Academ’s Fury: Book two of the Codex Alera by Jim Butcher
Sequel to Furies of Calderon, this book is set a couple of years later (we are never told exactly how many, but a couple is close. Tavi, the hero of the series, has gotten his dream and gone to the Academy in Alera (the city, Capital of Alera the state). Of course, as he comes from the backcountry of Calderon Valley, and he can’t control any Furies (the elemental creatures that most citizens of Alera can control, and which allow them to hold their own against the large armies of barbarians outside the state), he faces the usual prejudice, hatred and violence so endemic to genre fantasy schools, but he also had friends and is taking training to become a Cursor, a secret agent of the First Lord of Alera. Oh, and he also works directly for said First Lord, Gaius, as his page. This is where the first big trouble comes in, as said First Lord is a powerful air worker, and has been working hard to blunt massive storms that have been battering Alera’s coasts, and may be the work of her enemies. He’s also been drinking hard, and one night he collapses right in front of Tavi, falling into a coma from which he cannot be awakened. Nor can anyone be allowed to know that he has collapsed, or his (political) power will collapse with him, and with it all the good he has done for the realm.
Meanwhile, back home in Calderon, the Marat, a barbarian people who live in the valley and (some of whom) have recently made peace with the Aleran settlers in no small part due to Tavi, have discovered that an old monster, a shapeshifter that also possesses its victims, turning them into zombie-like creatures with all their own memories but the will of the monster itself (an interesting philosophical digression: if “you” are destroyed by something that possesses all your memories, and walks and talks exactly like you, though it has different goals than you used to have, how is that not you? Is the process not basically identical to growing up? Discuss. Show your work. Worth five points towards your final grade [subdigression: I nearly wrote “final grave“. Freudian slip or silly misspelling? Discuss. Not worth any points]). This creature is vaguely insect-like, and has three queens. One the Marat destroyed, though at great cost. One is still in the valley, and must be tracked down and destroyed. And one left the valley, apparantly following Tavi . . .
In the subplots, Bernard, Tavi’s uncle, is in love with the Cursor Amara, but Amara believe that she cannot ever be his wife, because she is barren and he, now a Duke and Citizen, must have children to follow after him. And Tavi’s aunt, Isana, has been made the first female Steadholder in the history of Alera. She is called to the Capital for Festival, where she will probably be wanted by all political factions for one purpose or another. She goes along, both to see Tavi and to see the First Lord and demand help for Calderon against the above-mentioned monsters. But with Gaius collapsed and Tavi involved in the cover-up, she can’t see either of them. And the main party offering aid has already tried to kill all of them once . . .
The Codex Alera is turning out to be Butcher’s best work, better even than his more famous Dresden Chronicles, which are not bad themselves. For one thing, Butcher is reversing the usual trope: his hero isn’t the most powerful furycaster to come down the pipes in a while, nor even potentially the most powerful–rather, he is powerless, and has to learn to survive on his wits. An intelligent protagonist is attractive. Also, there’s the fact that Alera is based, not on Britain or generic Celticness, but on Rome. Now, granted, Rome is still western Europe and is going to be familiar to the majority of the audience, but it still makes a nice change from the classic tropes. Also, the monster, though made up of a number of familiar images (shapeshifter, insect, body snatcher) is assembled in an unusual and interesting way. And in the battle scenes, both sides are played intelligently, which makes things very nicely tense.
Overall, highly recommended, though you want to start with Furies.