Sunday, June 15, 2008

Academ's Fury, by Jim Butcher [1]

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

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

It's remarkable that Jim Butcher hooks readers (like me) enough to keep reading this very episodic Codex Alera series in his second installment titled ACADEM'S FURY (*). ACADEM'S FURY perpetuates much of the serial-like plotting and pacing found in the opening installment of this series FURIES OF CALDERON (*). Similar to the romance genre, the science fiction and fantasy genre contains books characterized by greasy burgers-and-fries and other books represented by delicious gourmet meals. You know Butcher's Codex Alera series isn't good for you, you know what you're going to get, and yet you return. Well, greasy burgers and fries aren't bad every once and while right? Right?

Similar to various parallel plots in FURIES OF CALDERON, we find three concurrent plots in ACADEM'S FURY: Amara & Bernard's struggle against a virulent "vord" queen out in the country and their serialized romantic plight (this time, surrounding marriage and children), Isana's journey to Alera's "capital" Alera Imperia to meet with the First Lord and ask for his aid on her brother's Count Bernard's behalf, and finally, seventeen year-old Tavi's continuing maturation as page to First Lord Gaius and his evolution as an Academ studying at the Citadel in Alera Imperia. Of these three disparate and disjoint plots, I found Isana's the most engaging (again) as enemies from the past realign their alliances for political gain. I found Amara's storyline the most taxing to read. Like tall, dark and handsome rogues in historical romance, Bernard and Tavi's friend Max symbolizes sexual eye candy for the female readership, and Amara renews her ardor for Bernard's strong physique. Like an exasperating serial, Amara at first confronts Isana regarding Isana's resentment towards Amara, then grapples with her inability to give Bernard children, struggling to part with Bernard when the Cursor Serai comments that Amara must inevitably leave Bernard. From a pure entertainment standpoint, I most enjoyed Tavi's capture of the mysterious thief "Black Cat" and their subsequent breach of the impregnable Grey Tower to liberate his friend Max. Also like FURIES OF CALDERON, the ending here in ACADEM'S FURY exaggerates the theatrics from different perspectives and two locales like a soap opera (Amara's perspective out near Aricholt in the country and Tavi's perspective in Alera Imperia). Like the previous installment, the seemingly innocuous Fade showcases his mastery with the sword at the end, this time against 9-foot tall Canim creatures (we learn more about Fade's history also). The book crosses its t's and dots its i's in order to accommodate a role for every character from Tavi's small friend Ehren to Captain Miles. ACADEM'S FURY throws 17 year-old Tavi a bone in the finale when he must battle an injured Canim all by himself while a bruised and battle-weary Amara dispenses of a vord queen by herself. Despite threats to both Tavi, Amara and Bernard, I never once felt like they were actually going to die. I thought Lady Aquitaine's impressive exhibition of power at the very end overshadowed everything else.

One of the big reasons to read SFF and historical fiction - world building - disappointed big time in ACADEM'S FURY. Although the prose and world building in FURIES OF CALDERON wasn't great, it deteriorates tremendously here in ACADEM'S FURY. The people, creatures, world, society and magic of Alera never felt real. A good SFF book portrays its fictional magic, world and people so it feels and seems real. ACADEM'S FURY failed in this respect. Maybe it was just me, but reading Tavi's story, I felt like I was back in high school fighting a bully or back in college cramming for final exams. Reading Amara's storyline, I felt like I was was reading a potboiler romance. Random and seemingly arbitrary rules for the vord creatures exacerbates the reading experience. For example, each vord queen multiplies exactly three times (something simply known from Marat folklore), and there exists a hierarchy of vord from the queen to Keepers, to Takers, to Warriors. The Marat barbarian Doroga relays most of the vorg mythology via conversation. I thought ACADEM'S FURY consistently violated the cardinal sin in storytelling by telling us instead of showing us. Fancy names and titles like Maestro didn't change my feeling that all of this is just too fake. Amara even uses the phrase, "We will agree to disagree..." in a conversation with Isana once. In various conversations, the book further explains how country furies are more powerful than city furies (the rural vs. urban aspect). We as readers know the SFF story isn't real, but the base quality of the world building and conversationalist prose in ACADEM'S FURY mar the entire reading experience.

As for the characters, again I found myself drawn to the Jim Butcher's "gray" characters: Lady Aquitaine and Fidelias. Lady Aquitaine thoroughly steals the show in ACADAM'S FURY, and I thought Butcher's efforts to inject caring introspection in Fidelias' characterization detracted from his cynical outlook. Tavi was better here (he didn't cry) but Butcher is very careful to develop him very slowly, just enough to keep reading the next book. The book persists in highlighting Tavi's impotence from his point-of-view. By the end of the book, Tavi still doesn't have a fury and must continue to rely on his own instinct. Kitai was just plain fun. I liked Isana's characterization and the book reveals more of her mysterious history, her connection to the First Lord Gaius and her nephew Tavi's hidden parentage, as formulaic as all of this seems. Amara inspires two things: aggravation and annoyance. If ever Amara and Bernard actually die, I'll be a happy camper.

The Story, possible spoilers.

ACADEM'S FURY picks up from the best part of FURIES OF CALDERON: Tavi and Kitai's race in the Valley of Silence. We learn that when Tavi ignited the 'croach' (glowing, web-like material) in the valley from FURIES OF CALDERON, the ensuing conflagration awakens a vorg queen. The vorg queen promptly spawns three more. The Marat barbarian chieftan Doroga battles one of the queens and her nest with two thousand warriors. The ensuing battle leaves Doroga with two hundred remaining but he manages to eliminate the nest and queen (we don't actually witness the battle, we see the results). Two vord queens remain: one headed for Tavi in Alera's capital Alera Imperia and another in the slopes of the mountains surrounding the country near Isanaholt. From various conversations, we learn more about the vorg, that takers assimilate other beings essentially killing the spirit inside, and keepers and warriors hunt and protect for the vorg queen. The queen herself is very quick.

Isana travels to Aleria Imperia to ensure her beloved nephew's safety and seek aid from the First Lord for her brother Bernard and Amara as the two travel to confront the queen in the slopes of the mountains. Tavi meanwhile fends off bullies at the Academy and we're introduced to Brencis, son of Lord Kalare, a new player in Aleran politics. The bastard son, rogue, and ladies' man Antillar Maximus (Max) rescues our protagonist Tavi more than once. The lords Kalare and Aquitaine are at odds with each other for succession to the First Lord Gaius (who lacks an heir) and the phrase "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" compels unlikely alliances. When a coma-like condition claims the overextended First Lord Gaius, Gaius's page Tavi must scramble to keep the realm functioning. Max poses as the First Lord at various events while the real First Lord lies unconscious (despite almost all Alerans possessing magical powers, apparently only Max is trustworthy and capable enough to pull it off). When failing to reach the First Lord frustrates Isana, love for her family compels Isana to turn to Lady Aquitaine for succor. The Canim Ambassador Varg also fails to reach First Lord and instead drops Tavi subtle hints as to critical developments in the Deeps underneath Alera Imperia.

Like the prior novel, ACADEM'S FURY features a long and protracted finale often shifting perspectives and locales under the threat of death to a major character at a critical juncture in time. However, not once did I feel anyone major would die. Events climax around protecting a comatose First Lord against "taken" Canim coincided by eliminating the vorg queen out in the country from Amara's perspective.

The book is episodic fluff, but continues to hook me enough to find out what happens next. Astonishing.

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