Tag Archives: Jim Butcher

Rome, Tolkien Style

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.


I’ve sung the praises of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series numerous times in this blog.  How can you not love a series that stars a private detective who just so happens to be a wizard?  There was an attempt by the Sci-Fi Channel to make a series based on Harry Dresden’s adventures.  It was okay…but it wasn’t really Butcher’s world.  (I will say this: if not for the Sci-Fi Channel, I might never have picked up Storm Front and would currently be living a Dresden-free lifestyle.  Which would be, y’know, just wrong.)  One of the main problems is that the world in Butcher’s novels is a fairly complex one.  There are wizards and vampires and faeries.  White Councils and Wardens and Red Courts.  Another problem is that folks probably have very different ideas of what these characters look like.  But, never one to shy away from hypothetical controversy (actual controversy is a different story…that can stay over there), I’ve decided to cast a Dresden Files movie.

The Plot: Like I said, there’s a whole lot going on in Butcher’s books.  There are more secondary and tertiary characters than in Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter combined.  There’s a history–not just Harry’s personal history, but the history of magic and wizards, in general.  There’s politics and war and diplomatic wrangling.  Plus there’s whatever case that Harry is working on in a given book.  See, a lot.  So, I have no idea what the plot of a Harry Dresden movie would be.  Would it just be the plot of the first book (Storm Front), or something that deals with one of the longer arcs in the series?

The Cast (In addition to the characters who have been there since page one, there are numerous characters who first appeared in later novels, but have since gone on to become more or less permanent fixtures in Harry’s life.  I’ve picked some of the more prominent, while knowingly ignoring others for reasons of time and space.  Also, some of these may be SPOILER-y, so if you haven’t been keeping up with the Dresden books, you may want to turn back.  Thank you, that is all.):

Clive Owen as Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden

It’s not easy finding someone to fill Harry’s leather duster.  He’s an irreverent wise-ass in the best hardboiled tradition.  He also happens to be a little above average height and somewhat lanky.  Now, I would never call Clive Owen “above average height and somewhat lanky”; however, I think he’s proven that he can handle hardboiled wise-assery in both Sin City and Shoot ‘Em Up.

Naomi Watts as Sgt. Karrin Murphy

The “small, but fierce” Sgt. Murphy is not only Dresden’s friend on the Chicago Police Force, but also one of his few friends, period.  Despite being a petite blonde with a cute button nose, Murphy can kick ass with the best of them, including winning numerous martial arts competitions.  If nothing else, Watts is a petite blonde; but, I also think she could probably pull off Murphy’s tough-as-nails exterior.

Michael Bowen as Warden Donald Morgan

As a Warden for the White Council, Morgan acts as both Special Forces and Internal Affairs for the wizard community.  He’s been around since book one, keeping an eye on Dresden because the Council feared that Harry was (or would soon be) dabbling in the dark magics.  I was this close to casting Keith Carradine when I decided to go for a non-Carradine Carradine: Keith’s half-brother Michael Bowen.

Rashida Jones as Susan Rodriguez

Susan was a tabloid reporter for The Midwestern Arcane (think Carl Kolchak, but hotter).  She was also Harry’s girlfriend, at least before she was infected by a vampire of the Red Court.

Cillian Murphy as Thomas Raith

Thomas Raith is a vampire of the White Court.  White Court vampires feed off of emotional energy; in the case of the Raith family, the emotions they prefer are lust, passion and/or desire.  Thomas, like all White vampires, radiates sexual energy, making him pretty damned irresistible even if he’s not trying to be.  As half-brothers, Thomas and Harry share several physical attributes, although Thomas takes it to a more idealized “Greek god” degree.  Cillian Murphy could almost be a prettier version of Clive Owen…if you squint just right and look away from the screen.

Nathan Fillion as Michael Carpenter

Michael Carpenter is a Knight of the Cross.  He is charged with using one of three swords–which happen to have one of the nails from Christ’s Crucifixion forged into the blade–to combat the forces of Hell.  Michael is a devout man, whose faith sometimes confuses (and angers) Harry.  But, Harry never doubts Michael’s friendship, love for his family, or ability to be where he’s needed when he’s needed.  Fillion (in addition to being the obligatory Whedonite on these lists) has that quiet strength that you need for Michael.

Jason Lee as Bob the Skull

Wizard’s don’t do so well around technology invented after 1950, so Bob acts as Harry’s laptop and magical database.  Bob is a spirit of the air who inhabits a human skull in Harry’s basement lab.  Since he takes on the personality traits of his owners, since coming into Harry’s possession, Bob has become a bit of an obstinate smart-ass.  He’s also a bit of a letch, so you need someone who can leer with their voices, and I think Jason Lee has one of the more inherently leer-y and smart-ass-y voices around.

Adrian Pasdar as “Gentleman” Johnnie Marcone

“Gentleman” Johnnie is the top dog in Chicago’s human underworld, although he frequently finds himself embroiled in many of Dresden’s supernatural cases.  Marcone may be a mobster, but he also possesses an almost Old World code of honor, which is probably how he managed to get himself appointed as a freelord under the Unseelie Accords (a set of loose rules that govern the members of the magical world).  Pasdar has made a career playing cold, calculating individuals who aren’t above bending the rules if it serves their personal ends.

Donald Sutherland as Ebenezar McCoy

The cranky and crotchety McCoy (maybe it’s the name?) is a senior member of the White Council, as well as Harry’s old mentor–well, the one that survived.  He’s also the Council’s Blackstaff, a wizard who is allowed to operate outside of the Seven Laws of Magic to do the Council’s “wetwork.”  Honestly, the only reason I picked Sutherland (other than the fact that he’s awesome) is that I think he looks positively deranged when he’s all scruffy and dishevelled–doesn’t he look like a centuries-old wizard from the backwoods of Missouri?

Monica Bellucci as The Leanansidhe (or Lea)

Lea is (quite literally) Harry’s faerie godmother.  She’s a powerful member of the Winter Court of Faerie and, as such, is not to be trusted.  She’s not above deceit or manipulation (or pain, to be honest) to get what she wants.  Bellucci has an almost otherworldly quality about her that would fit Lea perfectly.  Plus, it’ll be fun to see her get to play opposite Clive Owen again.

Writers That Thrill (And, Possibly, Inspire)

You know how it is at the beginning of a relationship, when you’re all goony and moon-eyed, and everything you see, hear, smell, whatever reminds you of that other person? I think the same thing can be said for writers (and most artists, really) at the beginning of the creative process. I’ve been working on something for the last few days and, I’ll be honest, I’m completely smitten. I love the idea. I love the main characters. I can’t wait until I can spare a few hours and get my sorry ass to the library and do some hardcore research (until then, thank you Wikipedia!).

At times like this, I can’t help but think about some of my favorite authors. I have a lot, I’ll be honest. I love Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and Jane Austen. I’ve repeatedly devoured the works of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Harry, Ron, and Hermione coexist quite nicely on my bookshelf next to Frodo, Sam, and Aragorn. And, I don’t think there’s a detective around who can hold a candle to Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, or Philip Marlowe. But you just don’t get the same giddy anticipatory nerd-gasms from these folks that you get when a contemporary author you love comes out with another book.

So, just because I can, I’m going to share some of my favorite contemporary authors with you. Maybe you’ll be inspired to pick one of their books up and enjoy them as much as I do. At the very least, you’ll kill a few minutes of your day reading this post.

1. Jim Butcher

I’ve mentioned Jim Butcher before. Several times. He’s just that good! Remember a while back, when I said there isn’t a detective around who could hold a candle to Holmes, Wolfe, and Marlowe? Well, that’s not entirely true. Butcher’s Harry Dresden can. Actually, forget the candle, Dresden could light them all on fire, if he wanted to. Harry’s a wizard and a private detective working in Chicago. He’s pretty hardboiled (in the “I get the stuffing beat out of me by the bad guys for about 250 pages” kind of way), but he’s also the king of the pop culture reference. I confess that I don’t really get the whole Urban Fantasy thing, but I get Dresden. Plus, I’ve met Jim Butcher and he’s a hell of a guy.

2. Steve Berry

Poor Steve. I think he got overshadowed by the colossus that was The Da Vinci Code. I get why. A lot of his books deal with the Catholic Church (and religion, in general). They usually involve decoding various riddles and puzzles handed down through history. But, Berry is a much better writer than Dan Brown (and I like Dan Brown, so I’m not being a dismissive jerk). Plus, it’s easier for me to believe that Berry’s Cotton Malone can run around and dodge bullets and fight crazed zealots because, unlike Brown’s Robert Langdon, Cotton used to work for the U.S. government. He also owns a used book store in Copenhagen and has a photographic memory. How cool is that?

3. Neil Gaiman

I’m going to take for granted that most, if not all, of you at least know who Neil Gaiman is, even if you’ve never read anything he’s written. For my money, Neverwhere is one of the best books ever written. And, if you ever want to see how to portray pagan deities in a modern setting, read American Gods or Anansi Boys. Then there’s Good Omens (which Gaiman co-wrote with Terry Pratchett)–think the Book of Revelations as written by Monty Python.

4. James Rollins

I’ve only read Rollins’s Sigma Force novels, but they’re pretty awesome.  The basic premise behind them is that there’s a top secret government agency staffed by “soldier scientists”–members of the military who were sent to earn advanced degrees in chemistry, biology, physics, what-have-you.  They mission is to protect America’s technological superiority.  Frequently that involves investigating things like ancient batteries or anti-matter.  Rollins stated that some of his favorite books growing up were Tarzan, Baum’s Oz books, and the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells…and it shows.  His Sigma Force books are the literary equivalent of a big summer blockbuster: pure, unadulterated fun.

5. Michael Crichton

In 1992, during Christmas break, I read a little book called Jurassic Park (maybe you’ve heard of it?  I think there was a movie or something based on it).  That summer, I read pretty much every novel Crichton wrote up until that point–except The Great Train Robbery and Terminal Man, but I’ll get around to them, too.  Lucky for me, the nation was caught up in Crichton Fever–which could almost be a plot from one of his books–so his older novels were everywhere (I got mine at the local Pathmark).  I credit Crichton for introducing me to the “techno-thriller”, a friendship that continues to this day, much like I credit Caleb Carr’s The Alienist for introducing me to the historical novel.  Sure, there have been a few bumps along the way (I’m looking at you, Disclosure), but I’ll still pick up every new novel that has Crichton’s name on it.

6. Stephen King

Thank the gods Uncle Stevie decided to continue publishing books (remember when he said that after he finished up Dark Tower, he’s stop publishing?), otherwise I couldn’t include him on this list.  He’s the Master.  No doubt about it.  He put the “pro” in prolific–I guess he could have put the “fic” in it, too…I’m not sure.  Sure, some of his books end a tad abruptly, but I for one always enjoy the journey.  Here is a man who loves what he does, and I think it shows.  Besides, IT is still the creepiest, most disturbing book I’ve ever read.