Sunday, February 21, 2010

Furies of Calderon

I've enjoyed Jim Butcher's Dresden Files books well enough. They're easy reading, engaging, and fun. They're not high art, and there's a lot about them that's cheesy, repetitive, even ridiculous. In the first two, the writing is pretty bad. The characters are often more annoying than sympathetic. And yet the stories are entertaining, funny in the right places, tense in the right places, rich with an embarassingly diverse spread of stuff going on. They're a cheap joyride. They're like David Lee Roth singing in Van Halen: no one's going to accuse them of high artistry, but they never disappoint in being precisely the flashy fun they purport to be.

But while Butcher has done a great job of making a world background for Dresden that holds up despite shoving so many things into it, the same tendencies have not served him well in his other series, the Alera saga, or at least in its first book, Furies of Calderon. The central premise is a fairly standard swords-and-sorcery world, but where the form the sorcery takes is primarily furies, which are elemental spirits. Everyone has the ability of furycrafting (with one Xanth-reminiscent exception), so the only differences are in how powerful are the furies you bond with, and how skilled you are at encouraging them to do things. (It's unclear at this point what the furies get out of the deal.) So far, the limits in what furies can and can't do has not been very fully explained; probably in later books it will be fleshed out.

The problem I have is one that I've seen in lots of swords-and-sorcery books, only taken to a far more extreme level. So often we see in a swords-and-sorcery story that some bit of magic is able to completely subvert and bypass defenses like historically-accurate castle walls, rendering them ineffective. And yet, no one in the world ever seems to have considered this in deciding how (and whether) to build castle walls. The effects that magic would have on the world are not limited to Tom's ability to use it: they should also be reflected in Jane's realization that Tom can use it, so that Jane prepares for it. The ability to manufacture or preserve food supplies would completely change war, as would many kinds of healing, as would many magical forms of transportation, as would many methods of magic-enhanced stealth. And that's just war: even bigger changes would affect economics, and through them, social structures. Yet most swords-and-sorcery books ignore this, letting the reader be surprised when a magic trick bypasses defenses by letting the world's characters be surprised.

You can get away with this when magic is very, very rare. It only makes sense that I'm not going to avoid building a castle just because there's a legend that somewhere there's a guy who can raise mists and disguise someone's face and thus let a troop of soldiers sneak right in, because that's unlikely to happen, and in the meanwhile, the world is full of bandits and savages and rival warlords against whom those castle walls would work just fine. But when everyone's got a court wizard, and everyone knows everyone else has one, there's got to be a point when someone asks, "what kind of attack can we expect from the other guy's court wizard, and how can we adjust our defenses so they're not wholly vulnerable to that?"

Alera multiplies this problem a hundred-fold because everyone has furies. Once in a while we see a sign that someone has adapted to this. There are a few defenses people use to counter other people's furies, for instance. But most of the time, the idea that the other guy is going to use a fury, or how he might use it, comes as a complete surprise to the characters. And a large part of the book repeats the traditional castle-seige scene where this is most glaring, because virtually every plot twist in that lengthy section of the book is made of someone using a fury in a way that the people of that world should have seen a thousand times before, but against which there are no precautions, not even the simplest precaution of enough foresight to expect it.

And Butcher uses these kinds of twists as the backbone of the story. It would be one thing if the story was interesting and solid, but plagued with this kind of "continuity error", so it was just a quibble on my part. But these kinds of plot holes are the bulk of the fabric from which the story is woven. Not only does no one ever expect anyone else's furycrafting, almost nothing in the story happens for any reason other than those failures of expectation. What's left once you take those away are mostly overused clich├ęs (the swordsman that can cut through scores of foes, but eventually meets the other swordsman that can cut through scores of foes; people falling in love instantly and for no particular reason) that you can forgive when there's more behind it.

Lest I seem too critical, the book has some engaging characters. The more "everyday" a character is, the more engaging they are: Butcher does best with the young and naive character, and worst with the villains, who are trite and uninspired. The storyline has Butcher's usual momentum, though that's weakened by him breaking it up too much, so by the time you get back to one group, you've forgotten where you last left them. There are some very nice moments, and the book ends on one, which almost redeems some of the ham-and-cheese that preceded it. When he's doing humor, Butcher never quails at playing the tried-and-true, but he does it with enough panache that you're laughing even while you groan. And apart from the one big hole I mentioned, his world background is interesting, particularly the savage Marat and their unusual customs.

I don't regret reading the book, though there were times I had to give myself a little bit of a push to keep going. I will probably read the others in the series. It'd be ideal reading for a long plane flight. But I wouldn't put it high on a list of books to read. I do hope that in subsequent books, the world gets a little more used to itself, because that could really turn this around: if Butcher really explores what this world should be like, with the depth that made Dresden Files a great choice for a roleplaying game, Alera could become fascinating (and maybe even a better choice for a roleplaying game) and the stories can't help but become far better for it.

1 comment:

litlfrog said...

You write that "the idea that the other guy is going to use a fury, or how he might use it, comes as a complete surprise to the characters." Explained that way, in descriptions of specific situations with particular characters, those plot holes are kind of inexcusable. However, I wanted to make a point about magic in medieval-tech fantasy tales. Ubiquitous magic would create a world very different from 12th-century Europe, but the constraints of the genre prevent the author from straying far from that paradigm. The fantasy reader market wants sturdy castles, armored knights, and peasant farmers no matter WHAT kind of magic the author also posits. There are certainly books out there that place magic in unique, fully thought-out, low-technology societies very different from those of Earth--they're just not what most readers are looking for.