The good news is that Jim Butcher’s Academ’s Fury actually feels like it was written by Jim Butcher. Like the Dresden novels — and unlike the first Codex Alera book — it has deep world-building, interesting characters, an engaging story, and most of all pacing. Though it’s still not as good as the Dresden books, it’s an objectively very good book in its own right, and a huge improvement over the first volume.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why it’s better. Maybe it’s the move in setting from the hinterlands to the capital city, which makes the world feel more vibrant and alive. Maybe it’s just that we have more of a connection to the characters, so don’t need to wait most of a book to really give a damn what happens to them. But I think most of the difference is that Butcher is giving us a bigger picture view of the world, and not restricting us to the teensy little tunnel vision part of it we got to see in the first book.
I start to wonder, in fact, if maybe Butcher just has a problem with the pace of initial incluing. Because it turns out his world actually is fairly subtle and interesting, and the stuff that looked embarrassingly stupid in the first book is (mostly) addressed more directly in the second, and it’s just that he didn’t bother to give us any relevant details. And when I think back to the Dresden books, it turns out that there was something similar going on there, too — a lot of the world-building behind the series was invisible in the first book and only became clear later on.
Or maybe it’s just that he’s making it up as he goes along, in which case he’s a highly skilled retconner.
But anyway, while this book is a very good novel, it’s not really an epic fantasy. Oh, it has swords and battles and political intrigues and all that, so go ahead and call it a “high fantasy” or a “fantasy adventure” or whatever. But epic fantasy is something else altogether, and requires time and change. Look at something like the Lord of the Rings, where it takes Sam and Frodo months from the beginning of their journey to the end, and they’re not the same people at all when they get there; or Feist’s Magician, which takes place over years and whose protagonists go from being kitchen boys to demigods.
That sense of scope, of slow organic change, is fundamental to epic fantasy, and Butcher doesn’t have it at all. As in the Dresden books, the action in this book takes place over what’s essentially a long weekend. That makes for some fast-paced action, as nobody ever slows down once events are set in motion, but it removes even the possibility of an epic feel. If you’re reading the books expecting to get that feel, you’re going to be disappointed; if you can accept them as fast, action-packed fantasy adventure novels, though, this second one is satisfying.