Book Review – Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher

For the record, I’m not a fan of high fantasy novels. I disliked being teased with peeks at an interesting world history and mythology. It’s like a bad flirt. I wanna get to the good stuff fast, and see my protagonist triumph/fail within the given context (i.e. action). It’s not that I think most high fantasy literature is bad, it’s that I’m impatient and hate not getting the details on interesting tidbits that the author is wisely saving for the plot twist, thus I tend to avoid high fantasy.

However, I do enjoy watching people duke it out with magic and elemental spells. The cartoon show Avatar: The Last Airbender was pretty awesome. Fighting with magic has always been a key part of the fantasy genre, and whether it’s delivered in the form of epic prose, blockbuster Hollywood effects, or a simple children’s show, there’s something about it that appeals to audiences, probably because it engages strongly with the imagination.

I picked up Furies of Calderon because I was curious how elemental-based action would be depicted in prose, since I rarely read high fantasy. I’ve read and loved the first three books of the Dresden files, so I thought why not give Furies a shot. This review will follow standard gamobo book review procedure and consider plot, characters, narrative, and a brief look at the world built for the story. Warning: this review will contain spoilers!

Plot

The premise of the story was also very appealing to me. In a world where everyone can manipulate the elements of earth, wood, fire, water, wind, and metal, our protagonist is the only one who lacks that power. Creatures called furies enable such power, and most people appear to have only one fury, with formidable characters having more, but Tavi has zero, and must save his homeland from an invasion of the barbaric eastern savages, known as the Marat, using only his wit.

The setting is reminiscent of the early Roman empire, with a single leader who is also the strongest furycrafter, and the invasion is, inevitably, backed by one of the powerful aristocratic families who seek to overthrow the current leader, Gaius Sextus.

This political backdrop is on the fringes of the main story, however. Much more interestingly, we get the stories of Amara, an agent of Gaius investigating the planned invasion. We also see Tavi and his family being dragged into the consequences of the petty political squabbling. The major threat is the incoming horde of Marat, and it engages us because Butcher quickly gets us to fall in love with his characters, but more on that later.

The plot is sufficient for serving as a platform for the main story, but the major plot point is pretty cookie-cutter. This isn’t really a knock on Butcher; other than the threat of civil war and barbaric invasions, what can you really do in a story about an established empire? (If you know of any fantasy novels that feature different plotlines, let me know!) Which is why it’s a good move on Butcher’s part to focus on the small players. Getting their point of view gives more flavour to the story, by giving us different voices and perspectives.

It is the characters and their own individual plots that bring this book to life, each of their threads weaving together into the same final cloth. While predictable for the most part, I found myself reading on nonetheless for the sake of finding out how everything would be resolved.

Characters

I’m unable to speak to tropes and stereotypes, since I’m unfamiliar with high fantasy, but the characters all seemed varied and, as mentioned above, most of them really get you worried when they find themselves in perilous situations.

My favourite characters were Aldrick and Fade. I love getting the stories of the badass warriors, because they usually a have an intriguing reason for why they took up the sword, as well as why they continue to fight, and Furies of Calderon is no exception.

While I did say the characters are the lifeblood of this story, there was one thing that bothered me about them: the predictability of most of their actions and outcomes.

We’ve all probably been spoiled by A Song of Ice and Fire, but getting to the end and seeing every character survive felt like a cheat, and I had to groan when I read that Odiana saved them all. I knew it was coming, because Isana had to have saved her for a reason plotwise, but it was far-fetched that she was even able to get to them in time, reducing the character of Odiana to that of a tool, which is a shame since she is in fact one of the more interesting characters of the story.

Fade and Doroga, in contrast, are two of the more unpredictable characters, the former’s true identity being a complete surprise and the latter being sort of a wildcard up to the end. Because we know they aren’t the heroes, their endings were still open, and that’s why they appealed to me. I like Amara, Bernard, and Isana, but I also knew they were never really in any danger. Before I forget, Gram is one bad mothatrucka.

Narrative

This was the weakest part of the novel, and it isn’t wholly Jim Butcher’s fault. I don’t know what it would’ve been like if I had read Furies before the Dresden Files, but because I did, I got the sense that Butcher was out of his comfort zone.

There were many instances of awkward phrasing, including repeated phrases in sentences one after another. Call it lazy, oversight, or sloppy writing, but repeated phrases in sentences one after another stick out like a sore thumb to me, and it happened too frequently for me to forgive.

Another overused technique was the single line paragraph.

The purpose of the single line paragraph is usually to highlight some significant revelation or realization. It’s supposed to stick out to the reader as a moment of importance or shock. By using it once every few pages, Butcher has devalued it and unfortunately the prose suffered for it. It makes the reading disjointed, like a bump in the road of an otherwise picturesque and pleasant trail.

This is what happens when you overuse the single line paragraph.

It feels empty, as if you’re trying to force a thought or emotion into the reader, and it doesn’t work when it’s used so often.

The narrative as a whole is interesting to me, because this is the first instance where I have read an author writing in a different genre, and I can definitely see a change in quality. Butcher’s prose in the Dresden Files is sharp, witty, and concise, because it’s featured in an urban detective novel. Here in fantasy land the same writer feels out of place, despite retaining the ability to draw great characters and come up with an engaging plot. Perhaps the problem, then, is with the fantasy genre itself.

The World

In addition to my complaint in the opening paragraph of this review, I find fantasy stories difficult to take seriously. In my head I have called this the Gandalf Problem.

gandalf
I googled “Gandalf Problem” to make sure it wasn’t trademarked, and came across this. Still pretty relevant.

In a world of magic, it is difficult to ignore the fact that most problems the characters face can be easily solved. It is revealed in Furies that watercrafters can call on images to rise from bathtubs, rivers, or any significant body of water. The end of the novel has a character spying on her husband as he’s about to sleep with another woman. Thus, instead of looking for evidence of treason and rebellion, why doesn’t Gaius just spy on Aquitaine and show it to the Senate?

During the final battle Fidelias reveals that windcrafters can overhear conversations over long distances. This single fact trivialize the entire battle. It would be amazingly simple to find out what the opposing side’s strategy is, eliminating the need to risk a large-scale battle.

Of course there are more examples, especially when you sit down and think carefully about what crafters can do. I have no doubt that Butcher or fans of Codex Alera are able to come up with answers to these kinds of objections, but that usually involves tweaking the rules or presenting arbitrary restrictions, resulting in a world that is tangled and yucky.

Fantasy is difficult because magic (and eagles) solves everything. George RR Martin has shown that a good fantasy story can still be told when you focus on the characters and non-magical elements of your story (whether it’s politics, romance, or making readers cry when their favourite characters die). Unfortunately, furycrafting plays a huge part in this novel, and thus the Gandalf Problem is ever-present.

In Conclusion…

Furies of Calderon is a good book. I would recommend it to fans of fantasy novels, but I will not be reading the rest of the books in the series. The story itself has not overcome my bias against high fantasy.

Out of curiosity I googled the fate of Tavi, and was disappointed to read that he eventually gets furies of his own, which kills both the appeal of the character and my original motivation for reading this book.

I’ll probably read another fantasy book in the near future, but for now, Furies of Calderon has reinforced my opinion that fantasy stories are still unable to satisfying the book worm in me.

This has been a gamobo review.

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