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.