There are a few sentences in the Prologue of Jim Butcher’s Academ’s Fury that in some ways reveal all that you need to know about the book:
The steady, smoldering throb from his left knee was of little more concern to him than the aching of his tired feet or the stretching soreness of weary muscles in his shoulders and arms after a day of hard drilling. He ignored them, his face as plain and remote as the worn hilt of the sword at his belt.
Butcher’s writing is descriptive and flows well, and his characterizations deftly evoke at least a modicum of sympathy. The story and characters themselves however are a rather tired and worn assemblage of epic fantasy clichés that disrupt the book’s imaginative impact, and the quick-moving pace covers up some rather silly plot holes in much the same way as the quick-moving prose covers up questions such as how exactly a sword worn at the belt can be “remote.”
Academ’s Fury is the second volume in Butcher’s “Codex Alera” series, picking up two years after the first volume, Furies of Calderon, ended. While reading that volume isn’t strictly necessary to understand this one (each book in the series is self-contained), it is recommended as the characters and situations are more fully introduced in the previous volume: Tavi, Isana, Bernard, Amara, Doroga and more all make repeat appearances here.
Tavi, the protagonist of one of the primary storylines, continues in the orphan-with-a-mysterious-destiny role; he remains abnormally without even a single “fury,” the elemental familiars that all (other) people in Alera bond with to work magic. He’s thus reminiscent of Pug from Raymond Feist’s Magician, or Bink from Piers Anthony’s A Spell for Chameleon. In Academ’s Fury Tavi takes on a Harry Potter-esque mantle as well, as a student at the Academy who is bullied by the malicious son of an aristocrat and his cronies while befriending and leading several more good-hearted students in missions for Killian, the aged spymaster (himself similar to Chade in Hobb’s “Assassin” books).
Meanwhile, back in Riva, Bernard and Amara work with Doroga (whose “noble savage” race, the Marat, invaded Riva in the previous book) to halt a new invasion by the Vord, a race that strongly evokes Star Trek’s Borg with a large dash of Eddings’s Seeker.
Finally, in the role of Eddings’s Aunt Pol we have Isana, whose water furies render her oddly ageless (a la Jordan’s Aes Sedai). Isana’s concern for Tavi sends her from Riva to Alera Imperia, to warn him that he, too, may be a target of the Vord.
No fewer than three quotes on the back jacket cover of Academ’s Fury label this series a “page-turner” (a fourth quote calls it “a stay-up-all-night-till-you-finish-it book”) and the description is apt. Butcher is a smooth writer, always encouraging you to read the next sentence, the next paragraph, the next page and chapter (and the next book). He does a good job showing rather than telling. There is a mix of enough elements — action, politics, magic and romance — to keep many readers happy, but none ever get deep enough to force a reader to stop and think. And as long as you don’t, you’ll be quite happy with the way Butcher carries the story along.
She stared at him in shock. The man’s eyes were…wrong. Simply wrong. Janus was an excellent, conscientious officer, whose mind was continually occupied with how best to lead and protect his men, attend to his duty, and serve the Realm. Even when he had been eating or at weapon’s practice, whether relaxed or angry, there had always been a sense of reflection to his eyes, his expression, as his mind assessed, planned, and weighed advantages.
That reflection had vanished.
Time stopped. Janus’s eyes were half-hooded, unblinking, his expression oddly slack. He met Amara’s gaze and whatever it was that now looked at her, it was not Captain Janus.
Great furies, Amara thought. He’s been taken.
It’s when you do stop to think that Academ’s Fury starts to fall apart. It has the “fast food” quality of offering a few strong tastes — salt and sugar, primarily — but little flavor and no sustenance. The characters, settings and plot devices are amalgamations of existing works without much to uniquely identify them here; vague metaphysics of history and magic are introduced and then ignored. But more important than these concerns are issues of plot within the book, and what the book represents within the larger fantasy genre.
Within the novel’s framework, the characters act out the necessities of the plot rather than taking actions in keeping with their own unique backgrounds and characteristics. There’s no getting around the fact that the central plot element of the book is a decision by a politically skilled courtesan that goes: “We must find a way to get you in to see your patron the First Lord. Another Lord could do that. How about we attend a party thrown by the Lord we suspect just tried to assassinate you and ask him if he’ll be nice enough help us out by taking us to see the First Lord, who by the way he intends to overthrow?” Needless to say this decision does not go well for anyone, and indeed much of the action and “conflict” in the book stem from it.
Plot problems recur in other parts of the story. Needing to quickly find an uncatchable thief somewhere within the vastness of the Imperial City…
Tavi didn’t know quite what it was that made him decide to head for the Craft Lane at the base of the mountain crowned by the Citadel high above.
Indeed, the difficulty with Tavi is that he is meant to be the everyman, our spokesman, yet increasingly the plot compensates for his lack of furies by having everything else come easily to him: he is likable, optimistic, quick-thinking, strong, fast, an excellent fighter, lucky beyond belief, and has acquired a cute and competent girlfriend (a Princess in all but name) without even trying. Meanwhile prophesies and destinies continue to swirl around him, stronger than ever in this volume. As a result, Tavi is different than such supermen-by-birth as Garion and Eragon only by degree, not by type; he has difficulty generating sympathy, and can never generate empathy.
Beyond the book’s covers though lurks a greater problem than this. As noted, Academ’s Fury reads like a collection of characters, settings, and devices from previous fantasy books — all instantly recognizable, many stripped of their symbolic significance. Not only are plot and characters extensively sourced from other fantasies, but Academ’s Fury even cannibalizes extensively from the previous volume in its own series — a disturbing sign in so new a project. Once again Tavi finds an unexpected ally in an alien enemy race with a sense of honor (the previous book’s alien enemy race having been tamed and domesticated in the two years previous to this volume); once again political enemies join forces against a common foe; once again we spend too many of the last chapters of the book in a large yet tensionless battle waiting for the arrival of help that we know is coming.
As a result, the essential characteristic of Academ’s Fury is that of an travelogue to a place you’ve often had pleasant vacations at and know just as well as — if not better than — the author. It abdicates the possibility of personal originality so intrinsic to the word “fantasy” and instead dispenses secondhand wonder. The appeal of the book is not the originality of its author’s imaginative vision or the skill of its construction, but rather the nostalgic manner in which it presents the expected, extends books that have already ended. Cultivated readers will find that it reads as fan-fiction not directed at any one story or setting, but at epic fantasy as a whole. Or, stated another way, it is a mix rather than a song — a mix that depends for its popularity on the popularity of the classic songs it samples rather than the artistry or purpose by which they were selected and joined together.
Less critically-oriented readers or readers new to fantasy who want a quick, fun read will find much of this irrelevant, of course. Thanks to Butcher’s facile writing Academ’s Fury undeniably can provide those qualities for those disinclined to look below the surface. What’s a shame is that Butcher possesses precisely the storytelling skills that could introduce genuinely fantastic works of personal imagination to readers who are turned off by the complexities of more literary fantasy — and here he chose not to. Hopefully future volumes in the series will tighten the plotting and expand the imagination.