Top Ten: The Codex Alera

Cover of Furies of Calderon, showing a Roman being attacked by a Storm.
Click to read an excerpt!

Title: Furies of Calderon

Author: Jim Butcher

Nutshell: Alera is a gorgeous land, filled with civilization a la Ancient Rome. Men and women work the land to produce a living, aided by the furies. Not the claw-handed furies of Greece, but elemental spirits that live in every facet of the world. Tavi, however, is the only person in the entire country to be completely without furycraft.

He lives, of course, in the Calderon valley, the roughest frontier of Alera, where only furycraft keeps the residents alive. Tavi gets by mostly on determination, nurtured by his aunt and uncle, hoping someday to enroll in the Academy in the capital. But as he and his uncle go out tending sheep, they are attacked by a Marat, a barbarian from beyond the mountains. In trying to warn the garrison guarding the path, Tavi unearths a twisted plot to overthrow the First Lord of Alera.

Read-alikes: The Legend of Eli Monpress reminds me of this one, though it’s a bit lighter overall. Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive is similar in style of writing and theme, and although the world is very different, the concept of everything having some kind of soul is the same,if carried much further. I don’t think I’ve read any Rome-based fantasy worlds other than this one, but Patrick Rothfuss can match him for richness and diversity of civilization.


Legend has it that Jim Butcher was given the idea that bloomed into this book by a disgruntled fan on a forum, who disputed his claim that there were no “stupid ideas.” Butcher, smooth as you please, told the fan that he could write whatever that fan thought was the stupidest idea in the world, and it would be a bestseller. “Pokémon are real,” the fan snapped back, and thence came this book.

The furies in the book have a fairly slim relation to Pokémon. They are divided into elements in the same way that Pokémon are, and they do appear in bestial forms, and they do fight on their owners behalf. But they are like familiars, ever-present and constantly attending, being given tasks and carrying them out. Through them, a person can command the element around them to some degree — their own strength determines that — and sense things that are affecting that element. Most interestingly, each fury also confers some kind of emotional ability on the crafter. Each element is related to a particular set of emotions. Fire for fears, earth for passions, and so on. It leads to a relational dynamic built into the magic system.

Jim Butcher’s world is diverse, too. The barbarians, which are for the most part the enemy, are not paper people with swords coming “for reasons.” They have a complex tribal society in which each person bonds with one of five totem animals. Mr. Butcher does not fall into the “nobility of the simple” trap either. The Marat’s women and men are not confined to rigid roles, but also the society practices ritual cannibalism. Different, but not foolishly idealized.

In other books, he explores other cultures, and it never feels like reading an encyclopedia. In fact, figuring out the nuances of the other cultures is usually pivotal to saving the day, as it is in this book. (There’s probably a lesson in there somewhere, but it’s so deeply buried that someone as sensitive to messaging as I am only caught it just now. This means that the message comes from the worldview of the author, rather than being “the point,” which is the appropriate way to share a message in an art form.)

Oh, all this discussion of serious topics. Pfah. One of the best things about this book is the number of times that I wanted to jump up and shout, “Yes! Take that!” Mr. Butcher sets up his twists and his payoffs to lead into each other in a chain of “Yes!” and “Oh NO!” and “Oh, ho, ho, YES!” again. (Very eloquent, I know.) He creates conflicts and then builds them up so that for a minute you aren’t sure that what you wanted to happen will happen, and then it does happen but SO MUCH BETTER.

That’s really why I like the Codex Alera. All the things you want to happen do happen but in REALLY AWESOME WAYS.

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