of the blackmail threat against Murphy, who is actually on vacation together with the assassin Kincaid.
The book turns out to be a fabled manuscript created by the necromancer Kemmler, who had been defeated by the White Council many years before. It has been believed that Kemmler and all of his disciples had been killed and that all copies of his texts had also been destroyed. But the fact that Mavra was looking for it to leads Dresden to suspect that it's real. And given the fact that there are actually several groups of Kemmler's followers active in the city looking for the book, there's a heck f a lot of danger for Harry to face alone.
What I Liked: The whole discussion related to the role of necromancy in this world and how gravely the White Council deals with such threats was an interesting angle to take in this story. It's not just as simple as dark wizards using skeletons and zombies to fight Harry. Like the other disciplines of magic covered in the books, it turns out that necromancy has different approaches and applications and each of the followers of Kemmler has a different aspect of the magical art that they prefer to use.
What was most striking to me was a brief scene involving Mab, Queen of the Winter Court. We last really got to see her in action in Summer Knight with a story that ended with her offering Harry the role of Knight of the Winter Court. As much as he didn't take the deal, it's clear that Mab maintains an interest in him and Harry just continues to prove why he's worthy of Winter as well.
Oh, and the book also nicely tackles the Wardens beyond our ever judgmental friend Morgan. That was a nice little development.
What Could Have Been Better: The bit with Murphy and Kincaid felt rather left field, especially given how Murphy had initially reacted to his life as a contract killer. Sure, they fought the vampires of the Black Court side-by-side and there's some respect between the two. But for them to go on a seemingly romantic out of town getaway was strange. I know it's the sort of plot twist meant to upset readers and make them decide whether or not they root for a future relationship between Harry and Murphy, but that's really just a minor subpoint.
The book's core mystery had a lot of moving parts but it didn't all come together in a meaningful or least significant manner. They even found a way to somewhat bring in the Chicago crime underground into the mix of things but overall impact felt like more a weird need to shift characters in order to fulfill plot requirements. This happens all the time but it felt a little more blatant in this book in particular.
TL;DR: Dead Beat is a great continuation of the series and it features a lot of great fights that really test the limits of magical creativity. It has Harry going through some major character changes as well that are sure to have a significant impact on him in the grand scheme of things. Thus the book gets a solid 5 challenges put in Harry's way as he struggles without his friends out of a possible 5.