It took me several years after discovering Jim Butcher to actually read his epic fantasy series, the Codex Alera. It was worth the wait. Furies of Calderon is everything I like in a fantasy series. I'm going to try to avoid comparing the Codex Alera to Butcher's urban fantasy, the Dresden Files. If you're really interested in how they stack up, skip to to the end.
The story takes place in Alera, ruled by First Lord Gaius Sextus. Gaius has no heirs, so there's a group of other lords who are planning to rebel, first by goading the non-human barbarian Marat into attack Alera through its only pass, the eponymous Calderon Valley. Let's not labour under any misconceptions: this is your typical medieval fantasy setting. No electricity, slavery, feudalism—the whole nine yards and then some. What distinguishes the Codex Alera, as with much fantasy, is its magic. Butcher takes elemental magic and adds his own twist, creating the potential for fascinating characters and conflicts.
Alerans develop, around puberty, the ability to call on various elemental "furies." Most only have one fury; more powerful "crafters" can call on more powerful or multiple furies. This makes the elemental magic all the more personal: each crafter has a relationship with his or her fury, who is portrayed as a semi-sentient elemental spirit. I'm interested in seeing the extent to which the furies have self-awareness or free will. Of course, all this talk of furies raises the question that becomes central to this series: in such a society, what happens to people who don't have any furies?
Enter Tavi. He's fifteen, furyless, but with enough intelligence to make up for it—and to get him into plenty of trouble. That's what I like about Tavi: he lacks magic and he's not the Chosen One. He just happens to be in the wrong place and the right time and sucks at herding sheep. Tavi doesn't set out to play hero. Captured by the Marat, he must undergo a trial to avoid being eaten—and, if he does succeed, the Marat who endorse this trial will also pull out of the invasion of the Calderon Valley. As a result, he averts invasion, saves Alera, makes friends with barbarians, and possibly gets betrothed. All because he didn't want to be eaten. Still, as much as I like Tavi, I can't say I'm entirely satisfied with him. He's thrust into circumstances beyond his control and forced to face several challenges, sure, but he has a serious moral dilemma. About the closest he comes is during his trial, where he can choose to leave his opponent to die a horrible death or save her at great risk to himself. I'd argue that doesn't count, however, because as the hero, by definition he's got to save his opponent. No, Tavi's a fun character, but he emerges from the events of this story with no emotional scarring (unless you count the possible betrothal), no regrets.
Tavi's joined by Amara, a newly-minted Cursor (think special agent) out to stop the plot to take Sextus' throne. She too helps avert the invasion, with the aid of Tavi's aunt and uncle, Isana and Bernard. (Country-saving, it turns out, is a family affair.) If I liked Tavi but rued his development, then I rued Amara but liked her development. She comes off as smug, or at least unsuccessfully insouciant, in her manner. Yet she changes quite a bit. After losing her confidence during her ill-fated graduation exercise, she raises the warning of impending invasion and, when the Marat strike, is right there fighting on the wall next to the soldiers.
Alas, not all the characters are as well-written as Tavi or Amara. The supporting good guys can be somewhat cardboard—take Isana and Bernard, for instance. They're somewhat single-minded in their familial devotion to Tavi, right down to the good-natured, caring sense of disapproval when he does something wrong. Bernard is near-fatally wounded at least three times in this book, yet he stubbornly refuses to die, because that would be a damn tragedy to Tavi, wouldn't it? Likewise, Isana goes through a traumatic experience, thanks to the villainous Kord, but seems rather unaffected by the end of the book.
The bad guys fare somewhat better. Fidelias, Amara's former teacher, attempts to recruit his student during her graduation and then reluctantly spends the rest of the book trying to kill her (among other things). I loved this rocky relationship, and Fidelias is the sort of well-intentioned extremist with whom a reader can sympathize. Similarly, the Isana-counterpart Odiana begins as a somewhat airheaded villain who quickly becomes much more.
Probably the most transparent villain was Kord. He captures Isana (and, as a bonus, Odiana) for the express purpose of breaking her to his will and then killing her once he's used her. Not only does he sneer and whine as much as villainly possible, but he single-mindedly pursues his obsession even while the castle around them is being invaded by barbarians. I found that a little hard to believe. Still, this subplot was redeemed by what it did for Isana and Odiana. Both watercrafters, they both have a different outlook on life. Isana is thankful for what she has but regrets not having more; Odiana has already spent time as a slave, an experience which ultimately drove her near-mad (if not mad) and into her current position as amoral villain. Despite the fact that Odiana tries to kill Tavi, Isana helps Odiana fight back against Kord, then the two escape together. Isana's small kindness doesn't magically turn Odiana good but seems to rekindle a bit of the humanity that was driven out of Odiana during her first tenure as a slave.
This mix of personal and national priorities is at the heart of Furies of Calderon. Tavi isn't trying to save Alera; he's just trying to save himself. Isana isn't trying to reform Odiana or remove a powerful enemy crafter from the field of battle; she's just trying to help them escape. Amara is trying to save Alera, sure, but she's also fighting her former teacher whose betrayal has cut her deeply. It's not that these characters are selfish and only inadvertently heroic; rather, they're actually people instead of stock heroes, people with ordinary emotions and ambitions that get projected onto and expressed through the conflict in which they become involved.
In addition to the magic, Butcher's medieval fantasy world has its own animals! I don't mean established mythological animals, like dragons or unicorns. These are animals unique to the world of Alera, like gargants, pack animals whose name implies a huge size. I appreciated this small touch of creativity, for it helped me imagine Alera not as a recreated medieval Europe but something instead fantastic. Butcher adds similar small touches to dialogue and description to further this feeling, enough to make the world feel plausible without burdening us with needless exposition or trite colloquialisms.
I'm not going to say that you'll love the Codex Alera if you love the Dresden Files. They're very different beasts, which is good in a way, for it shows that Butcher can work with a variety of forms. Codex Alera still carries Butcher's wit, but because it's narrated in the third person, this wit permeates the book in a different, less personal way. It will be interesting to see how that develops as the series continues. For now, I certainly do recommend Furies of Calderon to fans of Butcher or fantasy fans in general. This is the made-while-you-watch, healthy-yet-delicious burger of the fast-food fantasy market: not entirely original, but certainly a good deal better than most of what's on offer.