Tuesday, December 29, 2009

First Lord's Fury by Jim Butcher

Ah, book six and almost unquestionably the end of the series. To anyone who has been following along with Jim Butcher's Codex Alera, the long-delayed deluge of reveals in this sixth volume is likely to trigger a cascade of relieved sighs. Book six is also a slight departure from the first five--but I'll get there in a second. It's probably only fair to touch on the whole series first, seeing as it's done and all.

About two years ago, I didn't like urban fantasy at all--well, more to the point, I firmly and consciously considered myself to be someone who didn't like urban fantasy. I shunned all the UF books on the B&N shelves with a sniff of contempt. On the other hand, I've always enjoyed epic fantasy and like to read long series--so when Jim Butcher (who had something like 8 Dresden books out at the time) started putting out his fantasy-without-urban Codex Alera, I picked it up. That probably makes me the one person on Earth who heard about Butcher in such an unusual order: Codex Alera first, Dresden Files books second, and a Netflixed Dresden Files disc or two third.

I snarfed up the first three Alera books with such zeal that, while waiting for the fourth, I finally decided that if Butcher could write this well then I should try the Dresden series too. And I loved them (but that's a different review). My point is, in my opinion Butcher is simply a very, very good writer: he's able to string the reader along from scene to scene without letting his pace lag even when switching viewpoints frequently, he's definitive in his characters' definitions and he's a phenomenal world builder, making even the these magic-filled inexplicables seem surprisingly plausible.

I'm a sucker for watching a main character develop. (Consider the unrelated book The Still, perhaps the best example I've ever read of such development: the MC was such an ass in the first half that I almost threw the book away, and yet by the end I was rooting for him devotedly.) In the Codex Alera, Butcher has provided a whole host of MCs who all have their terrors to overcome: a mother who is in hiding after her royal husband was murdered, a bear of a man grieving for the loss of his wife, and most of all Tavi: a boy without magic, in a land where everyone else has it--and needs it to survive.

Butcher has stretched that MC development over six long volumes, sticking with the same characters and making them grow and grow as the plot twists and winds around an intricate, continents-wide world with no fewer than four species of humanoids--including some truly nasty baddies. He doles out little steps of character improvement at just a fast enough pace to keep you waiting for the next step: two characters that finally meet there, one who is able to come out of hiding here, another who meets a the right enemy right then so that they can resolve an issue together. The pacing isn't always perfect, but it's better than that of any other author I can remember--and it goes on that way, book after book.

Butcher's choice of world design is unusual. The white hats are the Aleran peoples, and their society and army are modeled strongly after our own Rome--something that bothered me as I read the first book (I didn't want the similarity to our own world!), but which I came to appreciate by the third. Here in the sixth book Butcher drops some very feint hints about how the Alerans came to be here and thereby suggests a tie to our own world; it's subtle but unexpected and I'm still not sure if I think it was necessary.

The Alerans wield magic through the use of Furies: semi-sentient elemental beings that bond with individuals and offer them remarkable powers. It's a neat premise and Butcher plays it out very well, from the living storms in the first book to the walking mountains in the sixth. Magic is pervasive in society, and it's intriguing to see how Butcher has mixed it in: the common-place uses (a little analogous to what we've done with electricity) keep it from being front-and-center in your attention except when he wants to showcase something special.

In this final book, Butcher has turned the action up a step: the plot zings along so quickly that there's never really a pause at all. It almost brings to mind the movie edition of the The Two Towers--you know, the middle of the three that's almost entirely one 180-minute battle at Helm's Deep? This book reads a little like that. I had expected the Big Conflict to appear towards the end, but in truth it starts at the beginning and never really lets up.

That change of pace is what I meant when I said book six is a bit of a departure. After five books of having reveals drop-fed to you, suddenly there's a firehose open and you're gulping them down as fast as you can. Oh, you were behind that plot twist? You were whose father? Butcher feels almost a little desperate to get things wrapped up, which is why I wrote "unquestionably the end of the series" above--and yet in the very last chapter he drops a hint that maybe things aren't over after all, which is why I added "almost" to "unquestionably." One wonders if the "To be continued...?" theme is just a habit he can't break.

Not that I would mind.

B&N link

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