I have a problem with fantasy. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I think what I really have a problem with is epic fantasy.
In theory, I should love anything with magic, swords, monsters, and ridiculously heroic types. In theory. But, much like Communism, I find that epic fantasy works much better for me in theory than it does in practice. Thankfully, when I need a magic or monster fix, I can go to urban fantasy; if I want to read about a bunch of guys hacking at each other with swords and spears, I’ll pick up a historical novel or one of Robert E. Howard’s Conan collections. So, what the hell is wrong with epic fantasy?
Most of the epic fantasy that I’ve tried to read falls into one of three categories. First, the author has clearly scanned Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and simply ran a find-and-replace on some of the character and place names. Second, the author has pulled together transcripts from several games of Dungeons & Dragons and is using them as “research.” Third, the author tries to do something so “different” and “unlike everything that has come before” that it becomes too convoluted to even begin to read. There are exceptions, of course. Personally, I enjoyed the first Dragonlance trilogy. I also really enjoy Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series. And, apparently, I really love Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series.
I’ve been irrationally obsessed with a devoted fan of Jim Butcher for a few years, ever since I read his first Harry Dresden novel, Storm Front. I won’t go into just how much I love Butcher’s private eye and professional wizard. I won’t. Suffice it to say, it’s enough that when I found out that Butcher also had a series of “epic fantasy” novels, I was significantly intrigued. Intrigued enough to run out and buy the first two books in the Codex Alera series, but still reticent enough that they remained untouched for over a year. Last week, I finally picked up the first book in the series, Furies of Calderon, and immediately hated myself for waiting so long.
The first thing that stands out about this series is the setting. Most epic fantasy that I’ve read is set in a world that is loosely based on Europe during the Middle Ages. However, Butcher’s Alera is patterned after the Roman Empire. Or, to be more specific, a Roman Empire that has had one thousand years to evolve and develop, creating something that’s a blend of both Roman and Medieval politics and society. Alera is a realm of Lords, Senators, Citizens, and Centurions. The Aleran countryside is divided into Steadholts, large farms akin to the feudal estates of Europe.
The magic found in the series is unique, as well. It’s not the usual wizened old guy with a beard and a floppy hat or some staff-waving mumbo-jumbo. I’m not even totally positive that it can be classified as magic. The Alerans possess a seemingly innate ability to control the elements or, more specifically, the spirits–what the Alerans call furies–that inhabit the elements of earth, wind, fire, water, wood, and metal. Most Alerans become skilled in manipulating one or two elementals, aided by personal furies who act like familiars. In addition to being able to control the physical aspects of a given element, furies also bestow certain super- or preternatural abilities upon their wielder. For example, those who possess watercrafting abilities can use them to heal, read emotions, or alter their appearance, while earthcrafting can grant increased strength, tracking skills, and the ability to inspire lust in others. And, like a game of rock-paper-scissors (or Battle Beasts), specific elements can negate or counteract another.
In the first book of the series, Butcher introduces readers to Tavi. Tavi is a young man living on his uncle’s Steadholt in the Calderon Valley–sight of a great battle between the Alerans and the Marat, a savage people who bond with wild animals the way Alerans do with furies. Tavi is your typical fantasy hero. He’s intelligent, loyal, brave, and has an uncanny ability to get himself into and out of trouble. Tavi stands out because, unlike everyone else in Alera, he has absolutely no furycrafting ability. Everyone, including Tavi, view this as a huge handicap. Of course, this wouldn’t be an epic fantasy novel unless Tavi learns that he can overcome his apparent weakness and tap into his own strength and intelligence.
Just like the Dresden Files, Butcher’s Codex Alera series doesn’t shy away from the usual tropes of the genre. Butcher is a self-professed fan of traditional fantasy literature, and his love for the genre is evident in this series. Codex embraces and plays around with the motifs of fantasy literature without insulting them. There’s a lot of Frodo, Wart, and Harry Potter in Tavi. These similarities might lead some people to criticize the character, calling him stereotypical or clichéd. These people need to pick up a dictionary and look up the word archetype, and then commit ritual suicide to atone for their stupidity. As a fan of Butcher’s other series, I think Tavi is an interesting counterpoint to Harry Dresden. In Harry’s world, he’s the one with the power, while his friends have to get by in the real world like everyone else; in Tavi’s world, everyone has power and he’s forced to stumble around, grasping and groping, like someone locked in a dark room.
Furies of Calderon does an admirable job establishing this new world, from the decent and hardworking steadholders to the backstabbing skullduggery and political infighting of the Lords and Senators. And, as always, Butcher manages to excel at both life-and-death combat and lighthearted personal moments. There are a few bumps along the road, though. Some of what the furies are capable of doing doesn’t always seem to fit logically with their given element. Also, it sometimes falls victim to bouts of Tolkienitis, stringing together a bunch of words to make a more fantastical word to describe something fairly common in the real world, or using a completely fabricated word for something rather than the perfectly good English word that we’ve all agreed upon. There’s even a siege towards the end of the novel that was very reminiscent of the Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers–but, that’s okay since that was my favorite part of Tolkien’s trilogy.
Minor quibbles aside, as soon as I finished Furies of Calderon, I immediately picked up the second book: Academ’s Fury. And, it’s entirely possible that I’ll need to run out and buy the third book before Christmas.