A Codex of Complaints about Jim Butcher’s Furies of Calderon

As folks who follow this blog have probably figured out by now, I’m a huge fan of fantasy – particularly various flavors of high fantasy (fantasy set in another world). I read fantasy because I genuinely enjoy it. However, I can be very critical of individual authorial decisions, and I can’t help but notice when the genre falls prey to problematic tropes – as, sadly, it too often does. Many of these have become so typical of the genre that authors seldom hesitate to include them, and long-time fantasy readers rarely question their necessity, much less their normality. In this way some wholly outdated and unnecessary trappings of the genre have become self-perpetuating.

As a fantasy reader, I think it is important to recognize the patterns and flaws in the works of our genre – as well as its strengths. I believe this is especially true when we read authors whose work we enjoy (or at least respect) but who, for whatever reason, make decisions that make us uncomfortable or disappoint us. As an extrovert, writer, and student of literature, it is pretty much impossible for me to avoid doing so.

Introducing Our Hero – A Boy with a Destiny

As part of a book club read-along on Goodreads, I picked up Jim Butcher’s Furies of Calderon, the first book of his Codex Alera series. Butcher is a household name in urban fantasy. His Dresden Files series are action-packed popcorn to read. Those books have spawned a TV series and a well-regarded and excellently-written tabletop RPG (which gets played at my house most weekends). Butcher is no n00b in the broader world of fantasy, nor do I think he is a bad writer or a terrible human being.

As I was attempting to reconcile my fondness for his Dresden books with my white-hot loathing for Furies of Calderon, I did a bit of research on his love affair with epic fantasy. By all accounts, he is a long-time fan of the genre, and writing a popular epic fantasy series was the fulfillment of a long-held dream. The conclusion I reach about this is that he probably wrote Furies of Calderon when he was much less practiced at his craft than he is now. The story goes he wrote it on a bit of a lark when challenged to base a book on the unholy marriage of Pokemon and the Lost Roman Legion, so I’m not convinced he regarded this book as a serious undertaking at the time he wrote it. Quite frankly, the lackadaisical attitude and/or poor craft he appears to have applied to Furies of Calderon seems glaringly obvious to me.

Bait and Switch

The story opens promisingly with a pair of magical super spies putting the finishing touches on a covert intelligence-gathering operation. Apparently the royal super spies are so bad ass that in order to graduate from the super spy academy they have to plan and execute a live mission the failure of which could end in the deaths of themselves and their mentor. Alera (a female protagonist in epic fantasy! Yay!) means to pass her test with flying colors. This is a seriously awesome setup and not something I’ve really seen in the genre.

A few chapters later, though, we are introduced to Tavi – a blandly heroic shepherd-with-a-destiny assembled from the parts of a thousand other young male epic fantasy protagonists. Yes, I realize Tavi is the star in the book description, but after magical cloak and dagger action, Bink al’Thor and his lost flock of sheep were huge letdown. This is a classic example of an author failing to correctly set and maintain the tone of the book.

Butcher has more problems with tone as the story goes on. Having spent nearly half the book telling a lighthearted tale of how good always overcomes evil, Butcher suddenly  recalls that George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is really popular and decides to inject grim and gritty realism in apparently the only way bad epic fantasy writers know how. As you might expect, this was jarring. But if you haven’t read the book you really can’t imagine just how jarring…

Boy Prisoners Earn Their Freedom; Girl Prisoners Endure the Indignities of Capture

Tavi gets captured by cannibal barbarians, and Butcher gives him an utterly ludicrous series of plot twists (seriously, if your character literally says “I can’t believe this is happening,” how do you expect the reader to?) to get him out of it. Not only does he get an out (“defeat our champion”), but he’s pitted against a child in the only kind of contest he could possibly win. It’s like putting John Keats in a gladiatorial arena against the biggest, meanest guy in Rome and then announcing that the contest will be decided by a sonnet-writing competition, and if he wins the Roman Empire will withdraw all its armies from all those countries it has spent the last few hundred years conquering.

Sorry, but that’s absurd. Okay, so after the hero’s father figure came back from the dead I had pretty much sussed out that I’m reading a book aimed for readers who prefer their fantasy with a morality akin to that of a children’s fairy tale. That’s not usually my speed, but I can respect that decision. The genre has plenty of fans, and I don’t mind a lighthearted romp now and again.

Then a chapter or so later Isana (a female character) is forced to watch helplessly as her fellow female prisoner is raped and tortured. And the big escape plan appears to be “eventually our big men will show up and rescue us.”

No.

That sort of BS needs to die in a fire. Epic fantasy has a horrible history of reducing its women to trophies and victims, and while I’m by no means advocating that they should never suffer hardships and setbacks, maybe we can find better roles for them – and better ways to threaten them than the R-word.

I already felt the characterization was weak across the board, with fantasy tropes I’ve seen a thousand times before – the shepherd with a Destiny, the matronly healer, the woodsman, the totem-worshipping barbarians, the bad girl with a tragic history, etc. (I’ve written on the topic of tired fantasy tropes before). Another series where the only way we can show that someone is the bad guy is to make him a slaver and rapist? So bored of that tired crutch.

If you’re going to add “gritty” elements like rape, torture, and slavery, be consistent about using them (I’ve also written about this on occasion). George R.R. Martin and Joe Abercrombie have some awful stuff, but it happens to everyone more or less equally. GRRM can make the villain of one book into the hero of the next by providing context for their actions. Abercrombie had me rooting for the torturer (as in one of the main characters is a torturer by trade).

If you’re going to hide behind “gritty,” you don’t get to rely on unbelievable plot twists to save your Rand al’Thor knock-off from certain death. He thinks his way out or he dies. And if miraculous plot contrivances are your bag, you can apply them to all your characters equally rather than saying, “boys get a chance to win their freedom, girls just have to sit there and be raped until their men rescue them.”

The rape scene was the point at which I threw the book across the room and quit the series. I can put up with a lot, but this was just too derivative, too problematic, and too poorly written.

Bad Arts and Craft

When I pick up a fantasy novel from the 70s or 80s, I expect to see female characters cast in the same roles (usually maiden, mother, whore, shrew, martyr, or crone). Getting angry at a young Terry Brooks or early David (and Leah) Eddings for their over-reliance on spunky lasses and wise mother figures is like getting upset with my not-yet-two-year-old son for not being potty trained yet. But seeing a novel published in the 21st century whose female characters make Robert Jordan’s sniffing, braid-pulling, dress-smoothing ladies look like realistic women bothers me.

Okay. Fine. So I felt like all the characters are pretty much paper dolls cut from copies of The Eye of the World. I also spent a lot of time rolling my eyes at unnecessarily wordy descriptions. Never use “he made a screaming sound” when you can use “he screamed,” instead. Seriously. The copy editor needs to be fired (if indeed there was one).

Jim Butcher is a good writer, but Furies of Calderon is not a good book. I’m not going to finish it, and I’m certainly not going to pick up its sequels. It might be awhile before I return to The Dresden Files, too. The taste in my mouth is that bad.

This entry was posted in The Pithdai Gate and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to A Codex of Complaints about Jim Butcher’s Furies of Calderon

  1. Kim says:

    In some parts I agree. In some I don’t. If you finished the rape scene you find that Isana got out and not only that she bested Kord. Or whatever his name was.

    I do understand that not all women have to be strong and sexless, or powerful and stoic to be “non sexist” depictions of women – I mean, it is OK to have a strong independent women who also knows how to manipulate men through seduction. And it’s fine to have a woman who’s role is the Mother.

    I just feel that all the strong women like Isana, Amara, Lady Aquitaine, Kitai – they all have to have something to do with sex. And not in a, oh yes women have sexual urges too, way. In an undermining way. I mean I love the books, I wasn’t expecting anything epic, and I figured out half the plot before I finished, but when I’m reading from Amara’s view she’s ALWAYS pining about Bernard and Isana is worrying over Tavi and Kitai seems to only want to have sex with Tavi. And none of that would bother me if he balanced it out.

    It wouldn’t bother me that Amara like to feel small and protected in Bernards arms, if she stopped thinking about it all the time. If Butcher wrote that statement once and Amara accepted her feelings and continued down the path of bad assness. It wouldn’t have bothered me that Kitai jumps Tavi every time she’s sees him. If Butcher only stopped emphasising it.

    Because it’s not that they’re all beautiful. It’s not that they get weak-kneed when their guy rounds the corner. It’s not that they manipulate through sex. It’s just that’s all they seem to do. All the other things they do gets brushed under the carpet. Cause I get the era, I do, but I want my Arya and Daenerys, I want Hermione and Fleur and Luna (and basically all the Potterverse girls), I want Shallan and freakin’ Ms. No Need A Husband Jasnah herself. I want the perks and flaws, I want the stoic and the brave and the strong and the incapable and the girlish and the sexually active and the manipulator, the coward and the mother and the snob. And someone who is all of those things.

    But I do enjoy the books. And I don’t take it too seriously. And yes, there are the moments when women are awesome (not to mention the whole women’s rights theme that happens in No.2). I like the backstabbing. I like the simplicity. I like how it feels kind of like a film.

    I just can’t ignore the stereotype. I tried to converse about it with my dad, but he thought they were all strong women. And they are. But I can’t deal with the fact that all the women Tavi has met just so happen to be like this. Butcher writes women like they’re different. Instead of just writing a character and being like, oh yeah, she’s a girl.

  2. Steve says:

    Bink al’Thor is an absolutely awesome way to refer to Tavi.

    FoC had some good moments, but ultimately it fails mostly for the reasons the author posted. Let’s consider a few others:

    The world is rife with people who have magical powers mostly stemming from the five elements (plus wood, because seriously, trees?) and yet once we get into the giant Helms Deep battle that takes up the final third of the novel and makes us reconsider who the MC is, we see absolutely nobody using these powers. Okay, a few select individuals who have SUPERpowers do, but anyone with just mere “powers”? Nope, sorry, you get a bow or a sword. Have fun fighting the Aiel.

    Speaking of savages, we learn some curiosities about the Marat, but just enough to make us go “um, what? Explain please.” What’s the deal with whelps? I expected that Kitai was going to bond to a totem, and instantly turn into a horsey-lady like Hashat. In fact, what the hell happened to Kitai in the final third of the novel?

    Butcher needs to learn how to resolve an action scene. Seriously none of these sequences ended with me pumping my fist in the air. A guy falls off a cliff. A guy watches helplessly as stone suddenly falls upon him. They drop a boulder on a giant wasp. They push heavy boxes onto one guy.

    The novel, overall, was decent up until the battle in the river, just before the halfway point. Then the capture scenes mention above happen, and everything falls apart. Also, Butcher, hire a freaking editor. You’re a NYT Bestseller — your publishers should be providing you with one.

  3. John Schaum says:

    To keep it short, the first book is the worst of the series. Keep going, and I guarantee you’ll be rewarded. This is arguably my favorite fantasy series… finished the entire thing in a month.

  4. Morath says:

    I had to listen to the first novel, which happens to have one of my favorite readers. However, the second novel drew me in. I think he hit his stride with the series there, and starts performing more at his usual consistency.

    Also, when did the Song of Ice and Fire series get popular, I’d never heard of it before 2010.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>