Okay guys, I admit that things got a bit weird last week with my Valentine’s Day post (The Golden Ass: A Valentine’s with Something for Everyone) but to your, very likely, welcoming this week I don’t have anything nearly as topical nor as weird (but if you like weird, trust me there is plenty of weird left in the tank). No this week I have something fairly pedestrian in comparison to last week’s book, something more fantastical but in the traditional way.
This book, Furies of Calderon(1), is another series from the wonderful and imaginative Jim Butcher (best known for The Dresden Files books, I wrote a review of the first book in the series and can be seen here: Storm Front by Jim Butcher and my friend wrote a review on the comic omnibus which covers the events of the first three books here: Spoiler Free Book Review Dresden Files Graphic Novel Omnibus One). I got this book as a xmas present from my best friend Evan and was extremely excited when my other reader friend Marc told me the backstory to the conception of this series:
“How did you come up with the original idea for CODEX ALERA? We’ve heard rumours that it involved a bet on whether you could combine the Roman empire and Pokémon… is that true?
The bet was actually centered around writing craft discussions being held on the then-new Del Rey Online Writers’ Workshop, I believe. The issue at hand was central story concepts. One side of the argument claimed that a good enough central premise would make a great book, even if you were a lousy writer. The other side contended that the central concept was far less important than the execution of the story, and that the most overused central concept in the world could have life breathed into by a skilled writer.
It raged back and forth in an ALL CAPITAL LETTERS FLAMEWAR between a bunch of unpublished writers, and finally some guy dared me to put my money where my mouth was, by letting him give me a cheesy central story concept, which I would then use in an original novel.
Me being an arrogant kid, I wrote him back saying, “Why don’t you give me TWO terrible ideas for a story, and I’ll use them BOTH.”
The core ideas he gave me were Lost Roman Legion and Pokémon… Thus was Alera formed.”
(Source: “Jim Butcher chats about Pokemon, responsibility, and Changes” by Beth Johnson, guest reviewer for fantasyliterature.com)
See this series hit a golden triad of nerd-topia for me: Jim Butcher style fantasy, anime, and action/adventure. Plus after being recommended by two different reader friends who’s tastes I trust to be closely calibrated to mine (but both of their tastes are heavier on the fantasy side, I’m more of a realism/so-fucking-weird-it-leaves-you-wondering-what-you’re-doing-with-your-life kinda freak(2)), I knew I was in for a treat.
Furies of Calderon is an early Jim Butcher work, or at least it feels like it. Being published in 2004 he had a few Dresden Files under his belt and his experience shows in this book however that’s not to say there are no flaws with the inaugural piece in his 6 book series(3). This book has some imperfections which doesn’t hold it back from being an excellent fantasy adventure by it self but does keep me from being driven towards the 2640 page commitment that entails the rest of the series.
So O.K. Corral style here is my thoughts on the book: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly style.
Even this early in Butcher’s career he’s really good at misdirection or leading this reader to think that things are more grim than they are but still leaving clues to the observant to keep it fair. Let’s take an example from the second chapter after Alera and her mentor Fidelius are captured by the enemy and in a compromising position:
Aldrick drew his sword and said, “The old man [Fidelius] isn’t necessary.” He went outside the tent.
A moment later, there was a sound not unlike a knife sinking into a melon.”
(Furies of Calderon, 24)
At this point we as the readers have developed a 1.5 chapter (24 pages) bond with Almara and Fidelius and then we are lead to believe he was executed stage left however we later discover that he was faking his death and there was a literal melon being stabbed to simulate the sound of a man being cut through the gut. It’s small details like this that make me appreciate an author more because they’re thinking about the reader’s experience reading the book a second time.
Butcher also does a good job at inciting curiosity such as only partly explaining how the “Fury magic system” works, who some characters are like (Fade? Aldrick? The fucking entire Marat “species”[are they even human?!]) and locations like most of the map beyond “Vallis Calderon” specifically what lies beyond “The Shield Wall” (okay, I admit to being a “Game of Thrones” fan(4) and I guess I’m conditioned to have curiosities about a mysterious northerly wall).
Okay so Jim is capable of bad writing, as I learned from this 650+ page novel. Thankfully the bad isn’t concentrated in parts like books I could mention(5) however the mercy is spread among hundreds of too many pages in a couple of paragraphs segments:
[Pirellus] was lean with hard, fat muscle, and bore a slender, curved sword of metal blacker than mourning velvet in his hand.”
Goddamn that’s a deadly sexy description of a serious swordsman. This is our introduction to one of the most deadly swordsman in the cannon (as far as we know) and he was challenged by one of our main characters, Almara (as we have met from chapter one) however Butcher kind of ruins the sexy tight writing he showed us with spoon-feeding the reader exactly how deadly this Pirellus is
Pirellus was a master metalcrafter, one of the finest swordsmen alive. If he chose to engage in the duel, he could kill [Almara], and there would be little she could do to stop him. And yet it was necessary. Necessary to convince him of her sincerity, necessary for him to know that she was willing to die to get him to act, that she would sooner die than fail in her duty to Alera, to Gaius. She stared at his eyse and focused on the task before her and refused to give in to her fear or to let it make the sword tremble at all.
Notice this isn’t the beginning of a paragraph nor even close to the last page where we got a very distinct description of the swordsman and his prowess. It’s three pages later of sword-waving (in the metaphorical sense, Amara is a biological woman after all) and a very long paragraph of describing how deadly this Pirellus is, we are FINALLY granted some action (a page later mind) and that’s not even between her and her perceived adversary.
This nicely segues into my final and main complaint about the book which is a general complaint across most of the book but becomes most evident after page 490: the book is too long and accomplishes too little. I’m inclined to believe Butcher was paid by the page/word for this novel because the “climax” of the book was about 150 pages and the falling action was around 20 pages). In almost 700 pages, Butcher accomplished what could have been finished (with some tight editing) in around 400 pages (give or take, I didn’t count strictly but even given space for world building, there’s still a significant amount of purple text even for a fantasy novel(6)).
Thankfully there’s not much of this here. Butcher does make some minor mistakes that did bother me (such as using too many similar names in the same story arc IE Aldrick and Asturak, having some flat characters on both the “good” and “bad” side such as Bernard and Kord respectively, having places mentioned by name in the narrative but not appear on the map, etc) however the worst of the lot was at the end of the 150 page climax Butcher pulls a a GRRM and kills just about every character we’ve been following in this book including my personal favourie, Fade (for the mystery mostly but also he has the best name in this book) which is a pretty bold move. Except that it wasn’t. As the magic system works in this series there are healers who are capable of reviving people from the dead but it’s only available to extremely strong and experienced healers which even then it’s risky to both the healer and the patient. So after this long drawn out battle which has left everyone injured, dead, or otherwise indisposed, somehow there’s a healer available who can revive like 6 people (I don’t have the book in front of me but I can think of at least 3 people who are “killed”) which effectively tells me as a reader: THERE ARE NO CONSEQUENCES! DON’T WORRY NO ONE REALLY DIES!
This is a solid, if long, fantasy book. I have read much worse and I have read much better. The problem I have is that, like a blog post series, the interest nose-dives after the first installment and I won’t say I fully understand the loss of interest in every case but I can say I understand my personal loss of interest in this series beyond the beginning and that’s largely to do with the pacing of the novel and the ability for watercrafters (the healers of this magic system) to be able to reverse the condition of death even with seemingly-dire-canonical-implied-risks which ends up in being a Chekhov’s Gun full of blanks. It’s almost like a GRRM book except remove the lasting implications of tragedy.
I in no way regret reading this novel regardless of my apathy to continue with the series in general. If you like high fantasy and like Jim Butcher’s works you’ll very likely like this book however if you’re like me and kinda borderline on fantasy or generally a slow reader (my main reason for not reading more fantasy novels) you might be best off renting it from the library or generally passing on this novel. It’s an interesting world with some interesting characters but Butcher wasn’t able to cut enough fat for me to remain interested for the remainder of this series.
- I keep mis-reading/mis-typing this title as “Furries of Calderon” which has an entirely different connotation.
- A good example of the realism I like is the “dirty realism” of Bukowski (see my reveiws of Bukowski’s “Post Office” and “Notes of a Dirty Old Man”) and a good example of “o-fucking-weird-it-leaves-you-wondering-what-you’re-doing-with-your-life” is Infinite Jest by the late David Foster Wallace).
- I am sorry to disappoint however I will not be reviewing all 6 books in this series, which is to assume I will finish all six books. I very likely will not for reasons that will be outlined.
- I specify “Game of Thrones”(GoT) versus “A Song of Ice and Fire”(ASoI&F) because as I’ve read and deeply enjoyed the first two ASoI&F books, I was warned of way way too much purple text (filler content) come book 4 and 5 whilst when I just finished ASoI&F book 2 was when GoT season 2 was ending and it seemed like a good point to segue between the book series and the HBO series.
- See The Pesthouse by Jim Crace book review
- I appreciate that due to the nature of the fantasy genre, more time and text needs to be invested in developing the world however that does not give license for the author to be redundant in descriptions nor to drop 200+ word interior monologue thought processes of the characters we are following. Let there be some blanks that my imagination can fill, please.