Monday, May 25, 2015

Down the Stacks #2: Codex Alera

This week on “Down the Stacks,” I’ll be looking at a six-volume military epic written on a bet by Jim Butcher, of Dresden Files fame.  After a debate about whether or not a good author could produce a good book from a bad idea, Butcher bet he could write a good book based on two random ideas.  The concepts given to him were a lost Roman legion and Pokemon, and the books that came forth are collectively called The Codex Alera.

The Codex Alera takes place in a world known as Carna, a world that seems to serve as the dumping ground for the occasional holes in reality that cause people to go missing across the multiverse.  Alera is a vast country populated by the descendants of a Roman legion and its camp followers that was transported to Carna by unknown means.  Due to their heritage and being the only people on Carna originating from our Earth, Alera’s culture, military, and government are all still very heavily influenced by ancient Roman standards, but time and the development of a distinct magic system within the populace have morphed the Alerans into a unique people.  The quirks of of the magic system and the pressure of external threats keep the continent-spanning realm of Alera more or less unified, but events that began fourteen years before the start of the series and which escalate over the course of the books are threatening that peace.
The magic of Alera is known as furycrafting, and it involves binding and manipulating the spirits of fire, water, earth, air, wood, and steel present in the world.  Every Aleran possesses at least a little general furycraft, enough to control fury-powered lamps, plumbing, and other such facilities, and most excel at one or two elements.  Mastery of an element allows a furycrafter to control furies large and powerful to earn names and gain some side benefits or abilities.  A strong Earthcrafter, for instance, can not only call up faithful animal-shaped stone golems, but they can also raise solid stone walls right out of the earth and influence other people’s sexual attraction to them.  Aircrafters can build enough air pressure under themselves to fly, Steelcrafters can ignore pain and are the fastest and deadliest sword fighters in all of Alera, and Watercrafters can send messages through water and heal almost any wound or illness with a tub of water and enough time.  The strength of one’s furies is tied to political position - the strongest and most versatile crafters are the High Lords and Ladies of Alera’s eleven states and the most powerful of all serves as the First Lord.  Unfortunately, furycrafting ability tends to follow bloodlines and there’s an arbitrary minimum skill level to even be a citizen without serving in the military, so there’s little chance for social movement.  The current First Lord, Gaius Sextus, is the sixth generation from the Gaius who founded Alera as a state.  Furycrafting plays an important part in Alera’s military, but the backbone of the army remains the Roman shieldwall and gladius formation.
At the start, Alera is under real or potential threat from three different races coming from every direction except the south.  To the west, across an ocean full of leviathans, are the Canim, a race of giant wolf-men with a strong warrior culture and a sect of priests who practise blood magic.  To the north are the Icemen, a yeti-like people with the magic of the frozen north backing them up, who are held at bay only by a massive wall that spans the entire length of Alera’s northern border and manned by regular rotations of legionaries.  To the east, linked to Alera by an ismuth of land called Calderon, are the nearly-human Marat, a nomadic people made up of separate tribes formed on the basis of what animal an individual forms a life-bond with.  The Marat are the least aggressive of Alera’s foes, but the least trusted because it was while helping to repel a Marat invasion that Gaius Sepitmus, heir apparent to the First Lordship, was killed.  This has set off rumblings within the Aleran elite about the country’s future, and a few more ambitious High Lords decide to take secretive action to usurp the throne.
These political intrigues are of a little matter to our protagonist at first, because he has more pressing matters like lost sheep, discovering Marat sneaking around Calderon Valley, and the fact that he’s fourteen years old and still hasn’t developed any furycrafting whatsoever.  Tavi has many of the classic marks of a Hero in potentia: both of his parents are dead, he doesn’t know who his father is, he starts out in a relative backwater village that comes very close to being ravaged, and he’s unique among his peers.  That uniqueness happens to be being the only mundane individual in a country full of magicians, but it is uniqueness.  His lack of furies creates some angst, but after fourteen years of it he’s more or less accepted it as his lot in life and aspires to nothing more than owning his own flock of sheep, until destiny comes knocking.  The lack of furies to command also forces Tavi to be clever and inventive since he can’t solve problems by blasting things with elemental power or summoning shelter from the ground.  After finding a young Cursor girl on the run from her traitorous mentor and later being kidnapped and spirited into Marat lands, Tavi begins a quick climb, sometimes surprisingly abrupt, to becoming one of the most important military leaders in Alera with his ability to take any bad situation and turn it around in the most insane and spectacular manner possible.
The Codex Alera centers around Tavi, but it involves the fates of entire nations being decided through war and political espionage, so there are a lot of characters to keep track of and many of the most important ones aren’t introduced until the second or third book.  I’ll start by going into close detail on the characters that often share viewpoint duties with Tavi and then move on to other characters of import.
The first viewpoint character we ever meet, even before Tavi enters the scene, is Amara ex Cusori.  As a Cursor, Amara officially serves as a messenger for the First Lord, but as everyone in Alera’s politics knows, Cursors are more often deployed as spies and assassins to keep the country’s internal affairs under control.  We meet Amara as she’s undertaking her final test to become a full Cursor by infiltrating a renegade legion, only to discover that her mentor Fidelias is in league with the traitors and intends to use the mission to slip out of the First Lord’s service.  Amara barely escapes with her life and flies off to Calderon Valley to warn them of a plot to rile the Marat into another war.  After meeting Tavi and following him home so she can have her message forwarded to the proper authorities, Amara sticks around to help and grows close with Tavi’s uncle Bernard, a Wood- and Earthcrafter of great strength and a knack for military leadership.  Throughout the series, Amara wrestles with her attraction to Bernard and her devotion to the First Lord as she becomes one his most trusted Cursors and thus involved in necessary evils.  Bernard often accompanies her or acts as a bulwark she can rest on when things get too heavy.
The next viewpoint character is Isana, Tavi’s aunt and Bernard’s sister.  Isana is a powerful Watercrafter, making her not only a healing miracle worker but highly sensitive to the emotions of others (this proves troublesome because she doesn’t have any Steelcrafting to help block the sensations).  She’s the maternal figure in Tavi’s life, and after he grows up and goes off on his own adventures Isana ends up deeply entrenched in Aleran politics by association with both Tavi and Bernard, who rises from a simple landowner to Count of Calderon after the first book.  Isana’s a good character who works hard for Alera’s best interests, but her first priority is always Tavi and she has no love for First Lord Gaius.  She travels a little, but she mostly serves as the viewpoint character for the politics happening in Alera’s capital while Tavi’s off fighting wars.
One character who is central to the series but never gets viewpoint status is Kitai, a feisty Marat girl around Tavi’s age who is almost always at his side because she formed her spirit-bond with him after they survived a deadly challenge together.  Kitai is a proud Marat who takes great pleasure in telling Tavi just how insane Alerans are from her perspective.  As easy it would be to say that her view of Alerans is influenced by Tavi’s out-of-the-box thinking, her criticisms generally apply to the race as a whole, including their politics (Marat don’t quite understand the concept of lying on purpose), organization and drilling (Marat are completely spontaneous in their music and warfare), and prudishness.  Although Kitai seems to complain a lot, she does care for Tavi and Alerans as a whole, so her complaints tend to come across as just teasing.  Her bond with Tavi allows her to sense his location and mood, and by the end she knows him so well she can predict where he’s most likely to be and why.  Kitai is the official ambassador to Alera for the Marat, but in practice her jolly giant of a father, Doroga, tends to lead any Marat partnership with the Alerans.
Another character who is almost always around Tavi from the second book on is Maximus “Max” Antillar.  Max is pretty much Tavi’s sidekick in the army, keeping Tavi aware of what the standard legion response to a problem is and then subsequently helping him set up his next game-changing tactic.  As the illegitimate son of one of the High Lords in charge of the Shieldwall and having a stepmother determined to remove him from the line of succession permanently, Max has both a love of enjoying life and experience surviving deadly “accidents,” which serve him well in keeping Tavi safe and sane.  He’s more likely than Kitai to call Tavi out on a particular plan being crazy, because Kitai likes it when Alerans do something different, but it’s hard to say who worries more about Tavi’s personal safety during those insane plans.  He also frequently invokes the soldier’s “sacred right to complain” during his commentaries.
The High Lords of Alera all appear in the series, but not all are of equal importance. Most of them are loyal to the First Lord even when the succession crisis reaches a peak, but some vie for control.  The most dangerous of these rebels is Lord Aquitaine, a sly and crafty fellow assisted by an equally sly and dangerous wife.  They pull strings from behind the scenes, setting many events into motion while keeping their hands clean in a legal sense.  On the less saavy side we have Lord Kalare, who is brash enough to create his own group of assassin-spies and threaten a civil war when the Aleran legions are already engaged with a Canim invasion.
The Canim produce their own sets of good and bad characters, on the moral scale.  The first we meet is Varg, the Canim ambassador to Alera, who teaches Tavi a lot of crucial information about Canim culture, language, and ethics.  Later on is Nausaug, leader of a Canim invasion force who quickly comes to respect Tavi as a worthy opponent, which is about the best thing a Canim can say about anybody.  Then there’s Sarl, a Canim ritualist (Blood Mage) and a sneaky, power-grubbing little coward, which is particularly shameful for a Canim.
The Icemen don’t get much development, as they don’t fall into Tavi’s sphere of interest until the last book.
Now, there’s actually one more race to talk about in the Codex Alera: the Vord.  In many respects, the Vord are the Zerg from Starcraft, except with a sickly green color scheme and forms that more closely resemble terrestrial insects.  Like the Zerg, the Vord are controlled by a central mind, their infrastructure relies on spreading a thick carpet of goo over everything, and they evolve new forms by studying the enemy and adapting.  The Vord take time to build up over the course of the series, but by the halfway point they become the greatest external threat to everything else on Carna.  The only character of import that comes from the Vord is their Queen, and she stands out mostly for her fascination with humanity coupled with her inability to actually grasp the concepts she tries to learn about, all while directing her swarm to cover and consume the land.
The Codex Alera started out as a challenge to take the ideas of “Lost Roman Legion” and “Pokemon” and make something worthwhile out of it.  Those ideas form the backbone of the series and are so well crafted into one another that the reader could be excused for not seeing the Pokemon connection at all.  If Jim Butcher had limited himself just to those two ideas, he may not have succeeded in making such a fun series of books.  With the inclusion of the Zerg-like Vord, the Canim which fuse werewolves with honorable warrior race tropes, and a protagonist who is not afraid to push his limits and in fact seems to live for the opportunity to top his last crazy-awesome idea, Jim Butcher produced a true epic of war, politics, and magic.  Look for the Codex Alera books, starting with Furies of Calderon, at your local library or bookstore.

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