The Furies of Calderon

I read Jim Butcher’s first Dresden Files novel, Stormfront, some time ago.  It wasn’t to my taste.  It was urban fantasy cum hard-boiled detective story, but didn’t have the mythological power of the best urban fantasy.  Nor, to my mind, did it have a properly despondent noir atmosphere.  I didn’t like the world; I didn’t like the writing.  The popularity of the series is beyond me entirely.  No one-trick pony, Jim, though — he also has a six-volume epic fantasy series, the Codex Alera.  What, then, would I make of the first novel from this series, The Furies of Calderon? On the plus side, the world-building is pretty decent.  It’s clearly largely inspired by the Roman Empire, but in a fantasy market where feudal mediaevalism is the norm, even a bit of derivative antiquity can feel like a breath of fresh air. At the periphery of this empire lie clusters of autocratic steadholds.  The protagonist of the novel, Tavi, is a gormless teen boy in one such holding, located in the strategically important land bridge connecting Alera with an adjoining continent.  Tavi has a problem.  Everyone else has a connection with an elemental familiar (or fury — either wood, earth, metal, wind, water, or fire) that gives them a portfolio of rather impressive magical skills.  Tavi, however, doesn’t. (Don’t worry though, reader. What he’s missing in magical powers is more than made up for in mysterious past and looming destiny). Fury-crafting humanity is surrounded by perils on all sides. The story opens as one such peril stirs.  The Marat (noble savage types), who generally hang out on the other side of the land bridge, have their eyes on Alera, and aren’t afraid to kill a lot of people to get their hands on it.  These guys are pretty broad.  There are some good savages (such as Tavi’s love interest) who end up becoming loyal allies of the Empire (it’s all a bit colonial wet dream) and some bad savages who unreasonably want to destroy the empire (reclaiming their ancestral lands) and just generally kill and eat people. The Marat are being aided by some rebellious Aleran elements who want to see the current emperor, childless and aged Gaius, knocked from his perch.  Here we get to see some other aspects of Aleran citizenry: decadent nobles and messenger spies (called cursors).  One of the central conflicts in the novel is between the jaded old pro spy who sees the managed usurpation of the Emperor as the way to best minimise chaos and bloodshed (the ironically named Fidelias), and his idealistic padawan (Amara) who rejects his stance and runs to align herself with Gaius.  Fidelias and his two lieutenants (a mad water witch and a bad ass swordsman — very reminiscent of Drusilla and Spike) wander about the place wrecking havoc and trying to support the Marat invasion.  They are thwarted by the interventions of Amara, Tavi, and various of Tavi’s allies (including his guardians at the steadhold who turn out to be fairly bad ass fury crafters themselves).  The whole thing comes to a head with a big siege set piece that feels distinctly underwhelming compared to some of the great siege scenes I’ve come across.  By and large, though, the action scenes are pretty good. Butcher’s clearly thought about the capacities and limits of a fury’s power.  One of the great things about Avatar (an obvious comparison when thinking about element-linked abilities) is the ingenious ways the characters use their bending powers; there’s quite a lot of that here, too. The main problem, apart from the fact that it’s far too long and not written particularly well, is that the good guys are bland and unsympathetic.  It’s not that they’re unpleasant, it’s just that I couldn’t care less about them.  The bad guys, on the other hand are pretty good.  I liked Fidelias.  I have a lot more respect for him than his snot-nosed apprentice.  I really liked “Drusilla” and “Spike” too.  They have a lovely relationship, rich (though largely unexplored) back stories, and a great line in villainous banter. So, a pretty good world (orientalist othering aside), but pretty bad everything else.  Can I recommend that you read it? Well, unless you like going “For Fuck’s sake, will this fucking thing never end?”, then, no, definitely not.

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