Monday, September 3, 2007

Furies of Calderon, by Jim Butcher [1]

*/***** (1/5)

Codex Alera series
1. Furies of Calderon (1/5)
2. Academ's Fury
3. Cursor's Fury
4. Captain's Fury - Dec '07

Best known for his Dresden Files series, author Jim Butcher's foray into epic fantasy begins with the tediously predictable yet irritatingly addictive FURIES OF CALDERON. I found the book mostly epic fluff, but surprisingly unputdownable. The book contains episodic, soap-opera plotting which will inexorably compel me to find out what happens to some of the characters in spite of my overall lack of enjoyment. With names like Gaius Sextus and Legionnaires in the Legion, a Roman inspiration characterizes the book's settings and backdrop. This book firmly belongs to the young woman Amara, her missions under the First Lord and her romance with Bernard.

Some positives to begin with. I liked the magic system: humans command "Fury" elementals incipient in earth, water, air, wood, steel to do their bidding. Some of the elementals lend themselves to naturally restorative functions such as water furies while other elementals exhibit a tendency for destruction such as earth furies. For a fantasy series, Butcher injects the book with a prevalent romantic flavor. Astonishingly, I felt some of the romance here could have been written by pure romance novelists, and it almost seems like Jim Butcher has read some historical romance novels. For instance, Amara's tingling, melting reactions in response to a tall, broad-shouldered, handsome widower. The pacing is fast, and Butcher keeps the action and romance flowing in this 504-page paperback. There's some genuine gray characters and the book thankfully dismisses the black-and-white Good vs. Evil struggle in epic fantasies. In fact, treachery and civil conflict marked much of the climactic battle here with each group and character striving for their own end goals.

Possible SPOILERS ahead.

Now for the negatives which easily overwhelmed the positives. The plotting was entirely formulaic and predictable. There's even a magical river flood akin to the flood in Tolkien's FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING before the companions arrive at Rivendale. The prose was, in general, below average to average. There's an attempt at settings and world building but I've seen better, even in pure romance novels. I hated that our 15 year-old protagonist boy Tavi behaves more like a 7,8 year-old baby often crying and screaming in terror most of the time. If I were a 15 year-old boy, I'd resent anyone calling me a "boy" or "child" at every turn, and I'd definitely avoid any emotional outbursts in public (hugging, crying). Tavi is too much of a do-gooder at 15, I know I found myself in much more mischief at the same age. For a series about a boy's coming-of-age, the first installment FURIES OF CALDERON firmly belongs to our young woman Amara, and her mission as Cursor under the First Lord of the Aleran Kingdom. I really could have done without Amara's romance with Tavi's uncle, the tall, broad-shouldered, strong and handsome Bernard. I found myself begrudging any chapter from Amara's perspective, which comprises a majority of the novel. I don't know, something about her, I just didn't like, and I liked Bernard even less. The entire combination was just... bleh. Butcher mostly employs Amara's perspective in the prolonged climactic finale featuring the battle between the Marat barbarians and the Roman-inspired Alerans at the Garrison in Calderon Valley. The interminable climactic battle was long and pointless! Almost every other chapter, there's the threat of a major death, but unfortunately, you know this type of novel lacks the audacity to kill off a major character. By the end of the novel, with *everyone* surviving for future books, it all seemed sooooo very, very, very vapidly pointless. It's funny, I couldn't take The Major Death in Scott Lynch's RED SEAS UNDER RED SKIES, but I was begging for some deaths here, Amara and Bernard most of all. I would have given the book 2 stars if this novel had killed off Amara and Bernard! Most of the protagonists I found aggravating or unlikable. I disliked Tavi, hated Bernard and Amara. I liked Tavi's Aunt Isana (though she sparingly appears), I enjoyed the redoubtable warrior Aldrick's mistress, the water witch Odiana, and I definitely enjoyed our disillusioned antagonist Fidelias. Finally, the magic is egregiously overused. It's a danger of fantasy novels, but magic users here fling their furies at foes and allies alike with impunity and without any limitations. Whenever Amara needs some aid in a pinch, oh let's just call on her wind fury Cirrus to fly her to safety or deliver a lethal blow! Oh someone suffered a fatal wound? Fear not, Isana's water fury Rill to the rescue! It gets seriously out of hand, and you start to question whether death exists for our main characters in Butcher's world at all.

The Story.

Academ Amara wants to graduate the Academy and become a full-fledged spy in the Cursor Legate directly under First Lord Gaius of the Aleran Kingdom. As part of her confirmation from Academ to Cursor, the First Lord dispatches Amara on a mission to investigate a rebel camp and report back the identity of the High Lord(s) behind the insurrection legion. Her plans take a turn for the worse when she's betrayed by her own instructor, her patriserus Fidelias. Amara flees the camp with the assistance of her wind fury Cirrus, and quickly reports back to the First Lord Gaius. The First Lord Gaius, not without resources and power of his own, consequently sends Amara to the Calderon Valley where he senses the inchoate stirrings of doom.

In the Calderon Valley, we have Steadholder Bernard a tall, broad-shouldered widower commanding two powerful furies of his own (earth and wood), his sister Isana a powerful water craft commanding the water fury Rill and finally their 15 year-old nephew Tavi. Customarily, if the person were to command a fury, they would have done so well before Tavi's age, and he rues the absence of a fury of his own, a fact belittling the boy's status in the world of FURIES OF CALDERON.

The story then fragments into sundry pieces, each frantically driving the pacing. In one group we have Fidelias, Aldrick and Odiana, sent by the High Lord Aquitaine, a ruthlessly ambitious man fomenting the insurrection against the First Lord. Bernard and Tavi travel Calderon Valley in search of a flock gone astray. Isana remains at Bernardholt dealing with the inimical steadholder Kord. Finally, you have Amara traveling to Calderon Valley to gather information. Bernard and Tavi encounter the gargantuan Marat barbarians in their search for the flock, barbarians Alerans haven't seen in over 15 years. There appears to be a conspiracy afoot fomenting chaos and confusion. In fact, Fidelias has convinced the barbarian horde to attack Calderon Valley and Clan Herdbane's headman Atsurak leads the charge. Later, Tavi convinces Clan Gargant's headman Doroga and Clan Horse to dissent from Atsurak's complicity with Fidelias.

The story chugs along as characters separate and reunite fairly consistently with the Marat barbarian horde on the move.

The most enjoyable part of the novel definitely involved Tavi and Kitai's quest for the Blessing of Night. Tavi represents the Alerans and Kitai represents Clan Gargant in a competition to retrieve the Blessing (a magical mushroom) from the Valley of Silence amongst the Wax Forest crawling with deadly dog-sized wax spiders. If Tavi wins, Clans Gargant and Horse will withdraw from the Marat horde attacking Alera and help the Alerans instead at the battle taking place at the Garrison in Calderon Valley. This quest portends for Tavi much more than he bargained for though, and the full impact of exactly what he bargained for won't be realized until later novels.

I found the the interminable, incessant conclusion involving the climactic battle between half the Marat horde (Clans Wolf and Herdbane, still 10,000 strong), and the meager Aleran legion defending the Garrison led by Amara, very, very painful and insufferably long. Not to mention that it was glaringly obvious no one was going to die and that Tavi will triumphantly arrive with the Marat Clans Gargant and Horse to help. At the battle scene, Tavi does little else other than flail and run around.

Anyway, I can't believe I want to read the next novel in this series after this poor fantasy effort. I guess Jim Butcher hooked me enough to find out if/when Tavi will ever get his fury, who Tavi's parents are, will we see Tavi's Marat rival Kitai who turns out to be a girl, will Tavi grow out of his crying and screaming, will Amara and Bernard ever die. Episodic? Anecdotal? Fluff? Yep. Yep. And yep.

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