In this sequel to Furies of Calderon, or Book 2 of the "Codex Alera," Dresden Files creator Jim Butcher continues an act of fantasy-world-building so fresh and exciting that I simply can't believe he did it on a bet that he couldn't base a brilliant story on a mashup of two stupid concepts—in this case, "Pokémon meets the lost Roman legion." Maybe it's a mercy I never really got into Pokémon, but I just can't see it. The realm, of which the human society of Alera is but one of several races, is just too awesome to compare with "Pikachu, I choose you!" Aargh! Shudder! Don't make me even think about it! But, all right, the Roman part I'll grant you. Aleran society is related in some vague, alternate-world (or perhaps post-apocalyptic) way to the ancient Roman Empire—except that almost everybody has some degree of magical ability, especially those of the noblest blood. Their magic comes from an ability to command the entities that personify the forces of nature in wood, metal, earth, water, air, and fire. But young Tavi, an unconventional hero in that he has no "furycraft" whatsoever, knows that such power can also be a weakness—for example, because its wielders never learn to rely on their wits.
Tavi has been learning exactly that, and many other skills, during the two years or so since First Lord Gaius sponsored his entrance at the Cursors' academy. Between gruelling lessons in combat, history, and other subjects, he also serves as the First Lord's page, growing strong and lean from running up and down the spiral stairs to his patron's meditation chamber, and developing iron nerves by standing up to the ambassador of the wolflike Canim. Besides all this and trying to dodge magically gifted bullies without revealing the full extent of his non-magical abilities, Tavi is on special assignment to catch a thief.
With all these jobs to do and final exams coming up, Tavi is already missing a lot of sleep when things start to get really busy. The imperial capital is coming alive for the annual Wintersend festival. His Aunt Isana, the first female citizen to be made a Steadholder other than by marriage or murder, is coming to town on urgent business, regardless of the squad of assassins after her. A high lord is plotting to push Gaius off the throne and seize power for himself. The Canim, who not only can smell fear and tear out a man's throat with their teeth but also have some kind of magical influence over the weather, are brewing up a colossal storm, as if to test the First Lord and his empire for weakness. And when all this proves too much for the aging and overtaxed First Lord to cope with, Tavi is the one who must step up. Now, on top of everything, he must cover up for his lord's frailty, even to the point of surviving an attempt on his life and springing a buddy from jail so that the charade that Gaius is still in control can go on.
But the toughest part is yet to come. Back home in the Calderon Valley, Tavi's uncle Count Bernard has led the Garrison legion into a trap. The enemy is a strange race of insectoid beings called the vord, who have struck fear into the hearts of the fearless Marat for millennia. The Marat, you may remember, are a barbarian horde whose territory borders Alera, and have only lately become the Alerans' allies after a grisly conflict in the previous book that is now remembered as the Second Marat War. Massive, tough, and brutally honest, these Marat have a deep wisdom that compensates for their apparent lack of cleverness—and their battle-readiness is enhanced by the way warriors from each tribe bond with a particular kind of animal, fighting alongside them like two bodies with one mind. Imagine a horde of these warriors, each paired with a vicious, elephant-sized, badger-type creature called a gargant. Imagine two thousand of these warrior pairs, ganging up on a nest of the vord—a queen, her beetle-like warriors, her spider-like keepers, and (perhaps deadliest of all) the reanimated bodies of her captured enemies, known as the "taken." And now imagine that after destroying this one vord nest, all that remains of the horde is one Marat chieftain named Doroga and his gargant pal Walker.
Are you ready to understand the seriousness of the predicament our Aleran friends are in? No, you are not. Now imagine that there are two more such nests at large: the one that has Bernard and his legion pinned down in the valley, and the one that followed Tavi's scent to the capital city. The authorities should be very concerned, to say the least. But nobody in the capital knows anything about it except Bernard's sister and Tavi's aunt Isana, who doesn't know how to get Gaius's attention—doesn't know that the First Lord is, in fact, quite indisposed—and has her hands full just staying alive when every third person she meets is trying to kill her. For Bernard and Amara, the Cursor Countess he loves, prospects are dim. Even with Doroga and Walker fighting beside them, without reinforcements their legion is doomed. The only chance for Alera to survive this imminent threat is for Isana to make a deal with the devil... or at least the people who were trying to kill her and everyone she cared about in the last crisis. And even with reinforcements flying to the rescue, the nation will not be saved without a savage, bloody, desperate battle.
And that, dear readers, is what you can expect in this adventure. Magic, check. Intrigue, check. Suspense, humor, romance (adult content advisory!)—check, check, check. Shocking violence and spectacular battle scenes? In spades! Do events reach such a grim outlook that there seems to be no future in store for anybody? Absolutely! Does Tavi come through with clever and gutsy maneuvers? Yes. And will the ending leave you slobbering with anticipation of the next installment? Wipe your mouth, then, and grab hold of Codex Alera Book 3: Cursor's Fury.
Saint Louis USA
Recommended Age: 14+
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Natalie McDonald, who appeared in Harry Potter and Goblet of Fire, was based on a real girl Rowling knew who was dying of leukemia. She wrote to JK Rowling asking what was going to happen in the next Harry Potter book as she would not live long enough to read it.