When I first started reading books by Jim Butcher last summer, I told myself that his books were good bad fantasy — you know, cheesy brain-candy that’s just well-written enough that it’s a lot of fun to read. But midway through Cursor’s Fury, when I found myself tensely turning pages in order to find out whether a certain secondary character was going to survive to the end of the book, and realizing that I was going to be upset if he didn’t make it, I suddenly began to wonder: could it be? Is this book in fact good good fantasy?
You see, Jim Butcher’s worldbuilding is good. Really good. The people of Alera get their ‘magical’ powers from furies — elemental beings? spirits? creatures? Butcher skips over the technical details (generally a good idea, since explanations of magic in fantasy novels often turn out really lame), which allows him to concentrate on the important stuff: the super cool things the Alerans can do by furycrafting. Watercrafters, for instance, have healing powers, can alter their appearance at will, send messages across long distances using pools or streams, sense other people’s emotions, and age very slowly in appearance. Other crafters have similarly diverse lists of things they can do –- among other talents, earthcrafters have prodigious strength, metalcrafters have superhuman endurance, and windcrafters can (of course) fly. By delineating the particular powers the different crafters can tap, Butcher creates a magical system that is limited and somehow cohesive — it essentially reads like a society populated by a race of X-Men rather than one of wizards. Which is all to the best, because everyone knows how cool superheroes are!
The political system of Alera is developed well, too — the political complications to the plot are complex (with plenty of loyalists, double crossers, double agents, and, of course, folks out for their own gain at whatever cost to others), but not so complicated that they’re impossible to sort out. Plus, the Aleran aristocracy is made up of people who are especially gifted in multiple forms of furycrafting, so when they get involved in the plot (and they do), we get to see lots of cool special effects in all the action scenes!
Then there are the characters. They’re just well-drawn. The three or four main characters are all believable and likable, with credible relationships with one another and individual personalities. You find yourself rooting for them and really happy when they succeed and achieve happiness. (Plus, it’s a great twist to feature a central character without special powers in a society where everyone has them, so that his main character arch is learning how to use his wits instead of his magical powers, turning the typical cliche on its head.) The secondary characters are interesting and engaging, too. Butcher is a master at stringing the reader along by a gradual revelation of his characters’ pasts and how those pasts affect their actions and personalities, a technique which he employs effectively with both central and secondary characters in this series (and this volume in particular). It’s also a great way to bring people back for the sequel (learn more about so-and-so’s fascinating secret past in volume 3!) without going for the cliffhanger ending, which he dependably avoids.
So, are the Codex Alera books actually good good fantasy? Well, it’s hard to say. See, the fact remains that they don’t have a lot of substance behind the excellent worldbuilding, characterization, and plot development. Yeah, there’s the (sometimes pre-marital) sex scenes. (Which are, predictably, laughably cheesy. Will more authors eventually realize that attempting to write a non-cheesy sex scene is nearly always a losing battle, and give up trying? We can only hope.) But I’m talking more about the lack of real overarching serious themes. At least there aren’t negative themes here, which is a plus. And there’s no fuzziness in the distinction between right and wrong, generally speaking. But overall, when I think of good fantasy, I think of books that deal with interesting ideas and complex moral conflicts. Those are basically absent here. So — good good fantasy? I’m not sure. But if it’s not, it’s just about the best good bad fantasy you’re going to find out there!
Content warning: There are a couple of non-explicit but sensual sex scenes in this book. There is also a lot of action violence, some of it gory.