On My Shelves: Furies of Calderon

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The story goes that Jim Butcher – author of the Dresden Files series – was told that one couldn't write a good story based on "lame" ideas. Butcher responded that he could do so with any two lame ideas of the challenger's choosing. The challenger responded with "Lost Roman Legion", and "Pokemon".

The result was the Codex Alera series, with the first volume being Furies of Calderon.

Speaking purely from the geeky point of view of "how well did he do with those two lame ideas", I have to say… middling. As a combination of "Lost Roman Legion" and "Pokemon" it's not really recognizable. While Butcher keeps a few references to the latter, he's generally filed off the serial numbers so much that there's very little similarity between the Pokemon and the Furies of the title. The Lost Roman Legion itself lies so far back in the past of Alera that the Alerans really have no idea of what happened (in fact, in later books of the series it's shown that they've actually gotten to the point that they literally don't believe their ancestors DIDN'T have Furies to work with). So if I was going into this book to see what happens when Lost Roman Legions meet Pokemon, I'd probably be disappointed.

On the other hand, he did succeed in making some damn fine stories, so in that sense, this experiment was a shining success, creating a world with heavy pseudo-Roman influence and tones shaped by the presence of the living elemental spirits (of air, fire, earth, storm, etc.) called furies. One of the key elements of Aleran society is the ubiquity of furies – that they are used for everything from mundane heating and cooling to providing soldiers greater strength and endurance, aiding in the healing of terrible wounds, and even reshaping the landscape itself.

Furies of Calderon takes place in the Calderon region of Alera, the country which is the focus of most of the action of the series. Calderon is something of an outer province, more rustic than urban, a place whose main notability is that it was there that an invasion by the humanoid-but-not-human Marat was eventually turned back after heavy losses – including the son of the current First Lord.

There are several significant characters in the series, and even in this first book, but the two most significant are Amara and Tavi.

Amara is a Cursor in training for the First Lord himself. "Cursors" are popularly believed to be messengers, basically glorified mail delivery people. In fact, Cursors are spies and agents of the First Lord (the ruler of all Alera) whose job is to be troubleshooters of any unrest and those who unravel mysteries, especially those that have political implications. As the book opens, Amara is on a mission with her mentor and teacher Fidelias, investigating reports of a renegade Legion in a location that there should be no Legions at all.

But when the two find that the phantom Legion does indeed exist, things take a horrible turn for the worse. Amara discovers that Fidelias, contrary to his name, has turncoated on the First Lord and is working with another of the High Lords to bring down the First Lord.

Politically, this maneuver may make sense – the First Lord is nearing a century of age and has no heirs of his blood, nor has he declared a successor. Thus, if the First Lord dies or his powers fail, a succession war will almost certainly result that will tear Alera apart (and expose them to attack by their external enemies, including the Sasquatch-like Icemen and the giant lupine Canim). Fidelias and his allies, led by the giant swordsman Aldric Ex Gladius and more than slightly mad watercrafter witch Odiana, intend to instigate a more controlled and hopefully less disastrous transfer of power.

However, Amara is loyal to the First Lord and believes their plan is not only treacherous but potentially worse than the situation it's meant to address. Through clever initiative, no little luck, tremendous skill with her air-fury Cirrus, and a desperate tenacity Amara manages to escape, notify the First Lord of the situation, and then on his orders continues to Garrison, the fortified city of the Calderon region, to prepare them for the actions of this renegade Legion.

Tavi is a young orphaned boy who lives with Steadholder Bernard of Bernardholt and his sister Isana. Not only is Tavi exceptionally small for his age (he is fifteen and appears closer to twelve), but also Tavi, alone of all his peers, has gained no furies of his own. Everyone else has at least one fury, but Tavi has none and, thus far, no indication that he ever will. He seems doomed to be nothing but a shepherd and assistant to others, in a world where even other sheepherders have enough furycraft to give them the strength to lift a full-grown ram over a wall or the speed to evade the charge of local predators. The only people who might even be lower in the pecking order than Tavi are slaves, particularly the apparent village idiot named "Fade", who seems to have a hard time even stringing four words together and is branded with the mark of a coward, a deserter from the army.

Tavi and his uncle try to retrieve a herd of sheep (that Tavi had let wander), and instead find themselves assailed by giant flightless birds named herdbane – who are companions of the Marat. Bernard is wounded and sets his earth fury to bring them home, but the Marat are close behind; to save his uncle, Tavi leaves him and the fury and distracts the Marat, drawing them into pursuit even as a terrible furystorm (a storm which is accompanied by hostile furies that embody the storm's elements) descends upon Calderon.

It is during this storm that Tavi and Amara meet, both of them weary, frightened, and exhausted… but just barely able to help each other find safety at a memorial the First Lord constructed to the Battle of Calderon.

The two threads are connected, for Fidelias' patron intends to manipulate the Marat into an all-out assault on Calderon, overrunning the land they failed to take and keep fifteen years ago, showing that the First Lord is weak, and giving that patron a chance to move against the First Lord.

But other forces are also on the move, and neither of the sides in this conflict can imagine the effect on their plans of one newly-minted Cursor and one furyless boy.

Furies of Calderon is a smoother, better constructed novel than Storm Front, Jim's first book in his better-known Dresden Files series. This isn't a surprise; Storm Front was Jim Butcher's first published work, and he has spent the years since refining his craft. The Codex Alera books are also more ambitious in their presentation than the Dresden novels, as they include multiple points of view and many subtle manipulators trying to influence events throughout the story.

Like most novels, the strength of Furies of Calderon lies in making us like and believe in the main characters, and it succeeds. Tavi is far from perfect, either in his own estimation or that of others, but he does possess an iron will, a strong and unrelenting sense of justice and duty, and a great deal of cleverness born of the need to survive in a world where most people can rely on magical furies to solve their problems. Amara is similarly an idealist in a profession that creates cynics, a young woman to whom the idea of treachery is incomprehensible and who is thus roused to efforts of greatness when confronted by betrayal in one she had trusted beyond all others.

The world of Alera is also interesting and beautiful. As I mentioned, there are a few clear references to the inspirations of the work, not the least being the brooding, dangerous mountain housing a Great Fury near Calderon, a mountain and Fury named Garados (a name familiar, with slightly different spelling, to any veteran Pokemon trainer), but all these do is give a quick wink to a concept that Butcher made his own.

Each type of fury provides its owner/user with different powers according to its element – sheer strength from earth, speed from air, resistance to injury and pain from metal, ability to heal and send forth feelings and thoughts from water, and so on. The uses and manifestations of the furies range from obvious to subtle and startlingly clever; one of my favorites, used multiple times in the series to different effects, is the ability of an air fury to vary its own density and thus refractive index so as to serve as, for example, a telescope of considerable power for the furycrafter.

In general it appears that furycraft is strengthened both by practice and by having the right bloodline; the High Lords of Alera have terrifying control over furycraft, and the First Lord outstrips them all (in later books he demonstrates this). This is one of the main political drivers of the setting; not merely having furies, but how many you have and how well you control them, will determine to a great extent how respected and powerful you ever can become.

Which makes Tavi's ascension all the more extraordinary when it begins.

I really enjoyed Furies of Calderon, and in fact I've now read all of the Codex Alera. I will likely review more in the series, so stay tuned!

 

Comments

  1. saintonge235 says:

    Never having paid attention to Pokémon, I had no idea how the furies might be related to them. But the Legion stuff I picked up on immediately. I’m hoping that he eventually tells us how a Roman Legion ended up on this other world.

    As you say, good stories. I really like the series.

Your comments or questions welcomed!