Friday, July 4, 2014

Evolution of a Damage Dealer: Final Fantasy A Realm Reborn

So, I'm pretty sure that the concept of linear, Traditional, (with a capital T,) RPG is dead in the eyes of Final Fantasy and Square Enix in general, and that's okay to me. People joke a lot about the name, Final Fantasy, and how it's getting a little late for them to be keeping up the pretense of being the Final one, but I never have.

You see, I started with Final Fantasy 7, (VII for the those in the know,) and was instantly in love with the game up until I found out that you needed a memory card if you didn't plan on staying up for two weeks straight playing it, having your food pushed through a hole in the door so your parents could avoid the rank odor of unwashed teen, stale hot pockets and Mountain Dew containers that looked a little too yellow to be actual Mountain Dew. People harp on a lot of things about RPG's in general: the wait time for characters and enemies to do attacks, the loose graphics, the hours of doing things other than story playing. But, these people are the same people that think RPG is just a genre of game and not the actual acronym for the genre which is Role Playing Game, a concept that was brought about by men and women sitting around a table, taking time to make and design characters, worlds and attacks, waiting as people came up with strategies for characters and enemies and having no graphic settings but the limits of their imagination. Comparatively, waiting 5 minutes for a nice cut-scene to finish up and dialogue to finish sounds fairly lazy and complaining about it jaded and ungrateful. It's a little like a kid rolling his eyes when grandpa says he had to walk five miles to get to school, ignoring the fact that grandpa only has one foot and bad knees.

As the games progressed and became better and better, I became more and more obsessed with the game series, and while you might never catch me wearing a cute little Tonberry outfit at a convention, I do have three nifty and rather expensive tattoos permanently imprinted on my flesh to show my devotion. More to come.

But, as with everything, there does come a breaking point, even with obsessive people like me who have played every version of a game they can without spending thousands of dollars on new systems, imported Japanese versions and cards that emulate them on an unloving system, and for me, that was Final Fantasy 10, (X to the people who care.) There was no specific thing that got me to become jaded over it, but if I had to pick one, it was the Specs, or the specific way that the game forced you to use certain characters. While you were free to customize characters through a sphere grid, throwing the initial leveling system mostly out the window, this effect did not take place until later in the game, forcing you to use characters you might not particularly like. Before, in Final Fantasy 1 through 9, you had a freer range of freedom to customize characters so that they would be more or less effective against certain things. This character is an attacker, he has high health, better equipment and you place him in the front. This character has all the magic, and this one has healing magic only so I put them in the back. With Final Fantasy X, you were forced through the game to bring in specific characters to attack specific enemies. The one with the sports ball, Wakka, dumbest character in Final Fantasy history, including Quina, until Penelo, could attack airborne characters others could not. The whiny protagonist in the story could attack the wolves that were too fast for other characters to hit. The cool bad-ass with the hefty sword could kill shelled enemies, (okay, the giant anthropomorphic jaguar that had furries obsessed for years counts towards that as well, but I didn't like him.)

I think it was at this point that Final Fantasy began a steady decline. Other systems were still popularizing on the traditional role-playing game, and the big hit was waiting on the horizon: World of Warcraft. Granted, Final Fantasy XI hit the stores first, technically in Japan. But, it had two big things in it's favor. First, Warcraft was already a popular computer game and it didn't have to switch a lot of it's concepts around, just going from a society creating battle game to a single player multi-player-environmental game. In comparison, Final Fantasy had to go from a single player, customizatable game, to a multi-player-environmental game that no one was quite ready for, including developers. The second thing in World of Warcraft's favor was that Final Fantasy went on to making Final Fantasy X-2, Final Fantasy XI and Final Fantasy XII.

Now there's nothing wrong with hitching your bandwagon to new trends. That's how things stay in the limelight for so long. In my humble opinion, making X-2 was a last ditch effort to keep interest in the series while they were preparing XI for development, and it failed miserably. Trendy, art-poppy, and heavily influenced by the dying interests in Charlies Angels, Final Fantasy attempted to merge two different things, hip, trendy, youthful, girl power protagonists in revealing outfits, and the old Job Class system from games previous to Final Fantasy VI. While creating a more diverse character, it actually did the opposite, forcing gamers to finish a perfect game in order to get good Jobs, and confusing things by creating jobs with obscure attacks for different situations. Where in X you had to use different characters to kill specific enemies, in X-2 you had to hope that the character you had had the skills necessary on their list of available jobs in order to do damage properly.

Having no experience with MMORPG's at the time, I had no reference point, but, looking back on things now, I have to say that Final Fantasy XI was one of the most unfriendly systems I've ever played. Imagine you are playing a city-wide scavenger hunt and are told that you get to play all by yourself, and the grand prize is s a new car. You start out the game excited by the prospect of something rewarding, only to realize your first clue is leading you twenty miles across town. Determined, bleeding and footsore, you get there and find that three other people are there as well and that they all have the next clue and you have to do it together. You start out on the next part of your scavenger hunt, but halfway there, someone gives up and you have to go back to the last part because the clue specifically says that if you get there without four people, you won't get the next clue.

So, you go back, and wait. And wait. And wait for a few hours. Finally someone shows up and they are just as tired as you were and they say they can help but they can only stay for an hour before they have to go get some food because getting a car isn't worth starving for. So you go for the next clue, only to realize that four other teams are there and they all want that clue and only one shows up per hour and five other teams have left. Tired, and with a hungry anarchist on your team, you steal the next clue which happens to be a set of bikes and peddle away, three angry teams on your tail. But, now realizing that even through you have a means to getting somewhere and the prospect of a new car, you know not everyone is going to get that car and everyone has bikes. Instead of going off to get that car, the anarchist goes home to get food, your tank goes AFK and the other damage dealer whines for fifteen minutes before leaving and flipping you off while he goes. That was what Final Fantasy XI was like.

Rather than trying to go back to tradition, as IX did after the steampunk revolution that was VII and VIII, Final Fantasy continued on it's online road, but continued making console games, but instead creating a merging of the two, bringing more customizable concepts to the characters, but taking away the freedom of character control. In XII and XIII, you had varying degrees of lessening control over your alternate characters, putting you in control of only one character in a more free-turn setting with options to give orders like some kind of general. The problem being that the sense of control over your characters, each with their own identities was a sense of immersion. It was why Vincent Valentine was so popular, even as a secret character, because your control over the character gave you control over how involved you got into him. Final Fantasy XII and XIII were more like a game my step-siblings played when they were younger: Kessen. Instead of being in control of characters, you were a general in an army and you got to send people into battle and watch as their numbers decreased depending on their way of dealing with that particular enemy. You didn't cry or cheer for those enemies, just watched the numbers and felt a sense of accomplishment when it didn't reach zero.

Things were beginning to look a bit dim for me when XIV came out. The beginning stats were bad, everyone was hating it and the mere fact that it went back to formula, (thank you Spiderman reference,) was bad enough for me to wait around for the next one to come out. The problem is, Final Fantasy is looking to be reaching the point where Final Fantasy might no longer be a witty commentary on their last chance at success and a goal on the horizon to look to and MMORPG's might be the road that they take, skipping and singing merrily along to get there.

But, with the wait for the next Final Fantasy game looking further and further away, and tattoos being rather pricey to get in the meantime, I decided it was time to try out Final Fantasy XIV A Realm Reborn, and see if the hubbub had subsided. Boy, was I happy to try it out. Not only is the game more user friendly than XI was, not only is the Class and Job system more relaxed, not only can you get a mount fairly on, but also, rather than take an RPG and force it into the confines of an MMORPG, they did the opposite. What does this mean? Rather than being fun, but kind of aimless with a storyline buried under random quest-lines and meaningless characters, (like WoW,) Final Fantasy XIV has taken the storyline and pushed it to the forefront, a little more like Everquest, which I only played once...for a day. The storyline is central to the playing mechanics, many of which you can only unlock by playing the main game. But, rather than being taxing like XI was, the game play is more relaxed. While I don't really remember hearing anything about dungeons in XI, having not played far enough to care, XIV takes the WoW route of including a duty finder to get quests, and even a random daily roulette for high leveled characters to get Tomes that can be traded in for high level equipment, encouraging people to continue playing even after the main quest-line ends at level 50, the level cap as of yet for the game.

Now, the game is still progressing, with new patches planned out and new job and class mods coming out soon, which is hopeful as my little character, Eldrich Forceus, wants desperately to be a Ninja one day. The thing I like most about the game is that not only is the game more user friendly, but it's also more friendly gamer on gamer and I think that has a lot to do with social media. Groups in game are posting Facebook pages for their friends and accepting adds more lucratively, (houses aren't cheap after all, and Chocobo Stables are looking to be expensive as well.) I see at least four or five invites per day for people to join groups with words like, "relaxed playing," and "fun times had by all," in the wording, and there isn't a day that goes by that someone I follow on tumblr posts a picture of something XIV related, even on their NSFW pages. Go look it up if you don't know what it means, but reader beware.

So, going back to my earlier statement, people make a lot of jokes about Final Fantasy and it's 14 or so final times, but I don't. Things have been rough on the journey through Gaia, Cocoon, Eorzea and it's many other incarnations, but it's been fun. I can always count on an engineer named Cid to save the day. There are always beautiful landscapes to look in on, even if there is that damned coconut sound every time I walk from place to place. And Eldrich Forceus is always ready to join a dungeon party and do some damage dealing, trusty spear in hand ready to make a few tomes. It doesn't seem as worrisome when the fantasy has an end in sight if it's looking as good as XIV does.

And, if all else fails, I've always got IX on my PS Vita and that never disappoints.

Monday, May 26, 2014

On Writing: The Problem with Sympathetic Characters

There's a problem with selective and omniscient Third Person, and that's that it creates too many sympathetic characters in the story and not enough conflict. But, Jacob, you might be thinking, when two people think they are in the right isn't that the very definition of conflict? Probably, but the fact is that it creates very confusing character dynamics.

There's nothing wrong with it, per se, but the fact is that when you refuse to have a true antagonist beyond a hive mind or group dynamic, there's a hard time for the reader to focus on who they are supposed to root for. I'm going to use a series that I have just finished re-reading, but not actually mention what book series it is. For two reasons, 1) I've already picked on it a few times and it really is a good book, and 2) because it carries over to a lot of other book series. That series is The Demon Cycle by Peter V. Brett

The first book begins with three main protagonists, not too bad, and an amorphous set of bad guys. At one point one of the characters is betrayed by his companion and an antagonist is created. Perfect. But, then that antagonist is added to the set of three from the first book and given a back-story to make him out to be a man of honor doing what he believes is right to save the world. Great, now we have four protagonists and an amorphous group of bad guys that are little more than beasts. Well, during the second book, the fourth protagonists wife is introduced as a rather bad person, so she is more of an antagonist, right? No, during the third book, the author focuses on how she is doing what she is doing out of love and honor and that she is actually a good person, too, despite the shady way she goes about it. So what do we do?

Well I still hate his wife. I still disagree with her husbands methods, and one of the protagonists is kind of a jerk, too, so I think I don't like him as well. Now the book has an amorphous set of bad guys who are supposed to be a bad guy, a ruler who is doing the right thing for the right reasons but in a rather despicable way, and a wife who is conniving and vicious but truly loves her husband. Who are we supposed to be rooting against again?

With the same problem as having too many perspectives, when you have too many sympathetic "villains" you disperse whatever conflict you might have among the characters of the book until in the end you have no conflict at all and you begin to wonder, "Why are these people fighting each other?" It's less evident for these characters because the reader can see how the problems started but as the reader you begin to wonder why these problems are coming along. Who started this problem and why aren't they talking? They talk about everything length...but nobody talks among themselves.

Where is the line in the sand drawn for books now. Plot driven books in the past, the ones that were bread and butter for me growing up, always had the clearly defined antagonist. The dragon that stole the mountain. The Wizard who kidnapped the Princess. The Emperor who was running things all along. Now, with character driven stories, everyone has to be sympathetic and it leaves me wondering, are there any bad guys left in the world?

Friday, May 9, 2014

Room with a View

What do you do when you fall so far behind? Honestly, this is a question I have no answer for. It is the one I pose because I don't believe there is an answer, and therefore it will not be the smart-ass query I pose this week. So, honestly, what do you do when you need to catch up?

There is no room for books on my main and secondary bookshelf, at least not for books. My cat, Sabin Rene Figaro Chavez Moore has found space enough to stare at me wide eyed and accusingly from time to time, but as far as authors and books, my main shelf has found its tenants and the place seems to be rent control. Jim Butcher has the top floor mostly to himself, though Rachel Aaron and Illona Andrews have stubbornly kept to their shared condo despite the, quote, unquote, misogyny from the former. Brom, on the other hand, has been caught sleeping in the penthouse staircase with a rolled duffle and a pack full of art supplies and no matter how many times we kick him out, or how many times we change the locks, he still somehow finds his way up there every 3rd Wednesday.

The second floor, though crowded, is a mystical sort of place full of pagans, idolaters and shapeshifters. Lev Grossman and Neil Gaiman are on good terms as far as neighbors go on the corner end of things while Thomas Sniegoski and Carrie Vaughn are quite chummy with Mark Zicree while he and his constant revolving door of roommates discuss the end of the world. And, right in the middle, having bought at least three different rooms all for herself, (and the massive amounts of parties she has to celebrate her success,) J. K. Rowling sits like a queen at throne in her contentment.

But, if my main shelf is like rent control condo's then my secondary shelf is more like a hostel. Well traveled, a little seedier than a hotel, and full of people who keep coming back because it's comfortable and nobody has killed them and stolen their wallets yet. Simon Green and Terry Goodkind, Stephen King and Margaret Weiss/Tracy Hickman. This place is for the glory and the ones that came and went and came again when I wasn't quite paying attention. I love them for their tenacity, but at any point they might be replaced by one that needs the space.

In the bedroom, serving multiple purposes, is the halfway house of bookshelves, of which I can name no names. Why? Because, I don't know who they are off the top of my head, and am too lazy to pick myself and my laptop up and run in there to name a few. That shelf is where books go to die slow deaths of disuse. Their drugs are simple but extreme: New York Times Best Sellers List and A Good Read by [Endorsement]. Like many famous people who visit these places, they were referred to by someone else famous, maybe even someone who can handle their vices like Stephen King or Ursula k. Le Guin, but didn't quite catch the mark.

Once a week I would go out, less frequently these days, and go to the bookstore, a little place right down the street that no longer exists in reality, and pick out three or four books. I would give each a turn, and 7 times out of 10 it would pan out well and I'd have another spot open for rent. These days, all but the very lucky have been moved directly to the halfway house in my room, next to my bed, in it's place of shame where they are set aside but not quite forgotten in all but names...I should light a candle for them, maybe.

Now it has been several months since I have gone book shopping. Under the guise of waiting for good books to catch up, but really just trying to find the time to read, and not just the occasional audiobook, I have gone without for too long. Where do I go from here?

I could, in all fairness, pick up a book in my favorite, still running series. Perhaps try to find some space for Butcher to expand or maybe one of my less needy tenants in the main building. Or, I could always check out the hostel and see what those workhorses like Green or Kadrey are working on. The fear, and the excitement comes in the same flavor, though less severe in consequence, as Russian Roulette. Will it be the safe click of a good book that I collect, or will it be the last heat and pressure I hear of a dud before that bullet cracks my skull and I'm forced to resign myself to fate of needing a bigger halfway house to share my shame.

...and yes I know that final analogy didn't make sense. Shush!

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Did J.K. Rowling Jump the Gun or the Shark

I actually really don’t like J. K. Rowling right now. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Harry Potter series. I think it’s one of the most brilliantly written, paced, and involved books of the century. Not only is it timeless because it takes place in a time out of time, but it grows with you as a reader. You don’t look at the book and think, “This book is for little kids,” you think instead that it is part of a whole with characters that grow up with you. But, at the moment that Rowling said that Harry and Hermione were meant to be together instead of her and Ron, I actually wanted to smack someone or break something.
This is what we in the world like to call a gimmick. Sales for Rowling’s books are never going to go down but the people from the older generation don’t need to get it anymore because the book has been read. That means that in another ten years when the Harry Potter books become a part of nostalgia again, another series will be out already to take the place and Harry Potter will, in all possibility, be relegated to the bargain bin. In this case, Rowling might have jumped the gun because she made her move too soon to pick up publicity. Let me put it clearer.
Let’s say that Rowling hadn't made the introduction and ten years after the last movie, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, (2021 to be exact,) the sales from her books are starting to wane off. Three different generations have finished the series (those who read the books as they were coming out, those that watched them as the movies were coming out, and those that decided to see what all the hype was about after the movies,) and now there’s nothing left but to reread. New series have come out in the meantime, and now Harry Potter has been displaced by some nameless fantasy series of the generation. Sales are slacking because everyone who likes Harry Potter has read it already and those that haven’t have the new fantasy series to read instead. So what does Rowling do? She can’t start a new series, it’s been over ten years and the characters are grown and moved on: Pottermore kind of killed that road anyway. Well, if you’re smart, you laid out a gimmick, or you create one. Harry and Hermione were meant to be together. Honest! Go look in the books.
Well now, all the fans of the books are going to start rereading the books to find those subtle clues, and those that don’t have them anymore will need to go out and buy new copies. But, that’s not all, people who never had the inclination to read the series because they are in love with “James Dainer and the Prince of Twilight” or some junk like that, are now hearing all sorts of interesting things about this Harry Potter fellow. Well! Now sales are tripling, the market is flush with people who want those books, and what’s more, people will want to be watching those movies, too. Collecting wands and action figures and posters will become the thing to do again and not only has Rowling reinvigorated her story, but she’s bringing fantastical fiction to a new generation of readers.

Instead, Rowling has jumped the gun by three years of nostalgia for the 7th book, and rather than reinvigorating the story, she is playing into the trend of a new generation of lesser books like Twilight, Hunger Games (which is still good, but not Harry Potter good,) and other sappy fantasy series by introducing the Love Triangle. Because, that’s what Harry Potter was never about. While Ron and Hermione had their spats, and it was always joked about that Harry and Hermione were dating, Ron was a good man and Ginny was devoted to Harry from day one. There was never anyone else and saying that you wanted to do something but didn't doesn't change the facts of reality. All of these people going around looking for evidence that Harry and Hermione are supposed to be there are going to find it. Why? Because devoted friendship and love are easily mistaken by the thin lines of romance, and the Harry Potter books, meant for young adults and up, was never about the romance. It was there from time to time but the focus of the Harry Potter books was and will always be about the trials and tribulations of a boy who was born to do great things and who lost much in the doing.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Five Problems with Jim Butcher's The Furies of Calderon - And Why it's Still Better than Almost Anything Else Out There

Things always seem brighter when we look back on them. People say things dull with age but when I look back on a good book it's always fondly. They are good friends who have kept me company over the years, shining down on me from their bookshelves. They've outlasted some relationships I've been in, the smug little jerks.

The problem, though, is in times like these where I'm creating a lull and letting more good books saturate the market, I find that I can't just sit still and not do any reading. Thus the few Second Glance reviews that I've done. None can compare, though, to trying to review one of my favorite authors of all time: Jim Butcher.

For those of you that know, Jim Butcher is the writer of The Dresden Files, an Urban Fantasy novel about a Wizard Detective living in Chicago, solving crimes and trying to survive by the skin of his teeth. Massive props to Butcher; Dresden is one of the best developed characters I've ever encountered in print and his story isn't even done yet! The plots are engaging and original. For those that know me, you know I'm not as big a fan of wandering character driven stories, but with so little known about the inner workings of the magic of The Dresden Files (each bit being divulged on a need to know basis) and new elements being introduced all the time, it actually is harder to figure out what's going on in Dresden's head, making each book into the journey that reading should be.

Now that being said, I'm not going to review The Dresden Files, it's too much work and I'd have to be dumb to even consider it with the books so far ahead. That being said, Butcher wrote another series, a less known series called The Codex Alera.

Not so much little known as actually finished and a good set of hardbacks on my shelf, The Codex Alera is the Snakes on a Plane of the literary world, in my humble opinion. You see, the story is that someone once challenged Butcher to write a story based on two completely random ideas and it was game on from there. The ideas given were Pokémon and the Roman Legion, and from these two ideas, The Codex Alera was born. The story is about a world where humans, Roman Legion based, are born with the ability to control Furies, spirits that live in every element: Earth, Air, Fire, Water, (Heart, just kidding,) Wood and Metal. These people utilize their Furies into everyday life, as well as for battle and self-defense which they utilize to defend themselves against varying other races of the world they live in.

Butcher, a master worker of fantasy, created six unique books following the lives of a family, and a boy who is born without the ability to control Furies who is caught up in a struggle to destabilize the governing body and take over the land. But, this review isn't about the book. Oh no, you have to read it to understand what a wonder it is. I'm just here to poke holes in the story, based entirely out of what I know about the series and what is given in the first book and to revel in how despite its flaws, it's still one of the best stories out there.

Those that know me, again, know how fun it is for me to poke holes in stories and wallow in flaws like a pig in mud, but the fact is, Butcher is a master storyteller, and unlike writers like Terry Goodkind or GRRM, he actually wants you to like his characters, not use their deaths as plot devices or over-exemplify every minute detail of their psyche. He's actually marvelously level-headed about the construction, but enough about that, here are the top five problems with The Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher. And as always, there are spoilers, you have been warned.

5 - The Cursors. In the book, there are revealed, almost immediately, to be a sect in the governing body called Cursors. Think of them like CIA: They spy for the crown, take on missions of national security, as well as lead covert lives monitoring various threats. One of the main characters, Amara, starts out the story as a Cursor in training, on her final assignment before she becomes one in full. The problem in the first book is that at several spots, it's mentioned that people think that all Cursors do is deliver messages. Now, knowing the origins of the word Cursor, which also means courier, this might not seem like such a big deal, but it happens with such frequency, and there are so many misunderstandings in the first book that it seems like rather gaping flaw right out of the gate.

Why it's a problem - How long have the Cursors been active as an intelligence body? If it's been for at least eight generations, which knowing the storyline seems apt, then how is it that this information hasn't spread to the populace? Amara's teacher even makes a crack at Amara's ignorance to what they do, which means that either she is a country bumpkin who wasn't aware of their significance, or they are much better at staying hidden than would be revealed later. Tavi, the main-main character of the story marks that he thinks Cursors are just messengers for the crown and his Uncle is a full Citizen of the empire. His Aunt Isana is also highly intelligent and well read, and yet neither one of them told him the actual significance of a group of spies in the employ of his governing body? Aquitaine, a High Lord of the realm is well aware of the Cursors and what they do, which leads to think that the Legion knows as well since he is directing them, at least through a third party. This means that the information is known to be available to public consumption and therefore EVERYONE should know who they are.

This comes to play later in the book when Amara, who has the honorary title of Countess, leads a groups of soldiers, and loudly proclaims her title as a Cursor of the Crown, and not one person turns to the other and says, "Why are we following a messenger? Where's a military leader?"

Why it doesn't matter - This problem was cleared up by the end of the book and never mentioned again. Cursors, by the most part become less used as a whole and those that go around shouting out their status, (and maybe those that don't, wink-wink) have the life-span of fruit flies. No, in later books it's always hinted at that someone might be a Cursor, but never really used to imply that oh that person isn't important, they're probably just a messenger. This is good, I can't imagine that everyone rebelling against the crown is going around killing every messenger they find on the off chance it might be a Cursor. Seems like it might be a bit unfair to me.

4 - Stories Left Untold. As I've mentioned before, Jim Butcher's characters are always engaging, well thought out and have great personal depth. That's not to say that things don't fall through the cracks from time to time. The Dresden Files is a first person, narrated from the persona of Harry Dresden, so it's safe to say that all of the knowledge he holds about the world around him is what he knows and what he's told, which, while limited, gives a greater amount of surprise when things are revealed in climax. By contrast, the perspectives in The Codex Alera are split between four characters, Tavi, Amara, Isana and an ex-Cursor Fidelias. Each character has their own set of side characters at their side throughout the story, rounding out a greater cast as far as plot and diversity.

Why it's a problem - As the title of this section states, a lot of stories don't get told, and throughout the series, are never expanded on, and it's not necessarily just the main four. While Amara has her own stories about how she became a Cursor and what impressed the First Lord of Alera about her, these are mostly things that not everyone would be interested in, seeing as her life as a spy is much more entertaining and prevalent to the situation. But, stories like how Bernard came to be in the Calderon Valley, what happened to his wife and children, why Aldric ex Gladius hates the First Lord of Alera, why Fidelias betrayed the First Lord so readily, what happened to Clan Fox of the Marat and other such stories are left out entirely and never expanded on in the least. This gives a sense that these characters stories aren't important in the grand scheme of things and were mentioned to drag you in but never given thought. It's kind of "The greatest story never told" kind of thing: you vamp up a character by giving them a rich, mysterious background, but then, knowing that the character does well on their own, you decide that story doesn't need to be told at all. What was Bernard doing when Isana and her sister were in Calderon? Was he in the Legion? What did he do?

Why it doesn't matter - I imagine one day when Butcher is in a rut, or finishes The Dresden Files series on its 500th book, (crossing fingers,) he'll look back and realize he has so many stories left for the world to know and will write a few more short stories tied in. The important facts are always given more credence and it's that limited first person that gives the air that just because stories aren't told, doesn't mean that they were that rich to begin with. The part that you have to remember is that the stories told from the main four characters are the ones that matter to the story, everyone else there is a bit part being played on a wire by Jim Butcher's nimble fingers.

3 - No Real Sense of Urgency - Oh no, I cut my finger all over a piece of paper and I'm bleeding to death! No, wait, it's just a paper cut and I have a napkin right here. I'm okay, now. Oh no! I stubbed by toe on a coffee table, I'm sure I broke it because it hurts like hell and I can't walk. Nope, just fine, just a stub and now I can walk. Argh! I crashed my car and flew through the wind- nope that was just a dream I had, nothing to worry about. These things are all easily solvable problems that come up in a frightened moment of exposition and are cheap glamor's writers use to convince you that a hopeless cause is hopeless only to have it come out alright in the end. A good writer might use it once, like the battle of Helm's Deep seemingly hopeless on that final ride, only to have Gandalf show up with Riders of Rohan. When it gets over-used, though, it dispels all sense of urgency and makes it seem like the author has a case of hypochondriasis.

Why it's a problem - One of the most notable of this is a system of events that happens throughout the book in the perspective of Amara. She is worried that she will be ignored by the local count unless she has a witness to the crime being committed in the Valley. She finds two, but one doesn't remember and the other is a child. She decides the child will have to do but she loses him. She decides the other will have to do, but he warns her that the Count is a grumpy jerk, but when they get there and are being abused by a subordinate, the Count steps in and without any evidence of proof, goes into full tilt, agreeing to help them no matter what. The count is injured and the subordinate put in charge and they are captured. They are rescued by other loyal members of the Garrison. Without someone of equal rank to the injured Count, they can't deploy the units. Oh, but Amara has an honorary title. The knight commander won't take orders from a woman, oops, challenge him and he'll step to the line. These things are all given a lot of credence as important parts of the book, but without any kind of actual threat beyond a timetable in place, it takes away the urgency of the story and makes it hard to believe that any of these problems are actual hurdles to be leapt. If you're going to set up a situation where all hope seems lost, there has to be a situation where things seem to be dire.

Why it doesn't matter - It does matter. This is one problem that Butcher never quite fixes and a lot of books fault with on their own. You need to have a sense of urgency to a bad situation. If things look lost and you are constantly coming in to save the day at the last second then what does your reader have to be on the edge of their seats for. It's a bit of a Doctor Who problem, something that I've been talking with a friend about. Yes the earth is in constant peril, and yes he has to save the day from time to time, but when you get a new Doctor every time the old one dies and he has a significantly different personality for every regeneration, then what is the actual fear of threat? What is learned when something is handed to you without you ever having to work for it? There is none, but in my opinion, very few writers are willing to put their characters through hell for the benefit of learning something important about how things have to work, and those that are, are more interested in making their characters suffer than having them learn and grow.

2 - The Main Character as a Source of Exposition. I have a tender spot in my heart for cripples and bastards and broken things. Well, I don't, George R.R. Martin does, which probably explains why no matter what happens, they’re usually the ones to come out better off than everyone else in his books. There's likely a good reason for it too, for besides being entirely too cruel even by his standards for him to torture and kill them, they are an excellent source of smooth exposition. Children and foreigners are as well, but there's no smoother way of giving away information about the world than from someone who feels like an outsider in it. Tavi, the Main character of the series, starts and ends the story as a source of said exposition, because he has no ability to use Fury Crafting, the main source of entitlement in the realm. Forget money, it hardly ever comes into play, forget birth because some people of non-noble birth are raised higher than others. Crafting is how the people of Alera judge others. It is the power they rule by. Tavi, having none of his own, is constantly being played out as the source of information because he envies it, is jealous of it, and is a source of commentary for the way that the world works.

Why it's a problem - For one reason, and one reason only, it practically neuters Tavi as an action oriented character. In later books, Tavi learns to offset his Furyless state with swordsmanship, self-defense and a calm rational mind. But, in the beginning, almost all he can do is run and crawl and tell people how bad he has it because of the way the world works. While this does make the transition into the world of Alera smoother, you practically go into the world knowing nothing about anything until Tavi says what it does. For instance, you learn the weaknesses of Earth, Wind and Wood Furies long before you ever have a clear idea of what a Fury actually is, and it isn't until Tavi is introduced to show what he can't do that you learn what others can. The problem is that it makes Tavi less of an interesting main character who is only spouting out the rules to the game and harder to transition him into the action oriented character he would become later.

Why it doesn't matter - Tavi's lack of interesting qualities are offset by the times that he learns about other things in the world from the perspective of an outsider. When he's learning the ways of the Marat people, a people his own culture has been at war at for centuries, it opens up relations for them later on and even changes the course of events in the first book. As an outsider to both his culture and others, he makes a rather nifty ambassador and creates a lot of melding between their worlds. The addition to this is that there are three other characters in the book that are more action oriented who already know the rules of the world that can spend more time doing things other than exposition. Amara, for one, spends very little time talking about how politics work, she just does things. Isana has her own problems to deal with in the book and Fidelias is a main source of aggravation. The point is that the story changes perspectives so often, that if you like one character over the other, as you will, you are only human after all, the ones you don't like won't stay in the limelight for long.

1 - Deus ex Machina. Was it god or was it the writer that got the character out of danger at the last second? Was it devine intervention? Was it smoothly written and made sense within the context? Or was it the writer who just didn't want the character to die and made it rather choppy in the go of it? These things become easier to pick up on the closer you pay attention, and more frequently seen when you see too many. The one in Furies of Calderon is harder to pick up on, but once you see it, it can't be unseen and is more of the choppy writing parts than the smooth intervention of a loving god. Fade.


Why it's a problem - Fade is a simpleton slave owned by Tavi's uncle. He has a cowards brand on his face and greasy long hair. Rather than speaking a lot, he hoots when excited and moans when upset. His speech, especially in the audiobook, makes him sound mentally deficient. But despite this, he knows an old Legion trick for drinking water before bed to wake up early and warns Bernard about it, finds Bernard in a Fury storm, saves Isana from crafting herself to death saving Bernard. He tricks Tavi into taking him with him, gives him a bag full of items that helps him survive his Marat trial, and in the end reveals himself to be a warrior of some renown, besting one of the greatest swordsmen in the realm to boot. All of this might seem okay when taken into context that he is the secret protector of Tavi, but Isana, who is well aware of his secret, dreads the fact that Tavi only has Fade with him. In fact, if he is his protector, it's ridiculous how many times Tavi's life is put into danger while Fade is there pretending to be an idiot. Rather than being the outward symbol of a protector, Butcher put his greatest warrior in the form of an idiot and then refuses to utilize him. Now it could be said that Fade was pretending so that his cover wouldn't be revealed or that he was so deep in cover it took a while to get out, but the simple fact is that as a protector, Fade is awful, but as a Machina, he is forced to pull double-time to keep up.


Why it doesn't matter - By the end of the second book, Fade's secret is revealed to the readers and by the end of the third book his backstory is completely revealed. First books are always rough and you sometimes need that secret character running around in the background because you can't have a 15 year old boy besting everyone on nerve alone. Tavi doesn't have the skills to live out in the world of Alera on his own without furies, and as a shepherds apprentice, he doesn't have the wherewithal to fight enemies on his own. In a sense, and only slightly, Fade was preparing Tavi to utilize his brain so that he wouldn't need him. But, the truth behind it is even more likely, Butcher wanted a big reveal for Araris Valerian after all of the hinting given from the Aldric fight scenes, and who can fault someone on wanting a big reveal, no matter how little their actions in the book make sense.