Every success fans the flames, attracting new enemies.
Escalating conflicts keep characters and audiences off balance, focused on the matter at hand, so that they don’t realize where they’re going until the end.
In a quiet corner of the kingdom of Alera, a young boy searches for a lost sheep, completely unaware of the gathering storm that will soon fall upon his home. To survive, and protect those dear to him, he will learn the game of politics, becoming a pawn, a knight, and eventually, a player.
Codex Alera is an interesting series. The first time I read Furies of Calderon (book 1 in the series), I was not impressed. It felt like a cliché opening that hinted at great potential, but got bogged down in world building at the expense of its own plot. Eventually I did continue on with the series, and gradually it grew on me, though I still believe most have a higher regard for the series than I do.
There’s no denying that the world of Alera is very well developed. Over the course of the series the protagonist explores four distinct cultures, each of which are unique and very well developed. Each culture explores the concept of otherness, exploring the different ways in which our own perspective informs our concepts of normal and unusual.
The protagonist (and others) frequently struggle with their own culture’s tendency towards elitism and hubris, while also exploring issues of translation, particularly how miscommunication can quickly escalate into intense conflict.
The story levels some well-aimed criticism at humanity’s propensity to assume our own superiority. Unfortunately, while the setting and civilizations of the series show a great deal of nuance, the moral aspects of the story feel a little too clear cut.
Each volume features one or more corrupt individuals, struggling to amass power regardless of the means or cost. Some do so out of a blind lust for revenge or power, while others believe that “I alone can save the realm from catastrophe.” Whatever the reason, the villains consistently demonstrate a complete lack of empathy.
The story works quite hard to humanize other cultures, but also demonizes individual characters, reducing them to “pure evil” characters. Their motives are questionable at best, and their methods consistently feel designed to elicit the greatest degrees of revulsion and hostility. Some characters do have sympathetic backstories, but it’s never enough to redeem their present behavior. Instead it reduces them to rabid animals who cannot be reasoned with, in contrast with villains who represent egotism and selfishness taken to the extreme.
Similarly, the heroes demonstrate a somewhat repetitive pattern of behavior; consistently torn between obeying and upholding the letter of the law, and doing what they know to be morally right. Time and again they choose to do what is right, often making things even more difficult for themselves in the process, all building up to one final confrontation, where the hero is cornered and must face off against vastly superior opponents.
Of course the heroes triumph, demonstrating an ever growing repertoire of skills, as well as an unwavering belief in what is right, which inevitably rallies others to the heroes’ side. But in the midst of their triumph, the story always finds room to hint at even greater challenges on the horizon.
It’s an effective pattern, but the series repeats it so precisely, from character roles to the rise and fall of tension, that I quickly found the series overly predictable, almost a perfect example of the ascending hero cliché. For those who want a familiar read, it’s a fine series. The characters are complex and well designed, and the writing is very strong. But I find it difficult to overlook the predictable patterns, or how easily characters are separated into good and bad. Moral dilemmas dominate the plot of the series, and yet I never felt like that was any confusion over which choice was the right one.
However, I do feel it’s worth noting that this series was written as a kind of challenge. The author posed that any 2 ideas could be combined to craft a strong series, and someone responded with “Pokemon and the Roman Legion.” With that in mind, I think the series is rather impressive, a testament to the author’s talent.