Wednesday, October 29, 2008

FURIES OF CALDERON, by Jim Butcher


Another book lent to me by a friend, with strong endorsement. I resisted it for the first 200 pages, somehow uncomfortable with a world in which every character (save one: the protagonist) possesses magic powers. I also had a bit of difficulty engaging with Butcher's prose; it felt a bit lifeless to me in the start. But by the time I got to the first major encounter, the first encounter to bring together all of the principle characters, I was hooked. I finished the last 250 pages in two days, devouring chapters ravenously, at times so wrapped up in my own mind's view of the events that I ceased to be aware of the actual world around me. It was almost like a hypnotic state, the story blooming within my mind so vividly that I saw specific images from the book more clearly than I saw the book itself, clutched before my blurring eyes. Every few dozen pages I'd snap out of my trance, and see the words on the page, so tiny that I had trouble reading them. And then I'd sink back into the story, completely unaware of the act of reading, which had seemed so strenuous just a moment before. I can't remember another reading experience like it.

I think that FURIES OF CALDERON serves as an excellent example of writing that garners its power from plot and character, more than from artistic use of language. There are 7 central characters, and each of them is vividly realized, especially in regards to their motivations. Butcher does such a good job of this that he is able to pit certain characters against other, to bring them into harrowing conflict with one another, and still have the reader sympathize with each and every one of them. It leads to an unusual mind-state for the reader, because the reader doesn't really feel disdain or contempt for any main character--the reader doesn't really want any of the characters to suffer--and yet the characters are attacking each other ruthlessly. Who do you root for in a situation like that?

Butcher is also good at writing battle, and physical struggle. When I read an R.A. Salvatore book a few weeks ago I remember feeling impressed by that author's handle of physical altercation. Butcher is just as good. He's got a rich imagination to pull from, and it yields a varied harvest, so that you never really feel like you're seeing an action repeated. Each sword thrust feels unique.

Butcher's imagination serves him well with his handling of magic, too. Furies--basically elemental spirits--are key to the world where this novel takes place. Individual furies bond with people--every civilized person except the protagonist has at least one fury--and give them powers relating to the element they represent. Water furies, for example, have powers relating to healing, to scrying (seeing and hearing things going on in a removed location), and perception of the emotional states of others. Furies can also manifest themselves in physical form, and therefore be used as attack animals of sorts. Also, a person's ability to interact with their fury is affected by the presence of the element--deprive a water-bonded person of liquid, and they can't call upon the powers of their fury. It's a concept with a satisfying sense of logic, and a lot of imaginative potential. At the same time, it seems to offer so much potential that it can be hard for Butcher to control the plot; the possibilities are so blown open that it's hard to introduce meaningful difficulty for the characters to strive against. Butcher deals with this problem in two main ways: by endowing certain furies with greater powers, so that certain people are more powerful than others; and by setting limitations on a character's ability to call upon his or her fury--summoning the fury is physically draining. Even with these controls, the power and capacity of the furies sometimes undermines the sense of tension needed to make the story compelling. In the climatic battle, for example, a principle character (Bernard) never really brings his power to bear. Butcher tries to make the battle compelling by making it seem desperate for the protagonist's side, but the reader is left feeling like the stakes aren't really as high as they seem to be, because Bernard's power isn't being used. Butcher tries to explain Bernard's lack of involvement by showing him as exhausted, but the level of exhaustion he suffers seems to come too quickly, and too conveniently, to feel believable (generally, though, physical exhaustion, injury and exertion, are another aspect that Butcher handles really well; he really makes it seem like the characters are going through excruciating physical tests in the course of the story, and that they are really being driven to call upon all of their internal fortitude and determination in order to continue).

After I finished this book, I did a little research on Jim Butcher. The most interesting thing about him, for me, is how hard he had to work to get his career as a fantasy writer going. This is a New York Times best-selling author, arguably the type of author who can command the most attention from the mainstream publishing industry, and yet he had to struggle for years to get his first book in print. In the end, after submitting his first novel far and wide for two years, and receiving nothing but rejections, Jim started studying the industry, and attending conventions, and trying to make personal connections with agents and publishers. Finally, he engaged an agent in a conversation, and she agreed to handle his book--even though she'd rejected it earlier when he sent it to her through the mail. That book went on to become a best-seller, and still he had to struggle to keep his career going. It boggles my mind how hard it is to get your shit published in this industry, and it blackens my mood to hear that so much of what results in you getting published has to do with schmoozing, instead of your actual writing.

No comments: