I listened to the first book of this series (Furies of Calderon) in my car. It was soooo loooooong I had to check it out twice to finish it, and I really didn’t get into it – until the last third of the book, where suddenly I began really caring what happened next. I think the problem was that it took me that long to figure out the world – the characters’ social positions, the political structure, the magic they use and how it works…it was complex and until I got it all straight, I was too confused to like it very much. But then I got to like the characters, and stuck it through to the end to see if they all made it through. I went through the second book in much the same way, but then the third grabbed me by the collar and forced me to read it in about 3 days. I had to get the actual print book because I couldn’t think of enough places to drive to listen to it. I read book 4 on my day off and started 5 yesterday (thank goodness for instant gratification ebooks) and between listening to it on my commute and reading it at home, I think I’ll need 6 (the last, alas!) by tomorrow. I would try to scale back and listen to them slowly to make them last, but it’s far, far too late for that. I must see this series through RIGHT NOW.
The basic premise: The land of Alera is loosely based on ancient Rome – the political system, naming conventions, and military strategies are all vaguely familiar (there are centurions, legionaires, etc.). But somewhere along the line, the Alerans allied themselves with “furies” – spirits of earth, air, water, and wood – to harness their natural powers. Generations later, the Alerans have sorted themselves into a pecking order with Lords (those who can command powerful furies of many types) to Citizens (who can control one or two types) to Freemen (who usually only command 1 fury) to slaves, who have little furycraft and are screwed. The story begins with Tavi, a 15-year-old orphaned boy who is a “freak” – he has no furycrafting abilities whatsoever. Despite his disability, he is extremely intelligent, and his dream is to go to the Academy and learn everything he can. He lives with his uncle and aunt on a small steadholt in the Calderon Valley, which is famous in Alera for being the site of the Marat invasion that killed the Princeps Gaius Septimus, leaving the current First Lord, Gaius Sextus, without an heir. We are also introduced to Amara, a cursor (spy) for the First Lord, who has been betrayed by a fellow cursor who is in cahoots with one of the High Lords to overthrow Gaius Sextus. She flees to the Calderon Valley, where…
Well, you can see where this is going. Aging leader with no heir, scheming lords who all want to be next in line for the throne, long animosity between the Alerans and the Marat… it’s a political field day and the battles are thick and fast and twisty. New enemies (the Cane, the Vord) and unexpected allies keep turning up in each book. The story shifts between the major characters’ perspectives – we see the story through Tavi sometimes, then throuigh Amara, then through Tavi’s aunt Isana, then later as other characters gain importance, the story shifts to them in turn.
Basically, this book is everything I hate in a fantasy – lots of politics and a weird world that takes forever to understand, and it’s a patriarchal society to boot – but I have would up loving it. Maybe you will, too if you like epic battle stories like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series, or if you share my love of brilliant protagonists who might just be insane but everyone follows them anyway. (Miles Vorkosigan, Scarlett O’Hara or Harry Dresden, anyone?) If nothing else, it’s well worth reading just to enjoy the character Kitai’s take on everything.
[I saved this post as a draft a while ago, and by now I’ve finished the series. I would be all sad but the first installment of Butcher’s latest series (The Cinder Spires series, starting with The Aeronaut’s Windlass) was released last week and I’m already on hold for it. Any day now!]