What I’m Reading – Benedict Jacka’s Alex Verus novels


As I mentioned recently, one thing I want to start writing about on here is (are?) my thoughts on whatever book I’m currently writing. I’m not planning for anything very organised; I don’t have enough free time to commit to a Book Review Wednesday or anything of that sort, and I also expect there will be times when I want to write a lot about a book or series and times when I’m all ‘Meh. I’m reading this thing and it’s kind of not that bad.’ So this will just be a regularish, as-and-when discussion of whatever I find notable/interesting/fantastic/execrable about whatever I’m currently reading/have recently read. Or possibly even stuff I read ages ago but really feel like writing about. You get the idea.

At the time I wrote that post, I was rereading some of Benedict Jacka’s Alex Verus series; I’ve actually moved on to some other stuff since then, but this series is a big favourite of mine so I’m going to go ahead and write about it as planned. This post will be about the series generally, rather than the specific books I was rereading; because there are a lot of interesting points that I want to write about, it has ended up being very long, which I’ve tried to mitigate by throwing in some subheadings at what seemed like vaguely appropriate points. It should, however, be pretty much spoiler-free other than some very general points, so I won’t put it behind a cut.

 

General stuff about the novels

The Alex Verus novels are, as I’ve said, an urban fantasy series; they’re set in modern-day London. The book titles are all past participles; Fated, Cursed, and so on. The series currently numbers six, but No. 7, Burned, is coming out next month. They are told in first-person narration by the protagonist.

I’ve already mentioned two things that I like about these books; that they’re urban fantasy, and that they describe a world in which a magical subculture exists within the normal-day culture, and all participants take both for granted as part of normal life. A third feature I like is that the mages each have only one specific type of magic that they can use (in the sixth book there’s a mention of someone having two, but this is clearly the exception rather than the rule) and, although they may become incredibly powerful and skilled with anything that can be done with that type of magic, they are limited to whatever type happens to be theirs. This trope of the magical beings having fairly specific limitations on their powers probably has an official name (if so, and if anyone knows it, do please fill me in), but I always think of it as The Goldenrod Effect, after a book I read as a child. The converse, for me, is The Superman Effect, which is the explanation of why Superman comic books held a limited appeal for me in my childhood; sure, they were readable, but it seemed that everything got solved by Superman being able to produce ridiculously unlimited super-everyskill on tap, and even as a nine-year-old I recognised that this wasn’t very good writing. I prefer books in which the protagonists have well-defined and particular abilities and have to figure out how to use these to get the end they want or need to achieve, which may not be altogether obvious. It’s even better when participants have different abilities and have to figure out how to work together, or work round each other’s strengths or weaknesses, and the Alex Verus novels definitely fall into that category.

The magic world is divided into the Light and Dark factions. Dark mages are a nasty lot of self-interested bastards who will do whatever suits them as long as they’re powerful enough to get away with it, and who are primarily interested in being powerful enough to get away with as much as possible. Light mages are…. pretty much the same thing, only with a lot more bureaucracy. For the most part, anyway. There are exceptions who are helpful to the protagonist throughout the series.

 

Our protagonist and what he can do

Our protagonist, as you have probably guessed from my description of these as ‘the Alex Verus series’, is called Alex Verus. I assumed for the first five books that Verus was his surname, but in Book 6 it was mentioned that it’s actually his mage name; which makes sense, since almost every mage in the book has an obviously-invented name, like Talisid or Deleo. In any case, he normally goes by Alex to his friends (of whom he starts out without very many, for a reason which will become clear later on – he does, however, acquire more as the series goes on).

Alex’s mage ability is divination. That may not be quite the right term for it, since it doesn’t involve doing anything mystical with rabbit entrails, but it’s the one most commonly used throughout the books. Simply enough, what Alex can do is see every possible short-term future of every action he might take and of any actions that anyone around him is planning. This has a lot of interesting possibilities as a plot device, and Jacka does a great job of developing them.

One fairly obvious implication of this is that it is virtually impossible to assassinate Alex. When his immediate future contains a bullet/bomb/knife wound, he sees this, and he also sees exactly which way he has to dive or leap or dodge to avoid it. (Unfortunately for him, this all involves him seeing the results of not taking evasive action; in other words, he gets to see just how he would be killed/shredded/mutilated if he doesn’t dodge. The books don’t go into any sort of icky detail about this, but it’s made clear that it happens and that it is somewhat unsettling for our protagonist at times. Still, better than the alternative.) Alex is also great at dodging in fights; which is good, because he frequently finds himself up against people who have the magical ability to drain his life with a touch or to char him to the bone, so he needs to do quite a lot of dodging over the course of the books. He can see what actions will lead to walking into a trap, and avoid those. (For this reason, he’s often called in as a security consultant by other mages when something potentially dangerous is going on; this is where several of the book plots arise from.)

There are less obvious implications, one of which is that he can crack any password. The trick is to look into every possible future of him trying every possible combination of characters; since only one of these will lead to the phone or computer being unlocked, that future will stand out as the only different one amongst the millions of different options of possible passwords, and thus he can fairly easily pick it out and thereby pick out what he types in to lead to that future. He can also run safely in pitch darkness, because he can see exactly which futures will or won’t lead to him tripping and how he has to place his feet to avoid tripping or bumping into things. For this reason, one of his tricks when he wants to escape from people trying to attack him is to use a magical item called a condenser, which is a sort of marble you break to release a temporary fog; he can run through this safely while his enemies are slowed down.

 

Magical limitations

Because, of course, he has these. Alex can’t see any future resulting from a decision by someone else that hasn’t yet been made. In a situation where chance can play a huge part in the outcome, it’s extremely difficult for him to see ahead; so, while he can see how to dodge his way through a fight from moment to moment, he can’t see ahead of time who’s going to win. Similarly, conversations are normally too unpredictable for him to see how they’ll go, because there are so many different things that the other person might potentially choose to say at each point. (On the other hand, when someone has a specific plan to tell or ask him something, he can see that. There’s one humorous scene when he’s in a hurry to get rid of two persistent customers at the shop that he runs for his day job and does so by simply going back and forth between them, answering every question each one is going to ask before he asks it. He can also save himself the trouble of asking for someone’s name or ID; he looks into the future in which he asks it and sees what the person says/does.)

A  less obvious drawback is that Alex can’t use gate magic, which is the ability to make portals between one place and another. This is a general ability that’s available to anyone in the magic world whose magical speciality is any form of physical stuff; earth, water, fire, whatever. Alex’s isn’t, so of course he can’t make gates. Mages in that category do have the option of using gate stones, which are magical items created and sold by other mages and will let him create a gate between two particular spots; but that only works if he has the right gate stone with him at the right time. (There are a lot of magical items that can do one-off, limited but useful things like this, the aforementioned condenser being another example; Alex tends to leave home with a lot of stuff in his pockets.)

 

Aaaaand the messy past…

Alex has a somewhat clouded past. Specifically, he used to be apprenticed to a Dark mage. He eventually saw the error of his ways and (with considerable difficulty and trauma) escaped; however, this original ghastly choice on his part has cast a long and complex shadow over his life.

For starters, Light mages don’t really want to associate with someone who has that sort of a past. (Except when they need him for jobs. But they’ll still turn up their noses at him.) The feeling is entirely mutual, by the way; when Alex was on the run from his former master and feeling desperate, he appealed to the Light mages for help, and they didn’t want to get involved. So on the whole Alex doesn’t have a lot of time for them, either. But there is also the unpleasant fact that Alex has done some genuinely bad stuff – and, later in the series, that’s going to come back to bite him, creating a major moral dilemma for him in the process. On top of all that, there’s the very scary question of Richard Drakh, Alex’s former Dark master. Richard disappeared mysteriously not long after Alex’s escape, but Alex has no doubt that at some point he’s going to be back and that he is not going to be happy with Alex for rebelling and jumping ship. Richard is one of those beautifully, chillingly written villains who is unfailingly and impeccably polite, calm, and ready to torture someone to death without a second thought if it’ll suit his purposes; and, while Alex does deal with a few of that ilk over the course of the series to date, he’s terrified of Richard in the way you can only be terrified of someone who scared you at enough of a formative stage in your life to be forever under your skin. So, although Alex tries not to think about it, that’s a very nasty nightmare always looming in his background.

 

General thoughts

All of that, as you can see, makes for a lot of very promising plot devices to work with; and Benedict Jacka’s books live up to that promise. Plots that drag me along from page to page; great characters, including lots of great female/minority characters; excellently-written conversations; plenty of dry humour; and great treatments of important moral themes, such as the ways in which people drift into doing evil by a series of seemingly-rationalisable decisions. This is a brilliant series, and, as you can probably tell, I’m very much looking forward to the imminent publication of the next book.

Comments

  1. Dave, ex-Kwisatz Haderach says

    Cool! I love urban fantasy and I’ve been looking for a new series. I’ll give this one a shot.

  2. Dave, ex-Kwisatz Haderach says

    Ha! Barely 2 pages in to the first book and there’s a Dresden reference. I like it already.

    • Dr Sarah says

      Hey, I didn’t know that! (checking…) So I guess that must be this one:

      ‘I’ve even heard of one guy in Chicago who advertises in the phone book under ‘Wizard’, though that’s probably an urban legend.’

      Didn’t know that was a reference to another series, but definite points to Jacka for the laugh if so! Don’t know of any others in there, but of course they’d also have slipped by me since I haven’t read the Dresden books. Time to add them to my list…

  3. Dave, ex-Kwisatz Haderach says

    Yup, that’s the reference I was talking about.

    There are some strong similarities between Dresden and Verus, strongly moral people trying hard to do whats right, despite a not so clean past. And rarely with the support of the supposedly good authorities. Dresden doesn’t have quite the magical limitations Verus does, there’s some magic he’s not good at, but none that he just flat-out can’t do. Which isn’t to say he’s overpowered, he routinely gets pretty thoroughly beat up.

    PS: I’m 2 and a half books into the Verus series now, you owe me for some (lots of) missed sleep!

    • Dr Sarah says

      Two and a half books? That’s impressive even by my standards. Although I suppose it might not have been by my pre-kid standards. Those were the days…

      Checked out the first book in the Dresden files and I did like it, but it just didn’t grab me to the same extent as the Alex Verus books. Can’t put my finger on why, but it just wasn’t a ‘OMG must read everything else in this series’ moment for me. Which is possibly just as well, considering how many Jim Butcher has written by now. But it was worth the read, so thanks to all of you who recommended it!

  4. jd142 says

    Have you read the Midnight Mayor/Magicals Anonymous books? They are by Kate Griffin and sound quite similar. Of course gritty urban fantasy is almost as popular as steampunk/Victorian fantasy so it isn’t hard to find another series that seems superficially similar.

    One of the things I like about the magic in the Midnight Mayor books is that it incorporates the urban environment. Without giving away too much, there are trash monsters made of plastic bags for example. At one point someone uses concentrated exhaust fumes as a weapon, IIRC. Some of the cooler things are a little spoilery.

    Another one you might like is the Rivers of London series. Again, gritty urban magic set in London and the surrounding areas. It’s more of a police procedural, but very good.

    And finally, there’s the Shadow Police series by Paul Cornell, London Falling and the Severed Streets. Even grittier. I felt so stupid I didn’t see the ending of London Falling coming; the clues were there and I didn’t get it until about two pages before the reveal. A third, Who killed Sherlock Holmes, is out in May.

    • Dr Sarah says

      @jd142: I think I’ve read an introductory chapter to one of the Midnight Mayor books (in fact, it was on the end of one of the Alex Verus novels, if I remember correctly; the publishers will include a free introductory chapter to a different series at the end of each book, which is cool). Didn’t quite grab me, though. I did just come across the first Rivers of London book and it looks really good, so I think I’ll get that. Haven’t seen Shadow Police but thanks for the recommendation!

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