Cold Case Christianity For Kids Review, with actual kid. Introduction.

For a long time now, I’ve been meaning to do a chapter-by-chapter book review and discussion, following in the footsteps of such illustrious bloggers as Libby Ann, Ana Mardoll, Jenny Trout, and many others. I had a couple of possible books in mind, and indeed still have them in mind, but then… I saw that J. Warner Wallace’s Cold Case Christianity For Kids was available pretty cheaply on Kindle, and had a sudden brainwave. Since I happen to have a non-Christian child with an interest in the whole idea of doing reviews of stuff, why not go through it and write a review together with her?

I wasn’t sure how Katie would feel about the idea, but in fact she jumped at it and decided we should do this as her bedtime story each night. (Which may commit me to a rather faster schedule of typing up posts than I actually have a hope of managing. Oh, well. Bridge, cross, when, etc.) “It’ll probably make me change my mind about some things,” she told me, “but probably not about the main thing.”

I decided that I’d make my notes on a file on my laptop word processor as we went through. This has the advantage of speed (my typing’s a lot faster than my writing) but the drawback that Katie leans in and types whatever random things take her fancy, so my notes on her thoughts are somewhat interspersed with random interjections such as ‘Mooo! Sorry, unexpected cow interruption’ or ‘Wednesdays are explosive’. (My daughter has a somewhat surrealist turn of mind.)

“This review,” I told her, “is going to end up sounding like that time we were at your Auntie Ruth’s wedding and the rabbi was starting to say “So, here is the explanation of why it’s a Jewish custom for the groom to smash a glass with his heel…” and you randomly shouted out “Rory the racing car!”

She giggled at that one. “What was wrong with me?”

“Well, you were two and a half at the time. So fair enough. But maybe we could aim for something a bit more serious here…”

So, I’m planning to filter out those interjections before writing up the blog posts, but, you never know, if the primary subject matter gets boring…

Anyway, since not much happens in the book’s introduction, I’ll start out by using this post to fill in some background.

 

Dramatis Personae (OK, that is actually meant to refer to a book’s characters so I’m totally misusing it here. Dramatis Personae for this blog series, I mean.)

J. Warner Wallace

J. Warner Wallace, the author of this book, is a detective who became famous for applying investigative principles to Christianity, deciding it was all true and he should convert, and writing several books about it why he thinks this. These are called the ‘Cold Case Christianity’ series, since he aimed to crack the what-happened-to-Jesus mystery in the same way he cracks cold cases at work. He also has a blog, in case you want to read more.

Katie

My daughter is nearly ten, an intense, imaginative live wire of a child who loves art, computer games, maths, and science, and has recently adopted a bunch of teasels and stuck eyes on them to turn them into pets.

I’ve never tried to dictate the religious beliefs of either of my children, believing that it’s something they need to decide for themselves; I tell them my beliefs when the subject comes up, but also tell them that other people have different beliefs. Katie in fact told me shortly before she turned six that she didn’t believe in God. In more recent years, she moved on to a rather interesting and complex belief system that involved God being an evil god from an alternate universe who had taken this universe over; all this praying people did, she believed, was only encouraging him and really ought to be stopped. It was an intriguing and quite well worked-out belief system, but, when I asked for an update prior to starting this review, I found out she’d moved back to atheism again.

“Just stuff,” she told me, when I inquired as to what had changed her mind. “Sometimes I might want an Oreo for pudding and then change my mind and want something else. Sometimes I just change my mind about stuff.”

I asked her again the following day, and got a more substantive response: “Science explains things better,” she told me (though without being able to specify any examples). “And God doesn’t seem very nice. For one thing, he’s anti-gay. If Christians are wrong about him being so amazing, there’s more chance they’re wrong about the rest of that malarkey. I don’t know what malarkey means, actually – what does it mean? Meh. Whatever.”

Me

Longstanding atheist/general skeptic. I do actually have one thing in common with J. Warner Wallace in that I also spent a lot of time investigating Christianity’s claims; from the fact that I’m here on this site, you can probably deduce that I came to a different conclusion from him. And, yes, I totally want to write a series of posts on that investigation at some point. Someday I will have time. Someday…

At some point I’m sure I’ll get round to figuring out how to put up my sidebar bio, but since I haven’t done that yet I’ll add here that I’m also a British GP, mother of two, and bookworm.

 

OK, that’s us. On to the book’s introduction, which is in two parts: ‘A Quick Hello’, and ‘Wanted: A Few Good Detectives’. All that’s happening at this point is the setting up of the story, so nothing too unmissably thrilling. If Katie did make comments on these bits, I didn’t write them down and can’t remember them, so for this bit it’s just the summary and my thoughts.

A Quick Hello

J. Warner Wallace introduces himself as a police detective specialising in ‘cold cases’, which he defines for the reader. We also learn the following pieces of information about his background:

  • As a boy, wanting to become a policeman like his dad, he learned a lot from attending the Police Explorer Academy (which he doesn’t describe, but it seems fair to assume it’s some sort of programme for children interested in learning more about police work).
  • As a newly-qualified police officer, he was mentored by a senior officer called Alan Jeffries, whom he came to admire and respect greatly.
  • Later on, he used his detective skills to investigate the story of Jesus, and concluded that ‘the evidence was overwhelming’ and that the Biblical accounts were true.

His aim here, apparently, is to combine all three of the above for this book; the readers will ‘enter the Detective Cadet Academy’, be trained by Alan Jeffries, and, as well as learning how to be good detectives, will learn ‘how to investigate the case for Jesus’. Also, the reader’s family can get involved and do this with them (so Katie and I are obviously on the right track here). Also, there’s a webpage.

Wanted – A Few Good Detectives

This is the introductory part of the story proper, which is told in second person present tense, like those ‘choose your own adventure’ books (though without all the ‘if you choose to fight the dragon, go to page 75’ bits).

We’re told that the local police department is starting a new detective training academy for student cadets (i.e. schoolchildren) which ‘you’ and ‘your friends, Daniel and Hannah’ jump at the chance of attending. At the first session, you get introduced to Alan Jeffries, who is going to be running the sessions, which apparently consist of these three and ‘some students from other schools in the area’. Jeffries gets impatient when you want to look at the exciting stuff actually going on in the police station, because apparently you’re all meant to spend the time sitting in the briefing room hearing about police work rather than getting to see any, or something. Which… I have to say doesn’t sound like a wildly successful and well-planned police academy cadet course to me, but what do I know.

So, Jeffries shows you through to the briefing room and asks what part of investigation interests the cadets most, and Daniel eagerly replies that he’s interested in gadgets/high-tech stuff he’s seen in movies, and asks if Jeffries can show them some of that stuff. Jeffries smirks at Daniel… wait, what the hell? Smirks? That is just such an unpleasant way to treat someone. Is this a ‘I do not think that word means what you think it means’ moment on Wallace’s part, or did he seriously mean to portray Jeffries as acting like a git?

Anyway, Jeffries tells Daniel that actually they solve most cases by ‘learning how to think’, because ‘[t]he brain is more reliable’ than gadgets/computers. Wait, what? Brains are actually not that reliable. Of course, they do have the huge advantage of being able to put facts together into patterns in a way that computers and gadgets can’t, but surely the data that the police get from the high-tech stuff is of crucial importance in giving their brains as many facts as possible to work on? I get that this is all a set-up for the whole ‘you’re going to use your brain to investigate Christianity’, but is it actually accurate as a description of what works for solving crimes?

Anyway, it seems the answer to Daniel’s excited request to be allowed to see high-tech police stuff is, in effect, a ‘no’. Poor Daniel. I’m not too impressed with this police cadet course so far, but nonetheless we are assured that ‘[y]ou can hardly wait for the next session!’ Maybe because almost nothing seems to have happened in this one and you feel it can only get better?

The one other thing to mention about this section is that we get an insert titled ‘CSI Assignment’, apparently the first of several such repeated through the book, in which the reader has to fill in blanks in Bible verses. Unfortunately Wallace doesn’t, as far as I can see, tell us anywhere which translation he’s using, which can be kind of a problem when you’re filling in blanks. Anyway, this assignment says:

God also wants you to use your brain to investigate the truth. Read Matthew 22:37-38. God tells us to love Him with all our heart, our soul, and our _______.

Read 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21. God tells us to examine everything _________.

So, as long as you assure children that they’re supposed to investigate the truth, it’s fine to declare the things you’re supposed to be proving as though they’re proved facts. Something tells me that Wallace didn’t spot the irony in that one.

Anyway, determined to do the thing properly, I found the BibleGateway site and looked up those verses for Katie to do the fill-in-the-blank thing (for those verses, the default translations are close enough to the one Wallace was using that it was easily doable). And that’s it for the introduction. I’ll link further chapter reviews back here as I do them.

Chapter reviews – links

Chapter One: Don’t Be a “Know-It-All”: Start Every Investigation Like a Detective!

What I’ve been reading – The Maze Runner trilogy

(Content note – This post contains spoilers for the books. Also mention of post-apocalyptic scenarios, though I don’t go into that bit very much. Also, at the end, a bit about fantasy high-tech medical stuff described in more graphic terms than you might want to hear.)

Caveat: I read the first book and the first part of the second book, but then skim-flipped from there through to the end of the third, as by then they’d moved into the ‘post-apocalyptic wasteland populated by crazed, doomed survivors’ part of the setting, which is something that just doesn’t float my boat. It is therefore possible that I might have missed an explanation that made at least somewhat more sense out of the plot. If so, do let me know, and my apologies.

Anyway, this is going to be a summary of my thoughts on the trilogy as a whole. If you want a really good chapter-by-chapter deconstruction of the first book, do check out Whitley Birks’ excellent review (plus her other reviews while you’re there; it’s a superb blog with all kinds of interesting points about what well-known authors got horribly wrong through lazy research/not doing the writing).

Here’s the overriding impression with which this trilogy left me: the author had a lot of good ideas but then had no idea how to write a coherent plot that would properly account for them all.

I mean, you can picture James Dashner thinking “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool to write about a large group of children trapped in a meadow in the middle of a maze, with no idea what was going on! Or for them to have some sort of trial that involved making their way a hundred miles across a post-apocalyptic wasteland within a time limit! Or to have a dilemma about whether it’s OK to do terrible things to children if it’s the only chance of saving the world! Or a government agency with the acronym WICKED and the slogan ‘WICKED is good’ and amnesiac people remembering this slogan but having no idea what it means! Doesn’t that sound great?”

And, yes… it was. For a while. Right up until the point where we got what was supposed to be the Big Reveal explanation for each of those. At which point I would be looking at it and thinking “What?! That doesn’t make any sense! What about…??”

Main plot points that evoked the “What?! That doesn’t make any sense!” explanation from me:

The reason WICKED are experimenting on the children is to find a cure for a deadly plague (known as the Flare) which is ravaging the rest of the human race; most of the children are naturally immune (some of them are apparently there as control subjects) so WICKED desperately need to study the children and find out what accounts for their immunity, in hopes of finding a cure for everyone else. So far, so good. The trouble is, they’re doing it by studying the way their brains function (by putting them through various stressful situations and monitoring their responses). Which makes no sense whatsoever. If you want to know what makes someone immune to an illness, surely you start by studying their immune system? Tissue biopsies of the brain would probably also be useful, but the only time we see WICKED trying to do that, it’s when they want to dissect Thomas’s entire brain (and only Thomas’s – they don’t seem to feel any requirement to compare biopsies from a variety of the children).

They’re also, apparently, taking a bizarrely long time to do this. The children get taken away from their parents at an early age and kept by WICKED for years until they’re old enough to take part in the Maze trials, which then go on for two more years. Since the time from infection by the Flare virus to destruction of your functioning brain doesn’t, from what I could see, seem to be that long – how exactly is it that the virus hasn’t wiped out everyone non-immune during those years and left the whole question of a cure moot?

WICKED are also quite extraordinarily profligate with money. The Maze walls, we are told, are hundreds of feet high and move into different positions every night. (Wait, what?! How do you even make a wall that high stable enough to be moved?? Now I’m all ‘Ye canna change the laws of physics, laws of physics, Cap’n!’ and that wasn’t even the plot hole I was about to discuss.) We also learn that the Maze is eight times the size of the central area (the Glade) which is in itself the size of eight football fields, so that is one bloody big maze. All made out of moveable walls hundreds of feet high. And the children live there for two years, with the walls being moved every night and supplies being sent in weekly. In fact, we learn in the second book that there are two such groups of children, not just one. So… how much did all this cost?? The cost of first building and then maintaining two such mazes would be… so colossally expensive that we need a new term for ‘colossally expensive’. I mean, which planet do you sell to whom in order to finance something like that? And this is all meant to be taking place in a post-apocalyptic world when even basic services are likely to be going belly-up. (We are told at one point in the third book that WICKED have managed to corner available funding and resources due to being the only ones holding out the promise of a cure, but… funding and resources available for cornering at that point are still not going to be that great.)

So, are we seriously meant to believe that at absolutely no point in the design of the Mazes did anyone in charge point out “Hey, I realise walls hundreds of feet high sound exciting, but surely we can get the same effect at a fraction of the price by making the walls something like eight or ten feet high”? Or that at no point during the two years that all this was going on and that both groups of children were making zero progress on cracking the code or figuring out how to escape did anyone say”‘Guys, this experiment isn’t getting us anywhere and you can’t justify claiming these levels of funds any longer. Find something to hurry it up”? I’m sorry, I just do not buy the idea that any government agency anywhere in the history of government agencies who were, are, or will be can get away with being that blithely unconcerned about funding availability for that long.

Nearly done (not because that’s an exhaustive list, just because it’s a list of the things that bugged me the most) but I do have to mention the Retractor that we learned about in ‘The Death Cure’. This is, supposedly, a hi-tech device that removes implants from the children’s brains by sending wires in via their ear canals. Because apparently Dashner either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that ears aren’t just holes stretching straight through to the brain. You send a wire in through someone’s ear, the first thing it’s going to meet is the eardrum, which seals the outer canal off completely from the middle ear. Go through that, and you’re getting into some complex and delicate anatomy – the tiny bones of the middle ear, and the inner-ear organs that process sounds and monitor your balance. I’m a GP, not an ENT surgeon, but trying to pull an implant out via that lot strikes me as a really bad idea.

Also, since they are apparently going for this appallingly bad via-the-ear plan, why do the Retractors go on the children’s faces to perform this procedure? Wouldn’t it make far more sense for them to go on one side of the head? I mean, if it’s on the face, the wire it sends out has to curve sideways and downwards to find the ear and then upwards and forwards again to negotiate the ear canal… I think Dashner was, once again, going for the ‘this is such a cool scary image’ approach over actual practicalities.

OK, I’m done. What did everyone else think of the books? Did I miss anything important? Do let me know.

The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch

The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch, by Ronda Armitage, is a favourite of my eight-year-old daughter’s. This is partly because it’s a fun story, and partly because we enjoy going through pointing out all the problems with it.

My daughter is a huge fan of the CinemaSins YouTube channel. (Yes, this is probably a terrible idea and bad mothering on my part, but she’s only interested in the reviews of children’s films, so hopefully she isn’t going to end up watching extracts from some weird slasher film while my back’s turned.) Last night, while she was reading this book for the umpteenth time, she declared ‘We really need to make a list of all the things wrong with this book like the Sin Counter does!’

And so here I am. (And, Ronda Armitage, if you’re reading this – my daughter absolutely loves your book. Plot bizarreness and all.)

Basic plot (with spoilers)

Simple enough. Mr Grinling works in a lighthouse. Every day, his wife makes a detailed and delicious packed lunch for him, and sends it to him down a cable transport system (they live in a cottage on the nearby cliff). Some seagulls get wise to this and start eating the lunch on the way down, leaving poor Mr Grimling lunchless. Mr and Mrs Grinling try a couple of different things to discourage the seagulls, eventually winning the battle when Mrs Grinling comes up with the idea of putting mustard sandwiches in his lunch. The seagulls don’t like the mustard sandwiches, and after a couple of days of this head off to seek their lunch elsewhere. Success! Well, except for the unfortunate fisherman who’s having his lunch eaten by seagulls at the end. But success for Mr Grinling, who gets his lunch.

Problems with the plot

(As opposed to problems with the gender role portrayal, which are pretty obvious.)

  1. Why on earth does Mrs Grinling send the lunch down a cable every day? Surely it would be far simpler to make it the day before so that Mr Grinling can take it over in his boat each day when he commutes? What would happen if the cable jammed and left his lunch dangling fifty feet in the air over the sea? What if the basket tipped off in a storm? (It definitely doesn’t look too secure in the pictures.)
  2. How do the seagulls have time to finish the lunch in the time it takes to slide down a cable? Sure, they could probably peck at it somewhat, but apparently they’re supposed to have completely finished it in the time it takes to get down the line (and this is not a small lunch).
  3. Mrs Grinling’s first attempt at foiling the seagulls is to tie the napkin to the basket – cue picture of Mrs Grinling standing triumphantly next to a ribbon-bound basket. In which she appears to have added one ribbon totally for decoration, as it runs horizontally round the basket, under the other ribbons, contributing nothing whatsoever to the ribbon-induced security of the basket. What was the point of that?
  4. But what’s far worse is her next plan – with Mr Grinling’s full co-operation, she decides to send their cat down the cable as well in order to scare away the seagulls. Yup. We have a picture of a terrified cat being placed in a basket despite his struggles, and then one of him cowering in the basket in terrified misery as he travels down this insecure cable arrangement, at risk of toppling fifty feet into the sea below and getting dashed against the cliffs. The Grinlings are totally OK with doing this. Someone report this couple to the RSPCA.
  5. Mrs Grinling finally comes up with the mustard sandwich plan, and we have a full-page picture of the seagulls spitting the sandwiches out with cries of revulsion. And – kudos to my daughter for picking up this particular point – the falling sandwiches show human-shaped bite marks, rather than beak-shaped bite marks. How exactly did this happen? Did the seagulls’ beaks somehow magically metamorphosize into human mouths for just long enough to take those fateful bites, then change back again?

 

So… what’s the moral? Maybe it’s that you should prepare for work the night before, a la Flylady; maybe it’s that being cruel to animals brings you no benefit, but, hell, you’ll also apparently suffer no consequences from it so why not give it a try. (Nope. Let’s not go with that one.) On the whole, I think it’s that it’s probably not a good idea to overanalyse children’s books.

What I’ve been reading – the ‘My Friend Flicka’ series

In a complete and utter change of pace from my last ‘What I’m reading’ post, I’ve recently been revisiting Mary O’Hara’s classic series (My Friend Flicka, Thunderhead, and Green Grass of Wyoming) about life on a Wyoming ranch. I got onto this because I happened to find My Friend Flicka in a charity shop browse; I actually, as it happens, have had Thunderhead on my shelves for a while now having found a second-hand copy somewhere or other, probably in another charity shop browse, so I decided to go ahead and complete the set and ordered a used copy of Green Grass cheaply on Amazon and read the lot. I did read the books as a child, but in a skip-and-skim kind of way; parts of them interested childhood-me a lot, parts not at all. This re-read, therefore, was the first time I’d actually read them properly all the way through, and was an interesting combination of rediscovering sections that came back to me vividly as I read them, and being struck by aspects of them that had zoomed over my head the first time.

One thing I realised for the first time was just how long ago these were written; as a child, I don’t think I’d really taken in that they actually date back to the 1940s. (I’m not sure whether that’s a tribute to the timelessly good writing or an indictment of my powers of observation.) Reading it as an adult (and a doctor), I was struck by the fact that the reason Ken and Flicka both come so close to dying in the first book was because this was the pre-antibiotic era and there simply wasn’t much that could be done for severe infections. And by the fact that the McLaughlins don’t even get a phone until the third book and that this is so taken for granted it barely rates a mention.

More insidiously, there’s also the way the female characters are presented. When I read the first book as a child, the character I identified with was the eponymous Flicka, for the simple reason that the only human female character who gets more than a very brief walk-on part in the whole of the first two books is Ken’s mother Nell. Who spends half her time planning meals for the menfolk and half of it fretting over the way her husband is taking his frustrations and fears over their money worries out on her. Rereading the books, I found new appreciation for Nell’s character; she is beautifully portrayed, a complex, intelligent, sensitive woman caught in the hell of an insoluble situation. But, other than the occasional scene where her sons go to her for advice or homilies, she doesn’t really do anything that my childhood self could either identify with or aspire to.

In the third book we get two more female characters – Carey, beautiful and sweet but passive and immature (at one point in the book, her response to Ken’s attempt to discuss her plans for her future is to go into rhapsodies over how adorable the eight children she wants are going to be and won’t Ken join her in her game of planning names for them?), and her monstrously manipulative grandmother, whose determination to keep Carey under her thumb is largely responsible for Carey’s failure to grow up. O’Hara does an excellent job of portraying a deeply manipulative relationship and the difficulties of breaking free after years of being groomed to find this manipulation normal, and I can recommend this as a great piece of writing; but, again, it’s not something in which, as a child, I could find a role model or a character I really felt good about identifying with.

Even the way O’Hara writes about the horses drifts off into a male-dominated picture. This, of course, is partly because horses by their nature live in a male-dominated world – as unintentionally exemplified by this snippet from Green Grass of Wyoming, in which Ken tries to explain to the naive Carey why her filly Jewel has been stolen by his stallion Thunderhead:

‘…It’s kind of like falling in love. He knew she was a winner and he just kicked the crate to pieces until she was free and ran away with her – kind of eloping.’

‘But what if she didn’t want to go?’

Ken grinned. ‘Well, he’d make her. That’s what a stallion does. But he’ll take good care of her – Oh, the very best care! You don’t need to worry about her coming to any harm!’

Carey’s tears were drying and she looked at Ken, intrigued by this strange tale of wild-animal romance.

Ah, yes, that well-known sign of a great romance – one of the pair is quite happy to force the other one against zir wishes without, in fact, caring in the slightest what zie wants. Exactly the example we want to be giving to young people.

That, of course, is simply a case of horses not really being the best role models for human relationships; but it also occurred to me, as I read, that O’Hara even let her female equine characters fade into the background once a stallion was in the picture. In the first book, Flicka’s supposed to be Ken’s one chosen horse and true love forever (which ends up being quite a raw deal for Flicka, as the attempts to capture her for Ken unintentionally lead to her receiving a near-fatal injury which leaves her forever robbed of the incredible speed that caught Ken’s attention in the first place). But the second and third books focus on her son, Thunderhead. Flicka does go on to have a daughter, Touch And Go, who in fact becomes the one to save the ranch at the end of the second book by winning a crucial race and thus paying off the family’s crippling debts, but this scene is mentioned almost in passing as the book gets back to the far more important issue of Thunderhead’s fate. By the third book, Flicka barely figures and Touch And Go, gets one single brief passing mention; even though the racehorse owner who bought her figures largely in the story, there isn’t so much as a passing question or mention as to how Touch and Go is doing, and Thunderhead is talked about as though he’s the only racehorse in the bunch.

There were, conversely, many aspects of the book I appreciated far more on a reread; Ken’s development and growth through the novel and the beautiful and vivid depictions of Wyoming ranch life. I remembered why I did like these books as a child, but I also had more conscious awareness of what it was about them that left me not feeling as comfortable.

Who here has read the books? What did you think of them and what do you think of them on looking back?

‘The Martian’ – book vs. film

One of life’s many joys is to see a book you’ve loved made into a film that does it justice. I had that joy a couple of weekends back, when I watched the DVD version of the film based on Andy Weir’s The Martian, which I’d already read and loved last year. The film is awesome – brilliant visuals, great characters, and true to the spirit of the book.

What I want to do now is geek at great length about how the book compares to the film and what I think of the inevitable differences (mostly good, but I have some gripes). This will contain about a billion spoilers and will be in large part incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t seen the film/read the book (preferably both), so, if this is something you were planning to read and/or watch, this might be a post to bookmark for a later date.

[Read more…]

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.

Urban Fantasy

One thing I’m planning to start on here is to write reviews of whatever book/series/author I’m currently reading. Since what I’m reading at the moment is the Alex Verus mage series, an urban fantasy series by Benedict Jacka, I’m planning to start with a post on that; however, it was getting pretty long as I planned it out, and this was partly because it started with an explanation of what urban fantasy actually is and why I love it as a genre. Since this is no doubt a subject I’ll be referring back to, I decided it was worth setting this up as a separate post.

(I am now going to burble on somewhat in trying to express all this, so consider yourself warned.)

Urban fantasy, simply enough, is a term for fantasy set in this world. The converse (as I discovered when I googled ‘urban fantasy’ to make sure I was actually getting the definition right before I started writing posts about it) is high fantasy, which is fantasy set in a fictitious world. They aren’t set-in-stone or exclusive categories, but, as a fantasy fan, I can vouch for them being useful concepts for thinking about fantasy.

Urban fantasy and high fantasy, of course, are both very broad categories which cover a multitude, and genre is only one factor among many that go into making a book good or bad, so I don’t think I could quite come out and say anything as categorical as ‘I prefer urban fantasy’. After all, there are plenty of high fantasy books out there which I love – Terry Pratchett’s ‘Discworld’ series, Mercedes Lackey’s ‘500 Kingdom’ and ‘Valdemar’ series (serieses?), and Tamora Pierce’s various Tortall and Circle series(es), to name some key ones.

What is inherently awesome about urban fantasy, however, is the contrast between the astounding magical stuff that’s going on and the normal, everyday setting within which it takes place. There is just so much potential there for subtle humour and bathos and weirdness and… and messages about what it means to be human. Great fantasy is fantasy in which the characters are believable people whom you could imagine meeting. People dealing with/struggling with/enjoying all the things we know so well in day-to-day life. Friendship, rejection, bureaucracy, profound moral dilemmas, irritations. And a good urban fantasy series can use that backdrop of the magic/normal life contrast to highlight those things, because it shows us that, even if people did have magical powers or vampires to battle or whatnot, they would still be fundamentally people in all their ordinariness and messiness and glory.

Which is, of course, not to say that I’m going to enjoy every urban fantasy automatically, because, again, so much else plays into what makes a book good or bad. The kind of urban fantasy I particularly enjoy (although, again, this is hardly going to be a blanket rule) is the kind in which there’s a magical subculture within the ordinary day-to-day culture that’s around us, which has its own rules and customs in much the same way that normal life does, which the various participants all understand and automatically deal within, just as we do in day-to-day life. So you have this kind of double contrast; the contrast between the weird and fantastical and day-to-day human issues, and the contrast between the magic subculture and, all round it, the normal culture we know – with the characters taking both these cultures for granted in much the same way.

The Alex Verus series are a great example of this. Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series are another, and very nearly ended up being the topic of my first post in this series, but it so happened that last Saturday I was returning some other library books and thought, hmmm, let’s just see if there’s anything by Benedict Jacka on the shelves, and lo and behold there were ‘Taken’ and ‘Chosen’, and some rereading began. So, that series is what I’m reading right now, and thus, if I do get a book review post up any time soon, that’ll be the one I most likely review.

Any other fantasy fans here? Any other fans of anything I’ve mentioned so far?