Review of Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher

April 20, 2009
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

Furies of Calderon by Jim ButcherFuries of Calderon
By Jim Butcher; Read by Kate Reading
Audible Download – 20 hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher:  Penguin Audiobooks
Published:  2008
Themes: / high fantasy / Roman / elementals / barbarians / farm boy

Best-known for his urban fantasy Dresden Files series, Jim Butcher has also penned a relatively unsung series of high fantasy novels called the Codex Alera, of which Furies of Calderon is the first. In several interviews, Jim Butcher has stated that his Codex Alera series grew out of a writing challenge–to take bad or cringeworthy themes and transform them into a good story. Brave soul that he is, Butcher chose to tackle the banal trope of the Lost Roman Legion and, of all things, Pokémon. Before you run for the hills screaming, let me assure you that he has succeeded in his task, crafting a rousing adventure that sets the tone for what promises to be an exciting series.

First, let’s deal with the elephant, er, Pokémon, in the room. Rather than the cute furry monsters that emerge from pocket-sized balls tossed into the air, as in the Japanese juggernaut, Butcher’s interpretation of Pokémon takes the form of elemental beings called furies, which humans can summon at need to perform various magical tasks, including combat, flight, scrying, and healing. Furies feel so natural to the world of the Codex Alera that if I hadn’t mentioned the Pokémon allusion you probably wouldn’t have noticed it.

The other defining feature of the Codex Alera is its Romanesque setting. The land of Alera, a rough equivalent to the Roman Empire, is populated by folks with Latinate names like Gaius, Fidelius, and Amara, and terms like princeps and cursor will be familiar to even a casual student of Classical history.

Despite these two gimmicks, however, Furies of Calderon is fairly standard high fantasy fare. Several characters and storylines play out, but the book’s real protagonist and character of interest is Tavi, a fifteen-year-old farm boy in the valley of Calderon which, because of its strategic geographical location, becomes the site for an impending battle between the lords of Alera and the neighboring barbarian Marat tribes. Tavi lives with his aunt and uncle on their steadholt, the basic administrative unit in the fertile valley, but dreams of joining the Academy in the empire’s capitol city. Say it with me, people, Star Wars. The fascinating thing about Tavi, though, is that, unlike all other Alerans we meet, he lacks even the slightest furycrafting abilities. His uncle Bernard and aunt Isana are no Owen and Beru, and when the threat of invasion looms they both take decisive action to defend their beloved valley of Calderon. Meanwhile the cursor Amara speeds to the valley to try to warn its citizens of their impending fate, pursued by her traitorous ex-tutor Fidelias, whose name ironically stems from the Latin root fides, meaning “faith”.

These adventures are fun and engaging, to be sure, but the real strength of Furies of Calderon rests with its character interaction and development. Tavi is an archetypical hero in the sense described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, but he’s also a fifteen-year-old boy with raging hormones and conflicting loyalties. Tavi’s lack of furycrafting remains a mystery throughout the novel, as does the question of his parentage, leaving plenty of room for further development in future novels. Bernard and Isana both possess a fierce integrity and loyalty to land and family. In some ways, the stand-out characters are the villains. Fidelius is crafty and treacherous, true, but like any good fictional villain he believes he’s fighting for the good of the land of Alera. The motives of the enigmatic Odiana, a water-crafter in the service of Fidelius, defy easy articulation. Al the characters in Furies of Calderon whether “good” or “bad”, act according to their own personal compass of principles. The one exception is the bloodthirsty and barbarous Kord, a farmer in the valley who dabbles in the slave trade. He alone seems to be one of those cardboard villains whose sole purpose is to be knocked down.

Because its events are mostly centered around the valley of Calderon, which feels more like an early medieval territory than a Roman province, Furies of Calderon will largely disappoint readers expecting the political intrigues and machinations of TV dramas about the Classical world like Robert Graves’s I, Claudius or HBO’s Rome. If anything, the setting most closely resembles the late Roman Empire, when Europe was in transition from Roman rule into the tumultuous Medieval period. Calderon is ruled by a count, and there’s even a province called Aquitaine, which is a clear allusion to Roman Gaul. Some pivotal scenes in the book’s opening and closing pages hint that the series will move in this direction, though, so Classicists should not lose heart.

Given that my only exposure to Butcher’s writing thus far had been his gritty, cynical depiction of modern-day Chicago through the eyes of wizard Harry Dresden, I harbored fears that he wouldn’t be able to write in the more elevated style required by High Fantasy. My fears were unfounded. Butcher’s writing is competent throughout, and easily matches the style of other authors in the genre, although it lacks the lyricism and resonance of the genre’s best.

For some reason, dramatic portrayals of the Roman world in English always employ British actors, with Emperors and Senators speaking the Queen’s English and slaves speaking a Cockney dialect. Because of this trend, the British accent Kate Reading adopts for her reading of Furies of Calderon feels right and natural. She conveys particularly well the emotional depth of the teenage Tavi as he battles with internal and external forces throughout the novel, and she also brings the complex Odiana to vivid life.

Furies of Calderon is an imperfect novel laden with fantasy clichés, but it holds enough originality and depth to warrant a thorough listen. Those who happen to enjoy those fantasy clichés, as I do, will find it a rewarding experience. Furthermore, the novel holds promise that the rest of the Codex Alera series will capitolize on the underplayed features that make Furies of Calderon so noteworthy.

Posted by Seth Wilson


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