Review: Codex Alera by Jim Butcher

Having just finished the Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher I feel compelled to write a review, with spoilers, of this epic fantasy series as it has occupied so much of my time over the last few months.  I will go book by book even though the last four books are fairly contiguous.

 

Furies of Calderon:   Is there some rule that epic fantasy must always suck at the beginning?  Or maybe Butcher just furthered the pastiche quality of this book (and series) by conforming to the norm.  Like so many fantasy series this book starts with an unassuming boy from a rural area thrust into events far beyond his ken.  Tavi is your standard fantasy hero, loyal and generous to a fault and ostensibly an orphan to boot.  It also means he is frankly a bore.  The plot of the entire series revolves around him, but I can guarantee that when you recall this series Tavi will not be the character you remember most vividly or fondly.

None of the other characters rises above mediocrity here except Fidelias an ex-Cursor (essentially a spy for the Crown) that has thrown his lot in with those that would usurp the mantle of First Lord.  Unfortunately, his reasons for defection seem a little flimsy and the character himself seems to know it.  The other main character is Amara the protégé of Fidelias who is yet another selfless paladin type and appears far too naïve for the world of spycraft.  Finally the cast is round out with Tavi’s Uncle and Aunt, the former is the big silent but lovable type and the latter is the typical doting matron.  They could have been ripped from any of a dozen other novels.

As for the plot, it is mostly a barbarian attacks peaceful vale style set up, but of course the barbarians are actually noble savages and the main character has to befriend them and forge a peace before the barbarians overrun his home.  In the background is some political intrigue, but it feels quite divorced from the realities of a barbarian attack on a far flung outpost at the edge of civilization.  At this point we couldn’t care less since we haven’t even been introduced to the First Lord.  And it seems that Jim Butcher loses interest in this plotline as well because it dies of malnourishment by its author before the series is finished.

In sum an inauspicious start, but thankfully better is to come.

 

Academ’s Fury:  This was my favorite book in the series.  Coincidentally, this is probably the only time where Tavi is interesting.  The book chronicles Tavi’s time at the Academy and his secret training as a Cursor.  I can firmly state that everyone likes a well told boarding school story and this one has it all with belligerent bullies, pompous professors and courageous companions.  You are really rooting for Tavi here because he is always trumped in magical ability (by virtue of not having any) but always manages to take the trick anyway.   Well almost always, here Tavi is not invincible and must actually rely on his friends to pull his ass out of the fire on occasion.

Political intrigue is thick in this novel as befits a book set in the heart of the empire.  In this case Kalarus is setting himself up for a military coup and everyone seems to know it, but the law doesn’t allow them to do anything about it.  Isana (Tavi’s Aunt) throws her support behind Lady Aquitane (the traitor from the first book) to save her family despite knowing the Lady’s role in the events of the first book.  Meanwhile the Canim, a species of giant wolf-men, are plotting to assassinate the First Lord with the help of the Vord a species very much like the Zerg from Starcraft that Tavi awoke inadvertently in the first book.

The Vord will become the main enemy of the series after the Canim strike-out, but they will never be as fearsome or as interesting as in this book.  Here they take extensive advantage of a body snatching ability to turn people into Taken, ultra-fast, ultra-strong zombie-types under the control of the Vord Queen.  Amara and Bernard (Tavi’s Uncle) try to hunt one of the three Vord queens that are birthed and enter a town eerily empty after a Vord attack before learning firsthand the power of the Vord’s Taken as even little girl’s strike down veteran legionnaires.  A thrilling battle for their lives erupts in a cave as they try to hold on against the implacable Vord Queen.  There are a lot of battle scenes in this series, all of which are on a much larger scale than this one, but I found this the most tense and exciting.  The depiction of the desperation of this small cohort of soldiers against the alien Vord forces is unmatched.  It also helps that these aren’t the almighty superheroes that come into play in later books, but simple soldiers with a little bit of magic.  I love magic, but it can often diminish the toil and sacrifice of characters and belittle the enemies.  Later the Vord become a homogeneous blight, but here they are downright scary and it suits them better.

Tavi runs into the Taken as well, but in the form of Canim warriors impervious to pain and an enhancement of their already prodigious strength.  This running battle has a lot of interesting bits.  Lady Aquitane  must save the First Lord so she and not Kalarus can take the throne and she does it while kicking ass with an impressive show of furycrafting.   Such things will become depressingly trite in later books, but here her show of strength was exceedingly cool.  Meanwhile Tavi and friends fight a desperate rearguard action that has two of the great swordsmen and brothers fighting together again after an emotional plea from Tavi for one to forget his misgivings about the past.  This sequence has a number of heart wrenching moments and is a great climax to a great book.

If I had one complaint it is the part where Max, Tavi’s friend, impersonates the First Lord.  This was played for a good laugh, but could have been milked so much more and proceeded far too smoothly.

 

Cursor’s Fury:  If you like military fantasy this is your book.  The vast majority is taken up by one long battle with Tavi’s forces against an expedition force of Canim.  It’s relatively well done and novel at this point, the constant warfare will get a little tiresome by the end of the series.  It’s too bad because the book starts with much promise since Tavi and friends are on their first assignment as Cursors.  But despite the name of the book, Tavi spends very little time engaging in spycraft instead implausibly being thrust into the role of Captain of a Legion quite suddenly.

The other plotline involves Bernard and Amara, along with Lady Aquitane who is again aiding the First Lord so she may eventually displace the First Lord and not Kalarus, mounting a rescue option into Kalarus’ palace to free important political hostages preventing full engagement with Kalarus’ forces by the whole might of the realm.  Aquitane’s presence and motives shows how Butcher has defanged this particular threat as that is now two novels where she is helping her erstwhile enemy.  This is competently done stuff and you seem some heavy furycrafting which is still relatively interesting.

This book mostly exists to nurture Tavi into a leadership role, which he does relatively easily.  Yes, he displays some inferiority complex and will for the remaining books, but the scrappy hero wont let something as crippling as doubts detain him.  At this point Tavi is in danger of becoming a Mary Sue, able to do no wrong, as he does some abysmally stupid stuff and gets away with it and in fact juices up some lemonade from his own lemons on a number of occasions.  I know I like flaws in my heroes and the lack of them is part of what makes Tavi so bland.

 

Captain’s Fury:  A straight continuation of the last book.  The war with Canim and Kalarus is at a standstill and it’s time to break the stalemate with some new legions and a sneak attack by the First Lord upon Kalarus.

Bernard and Amara head back into the same territory as in the last book with the First Lord in tow.  This is a really boring wilderness trek that I am sure Butcher felt obligated to put in his pastiche series.  After all what is epic fantasy without some tedious adventure through the outback?  I was always wondering why the First Lord didn’t attempt to erupt a volcano on Kalarus earlier in the war, I mean why now?  Also Amara’s horror at his actions seemed completely out of place for a Cursor who must always justify the means with the ends.  Her anger towards the First Lord reveals itself as shortlived as she will go back to work for him in the next book with few qualms.

Simultaneously, Tavi is maneuvering around a corrupt Senator and once again has to broker a peace with an enemy that is not nearly as uncivilized as common wisdom dictates.  It’s basically a replay of the themes of the first book.

A number of points annoyed me in this book.  One, I felt like the book was teasing us with an epic Araris (Tavi’s former slave and now bodyguard and famed swordsman) duel with the Senator’s mad bodyguard and instead Tavi, of course, has to take her down.  Also Isana is a strong watercrafter but could never glean that Araris was madly in love with her; that seems unlikely.  Finally, Fidelias seems to have returned to the side of the First Lord and now proclaims a secret loyalty to Tavi.  His allegiance seems to change far too easily and without good reason for a man that served the First Lord loyally for decades.  However, when he put a hole through Lady Aquitane and the Senator at the end a huge grin spread across my face.

In fact the ending is pretty good overall with Tavi finally claiming his full title in a rousing scene that many people list among the best in the series.

Princep’s Fury: Tavi heads to Canae to help the Canim with the Vord that are taking over their continent.  Little does he know that the Vord snuck by him and are attacking his homeland.  This book is really slow, I mean really slow.

Bernard and Amara return to the Kalarus area once again to scout the Vord and even though the characters think their mission is important it seems fairly trivial in the face of the Vord horde on each continent.  It doesn’t help that Bernard and Amara are a tediously banal couple.

The Vord basically crush Alera until the First Lord sacrifices himself and his city to reduce them to nearly nothing.  It would seem that this is the one point when Alera might press the Vord back, but no they will cool their heels for something like a year “rebuilding” nevermind that the Vord will out produce you every time.  I mean somehow they secretly built an army that could have wiped out Alera then and there and now they control even more area.  But the plot demanded that Tavi have enough time to return and take the Vord down.

Speaking of Tavi, he gets to rescue the Canim that have not yet succumb to the Vord.  We get to see deeper into the Canim culture and still doesn’t make sense.  Respecting your enemies over your friends is crazy.  You don’t pal around with enemies, you destroy them.  It almost seems like some grand game they engage in, except the treat it as serious business.  I mean they still call Tavi gadara, respected enemy, in the last book even though he has befriended them for three books now.  Maybe if the culture was fleshed out more, something like combat is ritualized in order to preserve lives.  That would allow rivalries to develop.  Instead the Canim appear very warlike which doesn’t leave a lot of leeway for meeting opponents and letting them live to become gadara.

Anyways, Tavi’s moment of “brilliance” in this book is using a series of time release written commands to get around the ability of the Vord Queen to read minds.  Except this precaution is rendered useless not only by events, but by his own plan.  I mean he marches forth to engage the Queen who can then read his mind and get the orders he gave all of his subordinates.  His plan was to parley with the Queen, which would then end the battle so why the precaution?  They instead kill the Queen, which again obviates the need for secrecy.  This idea had a lot of potential, but was squandered by Butcher.

And that’s the entire book for the most part except for the rather pointless detailing of the boat trip to the Canim homeland.

 

First Lord’s Fury: One expects big things from the final book of a long series and First Lord’s Fury does not deliver.  This book is entirely about battles with the Vord.  But at this point furycrafting and battlefields are getting tiresome and the Vord are really quite dull.  The only one of any interest is the Queen, the rest are just a faceless horde.

As I said before Alera and the Vord are engaging in détente at the beginning of this book.  This proves disastrous when the Vord come back in strength and immediately rout the Alerans again.  It’s not clear how the Aleran’s escaped from the tireless Vord back to Calderon, but they do.  It is even less clear why the walls here prove so much more effective than all the other walls that the Alerans failed to hold against the Vord.  But as I said, the plot demands enough time for Tavi to save the day.

Which he of course eventually does.  A sneak attack by a cadre of High Lords can’t take the Vord Queen but Tavi, who only started manifesting furies in this book, can do it by his lonesome.  A more natural progression of his powers would have been far more exciting to see in my opinion.  In the end he doesn’t even take the Queen out, some awakened Great Furies do it for him in a rather unclear sequence.  He is chasing the Queen through a Great Fury storm and while she is ripped to shreds he emerges relatively unscathed.  And that ends the Vord threat.

Minor characters get some good time in this book.  Lady Aquitane is written from her own viewpoint, but it seems a little late to introduce her struggle with morality, especially after being rather impotent since book one.  Similarly, we see a strange Vord Queen touched by some semblance of humanity, but almost nothing is done with this except some weird obsession with keeping a few humans around to observe.  She still acts like a super-rational Vord Queen (except for a completely ridiculous attack on Tavi’s camp that can’t really be explained by her humanity either) up until the very end; though Butcher writes her as kind of stupid despite being able to control millions of Vord simultaneously, while fighting High Lords and later bonding to Great Furies.

Fidelias receives an awesome scene where he assassinates a troublesome Canim with the help of a Canim Hunter (basically a Cursor).  Then his new identity as a loyal First Spear under Tavi shatters as his traitorous past surfaces.  All the best scenes in the book involve Fidelias despite my misgivings about his time with the Aquitanes, he even steals the epilogue.

My misgivings about Fidelias are minor compared to many other things.  As I have reiterated many times, all the best characters are not Tavi or even most of the main characters.  Max’s troubled past as a bastard with a mother-in-law thirsting for his blood was basically thrown aside.  Instead of either Tavi or Max dealing with the mother we just find her suddenly a victim of a slave collar.  At the end, we never see Max even speak with his parents, all we get is some supposition from Isana when she duels Max’s father.  Max’s brother Crassus become’s their good friend with far too much ease and then the brotherly bond is mostly ignored.  Crassus near the end discovers the fate of his mother and breaks relations with Tavi and this is never touched upon again.

Araris is criminally underused after book two.  He gets to go all Colossus on the Vord Queen and completely own her in combat for all of two swipes.  His relationship with his brother is ignored after catalyzing in the second book.  His old singulare friend Aldrick makes very few appearances after the first book, despite setting him up as nigh unstoppable foe.  In fact both of them, the two greatest swords in the realm, just stand around in the final battle.  A teamup of old friends turned enemies, kicking the Vord’s ass would have been a sweet send off for both if Aldrick is going to labor on the side of good.

Now some might say that Butcher did not want to write a Hollywood ending with all the loose ends tied up.  BUT HE DID!  All the good guys are alive and all the bad guys are dead at the end.  Instead it felt like the constant need for action and warfare displaced the far more intriguing character drama.  Pining for closure is different than expecting the author to at least explore the subplots and tensions he concocted instead of brushing them off so our prosaic hero can slay some more Vord.

This shows up in the plot too where Butcher just seems to forget certain things have happened in his own book.  The Aquitane’s scheming is rendered rather toothless and they seem far too willing to aid the First Lord at every turn.  Kalarus’ armies are rarely taken as a threat and his attempted coup felt half-baked at best.  Admittedly, the Canim were supposed to be more help, but Kalarus had no political allies and it seemed very unlikely he would ever be able to take the crown.  I mean look at the might Alera fielded for the Vord battles and you wonder how one single realm could possibly win a straightforward battle.

Lastly, the final battle with the Vord Queen frankly sucked.  If you are going to superpower Tavi and Kitai and then give them a mental connection you could at least do something cool with it.  Turn the tables on the Vord with your own soundless coordination.  Killing the Queen with Great Furies was really stupid and anti-climactic and then the book doesn’t even show how they get these crazed Great Furies under control again after making a big deal about the destruction they will sow.  And Butcher contradicts himself on how the Vord behave after the Queen dies.  Some maintain the orders last given to them by the Queen, but the vast majority turn into mindless animals.  It doesn’t make any sense.

In conclusion, this is pastiche and not particularly good pastiche.  I hear this book was an attempt to take two terrible ideas “Pokemon” and “Lost Roman Legion” and make them not terrible.  I can’t say Jim succeeded.

 

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