Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
The arc of Codex Alera is certainly proceeding in the proper direction. I liked Furies of Calderon, but I really liked Academ's Fury. Although the plot itself wasn't as inspired and thoughtful as it could have been, it had hints of originality. Where the second book of the Codex Alera truly shines is in its characterization and the difficult themes therein revealed. This isn't just 400 pages of macho "we've got to save the kingdom" sorcery and swordplay. That's right: there's actually feelings and consequences.
Two years after Furies of Calderon, Tavi is a student at the Academy in Alera's capital . . . Alera. He's also training to become a secret agent and serving as a page to the First Lord Gaius Sextus. However, events from the previous book are coming back to bite him in the ass. It turns out that the creature he awoke in the middle of the Wax Forest was actually the dormant queen of a terrifying species called the vord. They've nearly wiped out the Marat twice and this time are going after Alera—and Tavi. In the ensuing chaos, enemies of Gaius Sextus choose to attack him while his health fails, and other enemies find themselves in the ironic position of having to aid Gaius so Alera doesn't succumb to civil war when it most needs to be strong and unified.
Although Furies of Calderon was also tinged with political intrigue, Academ's Fury blossoms with it, and we finally get a sense of what it's like to see Jim Butcher write on a grander scale. The world of Carna becomes clearer, and we learn of the existence of some other races, such as the canine Canim and the Icemen (who were mentioned in the first book but only in passing). With the exception of one as you know about furycrafting between Tavi and Maximus, Academ's Fury is delightfully light on exposition, preferring to deliver the details of the world around us as the action unfolds. The exposition, when it's present, is disguised by Butcher's careful and lively descriptions of battle sequences.
The battles will be a treat for those who come for the carnage. Me, I'm more interested in the intrigue. Fidelias is back, working even more closely with the Lord and Lady (especially the Lady) Aquitaine. We get more of his well-intentioned extremist speech as he tries to persuade Isana to throw in her support with the Aquitaines—and get to see his surprise, mirroring our own, she agrees. I have to admit that, as I watched Isana consider pledging her public support to the Aquitaines in return for assistance against the vord invading Calderon, I thought, "No way. She's going to stick to her principles, say no, and find another way to do this." But she said yes, and my respect for Jim Butcher went up another notch, because he makes his characters make tough decisions and stick to them.
I wish I could say I was more impressed with Isana as a character than I was in the first book, but that's not the case. Again, Tavi found his way into my heart, as did Kitai. Isana had even less to do in this book than she did in the second, even though she is arguably far more important this time around. Indeed, for someone who's supposed to be so formidable, she spends a good deal of her time captured by someone intent on using her; Lady Aquitaine is just a good deal more polite about it than Kord was. Back in Calderon, Bernard and Amara hunt down a vord nest while making eyes at each other, and I'm forced to agree with Doroga, who gives them the Marat equivalent of "get a room."
My dissatisfaction with the characters themselves didn't stop me from enjoying the dilemmas they face. Like Isana, Amara finds herself torn between loyalty to the First Lord (the office) and loyalty to her heart. I'll let you guess which she chooses; the point is that she and Bernard make a choice and that it will doubtless have consequences in future books. Once again, Butcher weaves life-and-death conflict together with mundane family and romantic matters to create a convincing, three-dimensional story that makes me read fast and furiously onward to the end.
And what an ending. Furious doesn't even begin to describe the pacing around the climax. There's a lot going on—too much, almost, although Butcher manages to pull it off. Once again, Tavi demonstrates that even though he has no furycrafting he's still a formidable foe. Once again, Butcher manoeuvres his characters into certain death and then delivers rescues that would be deus ex machina, were it not for the fact that, going back, the justification for those rescues has been built up since nearly the first chapter. Elements that seem disparate are in fact intimately connected: the elusive thief that Tavi must track down is actually his semi-fiancée, Kitai; Isana goes to Alera's capital looking for help from the First Lord but ends up getting it from an enemy; Fade once again slips reluctantly back into his persona of Araris Valerian. There's a grand structure at work in Academ's Fury, one so carefully crafted that Butcher makes it look easy.
It is easy, too, to see where Tavi and friends will end up. Without reading any spoilers for the next books, I can see where the plot is going and what Tavi's role in the fate of Alera will be. Not that I'm complaining. What Butcher lacks for originality in his plot he makes up for with original worldbuilding and strong writing—his plots deliver, even if they can be predictable. If there is any reason to read Furies of Calderon, or to re-read it if you gave it a try and put it down in a fit of disinterest, here is one: Academ's Fury.