In this first book of a series titled "Codex Alera," Dresden Files author Jim Butcher builds a fascinating, original fantasy world filled with non-stop suspense, intrigue, and action, all powered by a unique form of magic. And although the adventure is shared by an ensemble cast, one character who appears in less than half of the book promises to become the driving force for the series to follow: a boy named Tavi who, in defiance of the standard fantasy-hero job description, seems to be the only human being in his world who can't do magic! Tavi must live by his wits, his courage, and his heroic instinct to put the needs of others before his own, if he is going to achieve the great destiny whereat this book mysteriously hints.
The world of Alera is like and unlike our own. It is difficult to say exactly how the two worlds might be related. There is one fleeting hint, in the middle of this novel, that humans came to Alera from "another place" so long ago that their previous history, like their oldest surviving stone inscriptions, has worn away beyond recovery. Some of their places have names similar to geographical entities in our world, such as Aquitaine. The names of many characters, the Latin derivation of many of their words, and the general structure of their society seem to bespeak a familiarity with the ancient Romans. Their culture also seems to have assimilated Freudian psychology (since one character makes a crack about another's "ego"), to say nothing of present-day bumper-sticker slogans such as "What part of _____ didn't you understand?" Yet the savage humanoid species surrounding Aleran territory do not seem to be of this Earth. So this may be a world whose distant past overlaps with our world's distant future, and the Alerans may be the descendants of space-travelers from Earth. Or this may simply be a fantasy-world analogue of the Roman Empire.
One of the ways the world of Alera differs from our world is the number of intelligent races that dwell in it. Besides the human Alerans, there are the neighboring Canim and the Icemen (only mentioned in this book), the savage Marat warriors, and a race of giant waxy spiders, each occupying territory adjacent to Alera and held off by either natural barriers or defenses like the Shieldwall. But what will probably strike you most about this strange world is the way each Aleran is attuned to one or more of the elements of nature—earth, air, fire, water, wood, and metal—by communicating directly with the "furies," or invisible spirits who inhabit those elements and bring them to life for those who control them. So an air-crafter can fly, see over great distances, and manipulate the airflow around himself. Water-crafters can sense other people's emotions, using the fluids in and around their bodies to hurt or heal them. Fire-crafters can manipulate not only fire but also people's feelings. Wood-crafters can create illusions that allow them to slip by you unseen; and so on.
So it's obvious that young Tavi, the only Aleran anyone can remember ever reaching the age of fifteen without coming into his furies, has a big disadvantage to compensate for. And it's a dangerous time to be a farm-boy in the Calderon Valley regardless. A treasonous plot is afoot, a plot to overthrow the First Lord of Alera, a plot which will begin by throwing one High Lord's forces in with a Marat horde to destroy the legion garrison that guards the entrance to the valley, and then to wipe out the Steadholts (groups of farms under the protection of a leader known as a Steadholder) that populate the valley. A young woman named Amara, who has just qualified as a Cursor (something between a postal carrier and an intelligence agent), learns of this plot at about the same time as Tavi. Amara spots the plot during her graduation exercise from the Academy, when her own mentor is revealed as a traitor to the First Lord. Tavi stumbles on it by chance while trying to correct an error in his apprenticeship as a shepherd to his steadholder uncle Bernard, when the two of them are attacked by a Marat hordemaster while trying to round up a herd of sheep.
Next thing they know, the people of the Steadholts are in the middle of it, and Tavi and Amara have saved each other's lives, and a world already full of wild dangers and barely restrained conflict breaks open into a bloodbath between a rampaging horde and an ill-prepared army. Fury-crafting farm folk go up against treacherous knights. A vile slaver's inhuman methods bring together as allies two woman who would otherwise be enemies. Supernaturally gifted swordsmen duel in the middle of a colossal battle. Vicious creatures, such as the giant flightless birds known as herdbane, fight alongside their barbarian buddies. A half-witted slave with his face disfigured by a brand of cowardice shows himself to be more than he seems. An autumn-spring romance blossoms in the midst of a beleaguered fort. And one furyless boy, with a surplus of cleverness and nerve, holds his own in a trial of wits against remorseless creatures that can see body heat and whose victims often survive for weeks while being digested alive.
Tavi's ability to do the seemingly impossible without the benefit of magic may turn the tide of a devastating battle that, alas, is probably only the beginning of the troubles to follow in the further books of Codex Alera. Their titles, to-date, are: Academ's Fury, Cursor's Fury, Captain's Fury, Princeps' Fury, and First Lord's Fury. The second-most amazing thing about this series is the fact (related in an interview with author Butcher) that he wrote it in response to a bet that he couldn't create a good story based on a lame idea. The most amazing thing, however, is that lame or not, this fantasy-action novel is brilliant from its bottom-most concept to the exciting wealth of detail on its surface. Breathlessly paced, masterfully structured to keep the tension bowstring-taut, it draws the reader in so completely that I, for one, could not hold back from cheering the characters on aloud at several points—"Go, Tavi!" here, "Do it, Amara!" there, etc. It is one of the few books I have read that makes the word "Doomed!" a laugh line; for in spite of the gravitational pressure an author must feel while imagining a new world into being, Jim Butcher is never so far from his roots as the creator of a wise-cracking wizard that he forgets to lighten the mixture with a judicious measure of comic relief. If you can swing it, I recommend the audio-book narrated by Kate Reading (she whose performance of Middlemarch changed my world)—but my enjoyment of this book was so great that I couldn't wait for an audiobook of Academ's Fury and started right in on the paperback. I'll gladly risk the eye-strain, just to find out what happens next!
Saint Louis USA
Recommended Age: 14+
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