Furies of Calderon (Codex Alera, #1)
According to the author, the Codex Alera series owes its birth to a forum flamewar. Several (unpublished) authors argued that a brilliant initial concept/central idea was required for a good fantasy novel. Butcher argued that characters, story complexity, and execution were what mattered. When dared to make good on his claim, he bet that he could write a successful story based on whatever two concepts his opponents gave him. They gave him Roman legions and Pokemon. Thus Alera was born.
Butcher made good on his bet. The characters in Codex Alera are surprisingly likeable, and it is their interactions and problems that drive the story. He creates a world with ambiguous morals, alien viewpoints, and a willingness to challenge the reader's perceptions and beliefs. The book's mood is a roller-coaster from laugh-out-loud humour (and some amazing one-liners) to points where the action is so graphic and painful that I was tempted to skim. Heroes and villains all remain complex, but in a way that's hard to describe: in terms of actions or fast descriptions, they are pretty stereotypical. Yet even the heroic, unselfish ones are oddly likeable rather than irritating. Butcher's prose is workmanlike. His dialogue is especially good at giving the world and characters shape and depth. (At the same time, I'd love to know how many times the tired phrase, "arched an eyebrow", occurs in the series. I'd bet it would be in the hundreds.)
One thing to note: I read the books out of order, starting with the second, third, and sixth before hitting this one (curse library availability!) so this is more a review of the series rather than this book; fair warning that I may impute more depth to the characters than they actually show here. One of the most impressive aspects of the series is the intricate plotting: plot points are set up in this book that become crucial in the last, and some of the characters' "out of character" responses or activities are due to a much more complex backstory. Also on a sidenote, other than Max, who first appears in the next book, I mainly find the characters here to be less likeable than those in the Dresden Files, Butcher's other series. I think this is due in large measure to the structure of the epic fantasy/quest story, where all the characters' skills and abilities are typically larger than life, often to the detriment of their personalities. In a full worldbuilding setting, it is harder to capture the eccentricities that give dimensionality to the DF characters (e.g. Waldo Butters' one-man polka band.) However, if you find the Codex Alera characters rather flat here, note that they become significantly fuller and more complex in the second book in the series, and a large number of fun new personalities are added to the gang.
One might, however, consider that Butcher lost his bet. Perhaps the world is loosely based on Pokemon and the Roman legion, but he has brought so much additional complexity and creativity that one might argue his central concept contains deeper themes--loyalty versus obedience, love versus dependence, humanity versus duty--as well as an amazingly complex and intricate world. The plot is intricate--basically, if you think of something awesome you wish might happen, it probably will. It is unusual for an author to create such a real magical world, with intricate rules and a complex society. He never breaks these rules, yet manages to to incredible, surprising, and creative things with it. I am not one for battle scenes--I tended to skim those bloodthirsty, brutal, and above all boring scenes in Tolkein or Sanderson--but the creativity Butcher brings leaves one with only one good description: purely awesome.
The story takes place in the Calderon Valley of the Kingdom of Alera, where the descendents of the lost Roman legions apparently settled thousands of years ago. Alera is a savage, hierarchical land, with a failing high king who is the last of his line, a set of scheming lords anxious to relieve him of the burden of office, an economy built upon slavery, and a tendency try to massacre the members of the neighboring lands. Not that its neighbors aren't doing their fair share. Alera, the only human civilization, is surrounded by the savage icemen, the barbaric Marat, and the warg-like Canim. Alerans themselves are superhuman: they are all gifted with and dependent on their Furies: elemental magic that can be embodied in beings of wind, fire, and stone (this is where the Pokemon come in, although it's actually a little hard to connect them the much more original and well-thought-out furies.) All Alerans have furycrafting skills and use them for everything from mundane household tasks to healing, flying, and superhuman epic battlemagic.
Only Tavi, a shepherd boy in the Calderon Valley, is furyless. Lucky Tavi is treated like a retarded child: he not only looks like a young 12-year-old, but at fifteen years, his lack of furies appears permanent and means he is essentially useless and helpless. In a world dependent on the furies, he cannot turn on or off lights, help with the farming, or even travel fast on the roads (which are specially designed for fast travel via earthcrafting).
The story--and the series--starts with a seemingly mundane incident. Tavi wants to bring flowers to the girl he is sweet on, and is therefore so late bringing in the sheep that they wander away and are lost. In retrieving them, he stumbles upon proof of a traitorous scheme that will endanger the entire Calderon Valley. Aided by his watercrafting aunt Isana, his stolid stonecrafting uncle Bernard, and the mysterious windcrafting servant of the high lord, Amara, Tavi must bring news--and preferably proof--to the garrison to alert the legions (yes, Roman legions) to the danger. Along the way, he and his allies must evade and outwit scheming mercenaries, vicious slavers, and bloodthirsty barbarians.
The most impressive part about the book, for me, was the way Butcher created a world with perspectives so alien to our own, and yet managed to make it immersive. I also thought he deftly separated culture from personalities: Marat happily practice cannibalism and don't have a word for lying, yet each individual somehow manages to escape simple characterizations such as "noble savage" or "vicious barbarian." Alerans live in a world where women are subordinate to their men, only Citizens of the realm have the protection of law, and slavery is the norm. They even utilize "discipline collars", which use incredible amounts of pain and pleasure to bend slaves to the slavers' wills. I found this concept the most horrible and long-lasting one of the book. Butcher graphically explores the loss of self-will , although he does it in such a way that the main, "pure" character remains "pure", and instead the torture is performed to a "fallen" woman. The most unsettling thing for me was the sense that this somehow made this, if not ok, somehow more palatable--as though the torture and rape of an already "fallen" woman was somehow less despicable, or at least more forgettable. The explicit, sexualized description of the rape (even though supposedly told from a female POV) also gives me the uneasy sense that the scene was intended to be titillating while still allowing the reader to feel virtuous disapproval]. The series is light and fun, yet perhaps inadvertently, it opens some troubling questions: from the definitions of slavery and self-will to the limits of loyalty and duty, and what happens when the duty to the community conflicts with the path of truth, justice, and humanity.
But the biggest lesson I learned is that when you combine Pokemon, Roman legions, creepy killer bugs, and werewolves with attitude problems, the result is basically pure awesome.
P.S.: Here's a link to the video in which Mr. Butcher describes Alera's origin story: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ylKRYe0ZWHo