First Lord’s Fury
Ace Books (784 pp, $9.99, paperback November 2010)
Reviewed by Chris Braak
Despite the phenomenal success of his better known Dresden Files, the steady-hand and breakneck pace of First Lord’s Fury suggests that maybe Jim Butcher’s heart lies in epic fantasy.
First Lord’s Fury is the sixth, and presumably final, book in Butcher’s Codex Alera series. It brings to conclusion the long war that the Alerans and their sometimes-enemies, sometimes-allies, the Canim, have been fighting against the Vord. As in previous novels, the action is split: first between Tavi’s family who, along with the survivors of Alera Imperia (which was destroyed when a volcano erupted under it) fight a holding action across what remains of Alera, pursued to its edge by the relentless insectoid Vord. Meanwhile, Tavi – Gaius Octavian himself, the new First Lord of Alera – his band of merry men, and his new army of gigantic lycanthropes, struggle to develop increasingly improbable means to cross an entire continent in time to save the last remnants of his civilization.
Butcher, as always, writes clear, straightforward, sometimes dry and often witty text and it’s especially a joy in a case like First Lord’s Fury, in which constant action is the order of the day. There is little in the way of deep ruminations or blocks of thick description to slow the story down at all. Butcher even goes light on character description and development – relying heavily on the previous five books-worth of explication about the now-familiar characters – in order to keep the plot moving.
This might sound like a flaw, but it really isn’t: primarily because that plot keeps moving. It is literally a relentless string of close scrapes, near misses, sudden reversals and last-minute saves. Now that he has got the various explanations and explorations of character, setting, and mood out of the way, Butcher is free to run riot through the remains of his world, delivering a suspenseful and exciting ride to a climax of epic proportions.
It is appropriate to point out that Butcher doesn’t eschew all character development. In addition to the always-entertaining cultural clashes between the Alerans and their Canim frenemies – clashes requiring solutions which necessitate that Tavi live up to his reputation as literally the cleverest man in the world – Butcher’s treatment of Valiar Marcus, in particular, is actually quite poignant. Marcus is really the spy Fidelias, the man who, early on in the Codex Alera series, betrayed the old First Lord and nearly destroyed Tavi’s home and family. He is now stuck in extremely deep-cover in Tavi’s First Aleran Legion, having returned to one of his old disguises as a battle-hardened centurion.
Marcus’ gradual shift in priorities, from spying on and potentially trying to undermine Tavi, to a loyal and highly-valued member of the legion; his constant and growing anxieties about exposure; his fear that, now that he actually has reformed, that reformation won’t matter – all of these have been a high point in the series. Valiar Marcus has the longest and most comprehensive character arc in the series; even Tavi, who goes from precocious farm-boy to First Lord of Alera is still essentially the same person: a little harder, a little wiser, but ultimately he is psychologically and morally the same.
It is a bit of a shame that Butcher couldn’t give Marcus the genuine, tragic arc that the character deserves, but it’s entirely understandable that the author enjoyed such affection for his characters that he was hesitant to make them suffer too much. Moreover, it’s a bittersweet truth that modern serial fantasy tends to prescribe happy endings for all – an ultimately conciliatory form that, like the fairy tales that are its antecedent, must reward the good, and must ensure that only the wicked are truly punished.
There are a few other places where Butcher could be taken to task for not following through: his explanations of the element-based magic of furycraft seems to fall by the wayside as the heroes approach the final battle. He clearly wanted the Aldrick ex Gladius and his Windwolves to be involved in the climax somehow, but never really found very much for them to do. These are really minor quibbles, though: First Lord’s Fury promises nothing more than a fast-paced plot and a rollicking good time, and that is exactly what it delivers.
This review originally appeared in Black Gate Magazine #15
Chris Braak is a novelist and playwright from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His most recent books, The Translated Man and Other Stories and Mr. Stitch, are available at Threat Quality Press. You can find out more about Chris at the Chris Braak Website Experience (www.chrisbraak.com).