A few months ago, I started reading Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera; I reviewed the first novel, Furies of Calderon, back in early May, and refrained from reviewing the others as I read them. I finished the sixth and final novel, First Lord’s Fury, about a week ago.
As might be surmised by the fact that I read through all of them, I enjoyed the series quite a bit. Butcher has constructed a fascinating world, filled it with likeable and interesting characters, and thrown it all together in a plot filled with intrigue and adventure.
Books are written from all sorts of beginnings. Sometimes an author gets an idea for a plot, or a mental image of a character develops and then they find something to have them do. Sometimes they have something they want to say, or they just want to have fun with an idea. And sometimes they come about as a result of a bet. Dr. Seuss’s publisher once bet him he couldn’t write a book using only 50 distinct words; the result was Green Eggs and Ham. A writer friend of his once bet Roger Zelazny that he couldn’t write a novel in which Jack the Ripper was the undisputed hero; the result was A Night in the Lonesome October, a personal favorite of mine. As I found out after completing the series, and reading a bit more about it, The Codex Alera was also the result of a bet. Jim Butcher was involved in an online discussion on how important the quality of an idea is to writing a good novel. Butcher posited that a good writer could write a good novel even with a bad idea; another participant disagreed, and Butcher challenged him to come up with two ideas that would be bad together, and Butcher would write the novel. The ideas the other person came up with were the lost Ninth Roman Legion… and Pokémon.
In retrospect, the Pokémon influence is fairly clear, though obviously there are differences. The people of Alera practice a form of magic called furycrafting, which is granted to them through the use of elemental furies, beings of limited sapience but significant power. They come in six elemental varieties — fire, water, air, earth, metal, and wood — each person has their own furies (at least one, usually two or more), wild furies can be claimed by the skilled, and many of the people give their furies individual names. It’s not explicitly Pokémon, but the resemblance is obvious once the origin is known.
I would not expect a good novel to come out of Pokémon, but the basic mechanics of furycrafting make for a good, solid magical system for a fantasy novel. And a nation made up of the descendents of the lost Roman Legion provides a great setting. It allows for a society which is, at the same time, highly structured and organized, but also dedicated to the use of power as a sign of authority. A person with two strong furies can become a Citizen, while those with just one usually are not except by special appointment. Lords and Ladies usually have multiple furies; the High Lords are able to craft in all six elements. And the First Lord of Alera is explicitly the most powerful man in the nation; one of the factors jeopardizing the realm is the suspicion of some of the High Lords that Gaius Sextus is no longer as powerful as he used to be.
And into this world where might equals authority we’re introduced to the primary protagonist, Tavi of Calderon, a sixteen-year-old boy who, uniquely among Alerans, has no furies. Unusually among fantasy novels, this isn’t treated as a minor thing, nor does it directly indicate that there’s something else special about him. It’s explicitly treated as a disability for the first few novels, and Tavi’s cleverness is outright stated by several characters to be the result of him having to think “outside the box” in order to survive in an environment where everybody else takes superhuman abilities for granted. A lot of fantasy novels would have a hero in this situation turn out to be some other kind of superhuman; they don’t have Magic A because they have Magic B, which is far rarer. The Codex Alera averts this; yes, there’s a reason Tavi hasn’t developed furycrafting by the start of the series, but he doesn’t harbor any other special ability either. It’s refreshing for a series to have a “disabled normal” hero who truly is treated as if they have something major to overcome.
Also refreshing is the treatment of villains in the series. There are only a few “shallow” characters in the series; while there are a lot of antagonists, they are given as much development as the protagonists, aside from a few minor villains. Major characters are given complete development and reasons for their actions. Attis Acquitaine and Fidelias, the major villains of the first novel, are even portrayed fairly sympathetically by the end of it; while the reader and the heroes don’t agree with their actions, it’s easy to see how they felt justified in them. This also applies to entire enemy cultures; by the end of the series, the reader is nearly as familiar with the Marat and Canim as with Alerans, and has just as much sympathy for them. Even the ultimate “Big Bad” of the series isn’t so much evil as just alien and following a biological imperative. I can think of only one major villain, Kalare, who isn’t given much development, and only one, Invidia, who is given development but given only unsympathetic reasons for her actions. And even in her case, she’s viewed almost with pity rather than scorn.
When I read the first novel, one of my smaller complaints was that there weren’t very many interesting side characters. This was quickly changed in the later novels, with Tavi’s fellow classmates and (later) soldiers being just as interesting as the main characters. Ehren’s cunning is almost as sharp as Tavi’s, and the banter and bickering between Max and Crassus is fun to read. Even minor characters often get their moments to shine; this is a world where everyone has a chance to be awesome in battle, and many times a character is dismissed as being unimportant only to later do something that would be impressive in any other series.
Put simply, Butcher won his bet. He created a world and a story that is one exciting beat after another, with multiple characters for the reader to care about. Each novel tells its own story, but there’s an overarching plot that comes to a natural conclusion in the sixth novel. There’s a hook for a sequel series if he ever chooses to use it, but The Codex Alera stands complete as it is. If he does ever go back to Alera, though, I’ll be reading along as he writes.