Codex Alera Binds Fate and Duty

Review of Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher, part 1 of the Codex Alera series

Among the ranks of modern high fantasy novels that have broken through the saturated market to the bookstore, there are some ambitious masterpieces that redeem their use of clichéd stereotypes by succeeding at an epic scope, using literary devices that inspire and awe their readers.  Then, there are other fantasies that are less ambitious, attempting to give the reader an enjoyable excursion into a new take on the standard fantasy conventions.  Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher, published by Ace in 2004, first book of the Codex Alera series, is one of these.

The plot of Furies of Calderon follows one of fantasy’s most cherished traditions in the archetype of the reluctant hero.  The protagonist is a fifteen-year-old boy named Tavi, who apparently possesses no special power or skill to set him apart as a savior, nor does he acquire a magical object or mysterious talisman  This is a refreshing break with the cliché of having the commoner hero turn out to be some sword and magic-slinging Hercules.  Even in Tolkien, Frodo does not start out as a completely commonplace hero; by the time he becomes involved on the archetypal epic quest, he already possesses an uncommon burden with the potential to give him uncommon abilities.  Tavi is more like Bilbo, who began his adventure as a complete commoner.  Tavi’s attitude and motives are far different from Bilbo’s, but they neither of them ever outgrows their readers, allowing readers to experience the full impact of the protagonists’ wonder and terror at the awesome forces that take them away from their simple lives.

Classic use of the reluctant commoner protagonist is the most stereotypical element of the entire plot.  Furies of Calderon lives up to the challenge faced by every high fantasy novel to step outside of the genre’s overused conventions.  Calderon cannot be accused of being clichéd, at least not in regard to its story.  For one thing, the main plot arc takes place in a relatively limited geographic region.  There is still a fair amount of travel in the main storyline, but the characters do not undertake a cross-continental journey through multiple lands and kingdoms.  Most of the action occurs within the rural valley that Tavi grew up in, analogous to the Shire in The Lord of the Rings and the Two Rivers in The Wheel of Time.

Here Butcher shatters the stereotype of the peaceful rural village homeland.  The Calderon Valley is not a happy, isolated community, untroubled by war and politics.  Not only does the plot bring massive devastation to the rural communities within the Valley, but the Valley has also been the scene of a war, fought only within twenty years from the time of the story.  Furthermore, the inhabitants of Calderon are not necessarily a basically good and simple folk.  The beginning of Furies of Calderon includes a trial for heinous crime, and there is a sense not only of bad will among neighbors but also of intense malevolence.  This is a far cry from the simple rivalries that take place in the Shire and the Two Rivers, used to relieve tension from the terrifyingly epic scope of the main plotlines of those two fantasies.  Also, the land of the Calderon Valley itself is dangerous and often forbidding, filled with rogue spirits and venomous lizards, as if it were a cross between the Two Rivers and the Aiel Waste of Jordan’s world.

The unique plot of Furies of Calderon is driven by its characters.  The concepts behind the characters are fairly unique.  Some of the basic archetypes are present, and some of them are used in creative ways.  For instance, this book’s grim, honor-bound swordsman is a bad guy.  The most interesting component of the characterization, especially of the numerous villains, is the diversity of motives and moral orientations.  Noticeably absent is anything resembling a Dark Lord figure.  Instead, the very human villains are divided into two categories – truly evil people who love only themselves and hurt others for their own gain, and radicals who justify their atrocities as means to an end that they are willing to die for.  Some of the most evil characters seem to be so wicked as to be beyond pardon or repentance, but even those characters are portrayed with some sympathy.  The story makes the point that all die alike, that the evil oppressor dies at least as pathetically as all the people that he abused.  Butcher manages to stir the reader to a degree of pity even for his most immoral characters by showing them ultimately to be as feeble and human as anyone else, only deprived of the consolation of love.  The villains who are less thoroughly evil, the radicals, are shown to be victims.  They are hurting people who have now been driven to hurt other people.  Although they seem to have no conscience at times and hold unreasonable grudges, they are not too far fallen to see and respond to the good in others.  The two major villains who fall into this category may be the most interesting characters in the novel.  Perhaps the continuing Codex Alera series records them either casting off their sense of right and joining the ranks of self-worshipping demons, or else finding healing from their trauma and restoration with those whom they had wrongly made their enemies.  Another interesting concept develops the character of amentally handicapped man, who is treated by the novel as a person of honor and respect.

The world that these characters inhabit is not of the austere, mystical variety, as Tolkien’s and Jordan’s are.  Not only is magic a common occurrence, but the great majority of humans in Butcher’s world seem to be able to use at least a little of it.  At least two nonhuman races exist in this world, neither of which is directly based on the stereotypical Neo-Tolkien races.  Of those two races, the one encountered in the plot is a barbaric people called the Marat.  The initial portrayal of the Marat depicts them as crude, primitive cannibals.  As the Marat are further developed, they are shown to posses a sort of simple nobility without the original image ever being dispelled or falsified. Though physically different from humans in some small ways and socially different in many ways, the Marat are very human at heart, possessing the ability to do good or to do evil.  Part of their function as a nonhuman race is that they make the disparity in the human heart more vivid.  When they do evil, they are disgustingly savage in a way that is far beneath human sensibility, but they can also exemplify the wonders of the ancient and unspoiled wild.  Thus, the Marat serve as both the Orcs and the Elves of Butcher’s world.

The rival neighbor of the Marat tribes is the human Empire, the concept of which combines all the coolest elements from historical ancient Rome and medieval England.  Most of the human characters have Latin-like names.  The native inhabitants of the Calderon Valley, who seem to have somewhat Germanic or Anglo names, are an exception.  This sets up the loose analogy of the Calderon Valley as Britain during Roman occupation, the dangerous outskirts of the civilized empire.  Under this analogy, the Marat are the Picts, or perhaps all the unconquered Celtic and Germanic peoples in general.

As a side note, I feel the need to complain about the absence of a map of the secondary world, at least in the paperback edition that I read.  The story makes frequent references to geography, and maps add an element of visual interest and curiosity to any high fantasy novel.  I think the decision not to include a map was a serious mistake by the publisher.

Mythology plays a relatively weak role in Furies of Calderon, and only a few vague details of a vague legend describing the humans’ conquest and subsequent founding of their Empire is given.  The result of making magic so common while downplaying the role of myth is to make the secondary world seem less solemn and profound than it could be.  This is not to say that the fantastic elements of the novel are ineffective.  Actually, the beginning of the book does produce a sense of awe by showing the everyday interactions of an imaginary world that is more bizarre than most fantasy worlds tend to be.  Although Furies of Calderon has no sword-slinging hero, it has an element of the sword-and-sorcery subgenre, with its battle scenes laden with action and gore.

Furies of Calderon is not subtle at all.  Not only is the magic blatant and the mythology rough, but the writing holds very little stylistic impact for the reader.  Too often, Butcher resorts to crude sensuality in order to produce emotional appeal.  Furies of Calderon does have some literary value, but the writing has little to do with it. One theme that runs loosely throughout the novel, binding the beginning to the end, is the necessity of having right priorities, of sticking to one’s duty no matter what grander temptations may come.  This theme is not developed carefully enough to seem particularly inspiring, but it is adequate as a pleasant, non-controversial message for the audience.  The only other theme that I picked up on is the already-mentioned distinction between the two types of bad people.  Even though this theme is not as central to the story as the theme of fulfilling one’s duty, it is far more elegantly developed over the course of the novel, using dialog and character examples to support its premise.  The theme of the two types of bad people may be the most significant literary accomplishment of Furies of Calderon.

Among other high fantasy novels, Furies of Calderon is reasonably distinct for its innovations in plot and worldbuilding, but it is not noteworthy for literary excellence or inspirational quality.  Those who enjoy exploring speculative worlds for their own merit will probably find Furies of Calderon to be an interesting read, and those who are fans of mainstream high fantasy in general will probably find it at least tolerable.  It does not offer much to take hold of and digest, but, its theme about the nature of evil and of evil people is worthy.  I think it probably held my interest enough to motivate me to read the rest of Codex Alera eventually.  Until then, my priorities are bound to other duties.

[Note:  This review was originally written in February 2011 and posted on Amazon.  This version of the review has been revised.]


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