BOOK REVIEW - Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher
Posted by Nathan Major on Thursday, December 9, 2010 at 1:31 PM
A unique mix of Roman and fantasy, paced like a mystery thriller, Furies of Calderon starts slow but quickly evolves into an addicting adventure that is both unique and familiar. It is a solid start to what could be a great fantasy series.
The story of where the Codex Alera series came from is an entertaining one. Rumor has it that Jim Butcher was on a panel where they were arguing how important ideas were for a story. Jim argued that the ideas weren't as important as what you did with them, with regard to character development, etc. An audience member was rather violently opposing this, so Jim said, "Give me two ideas that don't work together at all, and I'll write a New York Times Bestselling series about it." The ideas? A lost Roman legion...and Pokemon.
Flash forward to now, where Codex Alera is a bestselling six-book series, starting with Furies of Calderon. Amazingly enough, Jim kept his word: the books are indeed a strong mix of Romans and Pokemon, and it works out quite well.
Except they aren't called Pokemon, they are Furies, sentient magic spirits that tie themselves to individuals during adolescence. They each are tied to different elements, such as earth, air, fire, water, as well as steel and wood. Hilariously, for people who know pokemon, each fury has a weakness to another type, almost exactly the same as the Pokemon games. However, the way Jim uses the furies makes the ideas unique.
Rather than summon them to fight, furies are fully integrated into a person's way of life. Upper class citizens usually don't name their furies, while commoners tend to have a more personal bond. They allow special abilities; for example, watercrafters are healers, and earthcrafters can change their appearance or push on the emotions of others.
All this is set up on a world similar to the Roman empire, complete with legionaries, authentic weapons, and more. At first I thought this would be stupid and wouldn't work, but the more I read the more I realize it is a totally awesome idea. So often fantasy firmly places itself in the middle ages; why have we avoided the Roman Empire? Combining it with pokemon makes the idea completely fresh and unique, and causes the world to be almost as enticing as the story at hand.
The plot of Furies of Calderon follows several members caught up in a growing political war between a rebellious member of the senate and the Great Fury (or Caesar, essentially). This book is essentially the start of the war (though it is by no means boring), and ends in a rather dramatic battle that is both exciting and excellent. Unlike The Dresden Files, it is told in third person, the prose is much richer (rather than Dresden's distinctly modern voice), and it jumps around between multiple characters.
The focus is on Tavi, the only boy without a Fury, Amara, a Cursor who is abruptly betrayed and the only hope for the empire, Bernard, Tavi's uncle and the ruler of a small village in Calderon that is about to be in the center of a huge conflict, and Isana, Bernard's sister and a powerful watercrafter. The story jumps around a lot, but never loses you. Butcher also rarely does that "oh my gosh what is going to happen!? viewpoint switch, sucker!" thing that I completely hate because it is so overused. It does happen, sure, but hardly as much as you'd think from a thriller writer.
The story, as mentioned above, involves a brewing war that centers on Calderon valley, where Tavi and Bernard live. It eventually culminates into a war between the "Romans" and savage men controlled by the intended usurper, but Butcher takes care to make you realize that not everybody good is good, and not everybody bad is bad. Similar to Dresden where there is a whole lot of gray, most of the characters and their motivations (on both the good or bad side, as we have a viewpoint character who is technically a "bad guy") seem completely justifiable. Fantasy often is the "good vs evil" battle, but Calderon isn't necessarily either way (a theme that continues throughout the series). It's more about personal struggles and the good of the empire, which can be hard for a reader to determine seeing every side of the equation (which is why the book is so good; real life isn't black and white either).
My only issue with the book is the fact that, having read 12 Jim Butcher books already, some of the character archetypes are... repetitive. All the girls are long-legged and busty except the one, strong woman who is more masculine than feminine (and looks as much and is unmarried). Males tend to fixate on exposed bosoms, and there is the traditional Butcher women: busty, beautiful, and evil, or busty, beautiful, and insane. And in the one instance where there is a character who is truly evil, he's so bad it's almost a joke. I knew exactly all the awful things he was going to do before they happened, just because I've read so many Butcher books I know what he finds "appalling."
Also, the other thing that Butcher loves: putting tons of sex off screen, and almost putting in on screen, but then having the characters be interrupted. Seriously, I don't even worry I'm going to read something raunchy when the main lovers are ripping each others' clothes off, because I know some soldier is going to announce an impending attack and break it up before I see anything. I KNOW HOW YOU WORK, BUTCHER!
There also a few points where I felt the characters were inconsistent (including an incident that caused Chuck to quit the book completely), but reading the second book this seems to be smoothed over.
Overall, one must remember that Butcher doesn't exactly have a great track record for staring series out strong. However, its the slow burn that he is good at, and once it gets started you can't quit. Already in the second book I'm knowing I'm going to enjoy this series, and even by about half-way through the first book I was sold on the series. If you think Romans + Pokemon at least sounds interesting, you should check this book out.
Though I still think you should read Dresden first.