I started reading this fantasy series in January and finished it in December. Though I read a few books in-between while deciding whether or not I should continue on with it I think I can say that this was definitely my main series of 2014. Those who have seen the top 50 fantasy list on this blog will see that it sits just above A Song of Ice and Fire. This is fitting for both stories have similar plot-lines of characters struggling against an imminent threat but with a big upside in Codex Alera’s favor being that it has been completed.
Alera is a Romanesque realm containing elemental beings called Furies which the people (or Alerans) can draw upon to use their powers. If this sounds a lot like Pokemon to you you can guess at least one of the things the author drew inspiration from to write this. These powers are probably a good thing too for Alera also has a lot of enemies. Similar to the story-line of Dragon Ball these enemies are either defeated or unite to become allies against an even greater threat in the later books. I would go through each race one at a time but in the spirit of keeping this review short I will just call them Noble Savages #1, #2 and #3 in order to get straight to the Aleran’s main enemy; the Vord. The Vord are a problem. Not only do these hive minded creatures kill and spread like wildfire, taking over the land by turning everything on it into their own food supply, but they can also possess people and manipulate the ruling class. With wars already going on against the other races in response to this threat it leaves the characters in a very sticky situation.
The main character, Tavi, starts out as a farmer on his uncle Bernard’s Steadholt. Conveniently this is where the plot begins when Cursor Amara arrives with knowledge of a conspiracy against the First Lord. After a siege against Noble Savages #1, which Tavi manages to create allies out of, he goes off to the academy for training. Luckily the plot follows him when Noble Savages #2 shows up to deliver the message of the approaching Vord threat that has come to their own land. However, the Vord show up and possess them to kill the First Lord and it’s up to Tavi to stop them. This attack triggers an all out war between Noble Savages #2 and the Alerans. Another two whole books are spent on this war while Tavi grows into his man shoes before the threat of the Vord allows Noble Savages #3 to become relevant enough to get some ‘screen time’ in book five, but still this is not much. By this point so much has changed for Tavi that it would be spoiler territory for me to go into it in any thorough detail, but story wise there are a lot of epic battles, some politics and an entire city is destroyed with a volcano, and this is all before the final battle with the Vord even begins. By the end I still wasn’t completely sure if Tavi and the rest of the characters were in the clear or not, the grim hopelessness of the situation seemed a fitting place to end on considering this seemed to be the tone of the entire series since Noble Savages #1 showed up.
Alera is a very detailed world but my main thought on the writing is that a lot of important elements are still left to the reader to fill in the blanks from what they assume of the world. Another is that the plot formula seems to repeat itself from book to book. Meet the characters, put them in a situation with high stakes that seems hopeless, enter table-turning resolution, rinse, repeat. After the third book the characters have faced death so many times that even the illusion of raising the stakes higher to create suspense wears thin. I was relieved that Butcher tried something other than a desperate cluster-fuck battle for the end of book 4 only for him to bring it back again with a vengeance in books 5 & 6. Not to spoil anything let’s just say the ending has a very Lord of Rings vibe to it, which is great if you like Lord of the Rings. The characters were all solid, but I don’t think this is always a good thing. Sometimes a little flakiness can be more refreshing than just introducing another badass. This was why I thought learning about the different races was probably the more interesting part of the series and one of the many things it does right, despite them all just being different kinds of Noble Savages, except for the Vord.
I think after you have read as much fantasy as I have only the truly unique stuff slips through the cynicism. As far as enemies go the Vord were unique and though the Fury Crafting was inspired by something else the different uses were interesting to read about as well. In the end I find that Codex Alera fits into the kind of grim fantasy that generally should not last longer than a trilogy. I will say that Alera is truly a dangerous world and that after a while having constant threats can desensitize you to when the author wants to use suspense and death effectively. If the narrative wasn’t as well written as it was I would not have gotten through the first book but the fact that I read the whole thing eventually shows that I’d recommend it. Just not until you’ve finished Jim Butcher’s first fantasy series, The Dresden Files, which I thought was a better example of the author’s work.