Shades of Grey Don’t Always Look Good On Me

Sometimes, I need my heroes to be heroic. They do the right thing not because it’s convenient, but because they’re driven to it by their morality and nature. Personally, I write reluctant heroes. They do the right thing, but they’re pushed there. They can see the shades of grey in the world and might resist the call to do the right thing, but they ultimately rise to the occasion.

After reading a lot of “realistic” fantasy, where innocence is brutally punished, and even the good guys struggle to take the right course of action, it’s good to spend some time with better people. I’m ripping my way through Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series and loving every minute of it. Sure, we lose some of the tension in the good guys being so good, as we know a fall from grace isn’t around the corner, and Butcher seems hesitant to kill his characters to raise the stakes, but it’s still a hell of a ride.

Like Mistborn, Alera’s world has a tightly defined magic system. Butcher gives us an elemental based magic that makes easy sense. A few of the good guys have god-like powers, but he balances this nicely by providing the same to the villains. He draws a bit too deeply on Roman history for me in the series, but I’ve only spotted one blatantly ripped off moment so far. Yet these books are page turners. After a strict diet of first person point of view in the Dresden Files, I’m happy to say that Butcher can work the third person limited with just as much skill.

What I like most about this series are the characters. They do the right thing. They are heroes, so while they are often tempted to compromise, I never doubt them. They’re also clever. They solve their problems using their heads more than their blades. It’s a refreshing change from stories where a hero can’t make a connection that the reader made fifty pages ago. Shades of grey, or doing the wrong thing for the right reason, are for the villains. It may not be realistic, and it can feel a little didactic at times, but it’s still a nice change.

I should also say that Butcher has done a great job of taking Roman military tactics and adding magic. He fully embraces what would change about a legion’s standard formation and attack when coupled with fliers and casters capable of tossing fireballs against the enemy. And the action scenes are lively, busy, but without becoming a slog of gore that I want to hurry past.

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