Chosen – by Benedict Jacka (Review)

Alex Verus #4

Urban Fantasy

Ace Books; August 27, 2013

294 pages (paperback)

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8.5 /10 ✪

Please beware minor spoilers for Alex Verus Books 1-3

By this point in the series, Alex Verus is beginning to earn a hard-fought reputation. He liberated the fateweaver and defeated its ancient guardian. He fought and defeated one of England’s foremost battle mages. He stopped an evil ritual, saved the girl, won the day. But mostly, he’s successfully pissed off many powerful mages, creatures, and made a whole lot of potential enemies. Though he’s also made himself some useful allies—and even a few lifelong friends.

Or maybe not.

When Alex’s past comes back to haunt him, he’s forced to confront some ugly memories, and even uglier ghosts. But the worst ghosts are those that just won’t stay dead and buried. Or those that were never dead at all.

One of these turns up in the form of an extremely pissed-off adept—one with a grudge against Alex. Will Traviss was just a kid the first time he ran across Alex, but it was a moment traumatic enough that he’ll never forget Verus’ face. He wasn’t strong enough to defeat Alex back then, but after a decade spent honing his magical talent—and letting his rage simmer—Will is back. And he’s brought a team.

And if Alex wants to live long enough to regret his past decisions, he must find a way to defeat Will, ideally without killing him. Otherwise, Alex may find those friends and allies a bit less than “lifelong”—leaving him alone with his memories and regrets.

And the rumors of his ex-master’s return.

Ja-Ja looked taken aback. He looked down at his palm, then up at Anne, then tried again. Again the lethal green-black light flickered from his hand and into Anne’s body. Again nothing happened.
“Please stop doing that,” Anne said.
“That should have worked,” Ja-Ja muttered.
“It’s okay,” I said brightly. “It happens to a lot of guys.”
“Shut up,” Ja-Ja snapped.
“I’m sure it doesn’t happen to you usually. Maybe you can take a rest and try again in a few minutes.”

Anne glanced at me. “Maybe you should stop taunting them.”

As with many other series, this one gets better with age. The first couple of books act as the author’s way of testing the waters, getting comfortable with their process and writing. The next few give them a chance to grow accustomed to their creations—particularly their characters. The author can get into a groove, and start to learn their creation as well as they know themselves. After that, the books pretty much write themselves.

Except for, you know, the words and stuff. Also the plot. Both the overarching and the episodic ones. And, well, the setting. And… okay okay. So the books will never really write themselves. But at least it should get easier (for a time, at least).

This is the point at which Chosen gets going. Alex has faced some trials and tribulations, but this is the point for me that his story really gets going. We’ve established his recent history—now it’s time to delve into his backstory. Starting with one Will Traviss.

Now, Will Traviss isn’t at the heart of the matter. That’s surely Alex’s relationship with Richard Drakh—his former master. But Traviss is close enough to those old memories, close enough to that old life that one thing leads to another and Alex can’t avoid facing down the darkness that lurks in his past. And this is why I was so excited to get into this part of the series. This is where his past and present collide. And Alex’s future self is born.

It’s not a perfect birth, as so few are. There are hiccups along the way: backstory that doesn’t line up perfectly with what has already been established, some rendering of events and memories outside the scope of what could’ve possibly happened (many of the memories Alex revisits in Chosen are seen from outside of himself—meaning that Alex can look at his younger self instead of watching through their eyes), and some are detailed in total recall instead of through the eye of the beholder. But having this backstory finally explained makes up for most of these. And as mistakes go, these are far from story-breaking.

From here, expect the series to get even better. I remember really enjoying books 5 and 7, and everything kicking off at a new level come Book 8—Bound. #6, Veiled, is a more self-contained adventure that does little to further the overarching story, but far from a poor read in its own right. But then I’ll have plenty of time to get into that later.

I wish that I could tell you that this is the place to start; pick up the series now, starting at Book #4 and you’ll not regret it! But the problem with this is that series like this—episodic, but tying in to an overarching plot—are nothing but a sum of their parts. Parts you really want to have in order to assemble the entire piece. Otherwise you’ll end up with a chair with no legs, or radio with no speaker. But if you’re just after a solid urban fantasy adventure with plenty of magic, action, and thrill—it’d be hard to do much better than Chosen.

Taken – by Benedict Jacka (Review)

Alex Verus #3

Urban Fantasy

Ace Books; August 28, 2012 (US)
Orbit; September 6, 2012 (UK)

313 pages (paperback)

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8 / 10 ✪

Please beware possible minor spoilers for Alex Verus books #1 and 2

Once, Alex Verus could go weeks without seeing another mage. Kept behind the counter of his Camden shop, he cared little for Council society, dark mages, light mages, or anything beyond his little corner of the world. But now everything has changed.

As Luna’s master, Alex is expected at apprentice events. As a known diviner to the Council, Alex—while not exactly trusted—still manages to get some side work from Talisid, and from the Council itself. Additionally, more and more independents have begun approaching him with divination requests. One such request comes courtesy of Crystal, who wants a tournament at Fountain Ridge monitored. But he has bigger things on his plate. Apprentices have been disappearing, and the Council has no idea how.

Unfortunately, Alex has no idea how either. Not only can he find no trace of them, there’s no evidence, no witnesses, and no suspects. But that’s not the end of his problems.

When someone takes a shot at Anne—one of the other apprentices in the program—Alex steps in to help her. And in doing so involves himself in something he might’ve left very much alone. Someone really wants Anne dead. And Alex can’t rule anyone out. The Council, Anne’s Rakshasa master, the other apprentices, dark mages, light mages, wild dogs, muggles, trees, waffle house employees—everyone seems to want Anne dead. And yet in helping her, Alex is pointed to a very interesting coincidence. As when the Council finally does come up with a suspect, it’s her. Now Alex has to decide whether she’s a friend or foe. And why everyone is trying so hard to see her dead.

Fortunately, he has a clue—albeit a vague one.

The answer you seek is at Fountain Reach.

And that’s it.

Though while Alex has no idea why he’d look to Fountain Reach, he has no better ideas.

Whoever had designed the block of flats had obviously worked to a clear set of priorities. Unfortunately, while cost, size, and low-maintenance had made it to the top of the list. aesthetics, good escape routes, and shelter from gunfire hadn’t.

While Taken isn’t Benedict Jacka’s best work, it’s definitely a step in the right direction. The mystery is strong in this one, with an interesting, complex, and thoroughly entertaining story. Unlike the previous two installments, this one has a bit more going on than what’s immediately obvious. With two main plot points, it comes down to what’s happening to the apprentices, and what’s happening with Anne. Neither make sense on their own, but together… yeah, they still don’t make immediate sense. Fortunately, the further we go down the rabbit hole, the more things start to clear up. And while it may not seem like it at first, everything fits together quite nicely—even if there’s not an easy explanation for all of it.

The story isn’t the only thing that gets a leg up come Taken. The character development, particularly that of some of Alex’s allies, starts paying dividends. Though Alex’s own development continues to strengthen, it’s not him that I want to focus on. Even in the first two books, the character development of Alex was strong. But while Verus’ backstory was getting filled in, others were missing out. Luna (primarily) and Sonder as well, get their chance here. Now, while we don’t learn a whole lot about either, what we are given is certainly up from the zero established in earlier books. In addition to these two, another few potential allies begin to emerge. One, Talisid, whose motives have been obscure to this point, starts to get more solidly in Alex’s corner. While the Council man’s a far cry from going out of his way to help Verus, he’s good for a “favor for a favor” trade. Anne, on the other hand, is a bit more mysterious. But over the course of Taken we see a lot of her, and she and Alex work quite well together.

A much better entry to the series, Taken still falls a bit short on originality. I hate to admit it, but the above message about Fountain Reach—while vague, obscure, and not terribly creative—it’s a key plot point. Without it, I’m not sure the investigation shifting to Fountain Reach would make any sense at all. Which is kind of disappointing. It all works out well enough in the end, but getting to that point really could’ve been accomplished… better. The thing is, that although immersive and immediately readable, the mystery of Taken is a bit of a convoluted mess. A bit. Again, I did legitimately enjoy it, and it all worked out quite nicely in the end, but looking back on it—it is sort of a mess. But hey—it works, and that’s the important part.

TL;DR

All in all, Taken may be the best example of the Alex Verus series to its point, but the best is yet to come. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big fan of this series (especially the second half dozen), and even though this isn’t the best that Jacka’s capable of, it’s moving in the right direction. Better than the first two; still more than enough reason to pick it up; definitely recommended!

Cursed – by Benedict Jacka (Review)

Alex Verus #2

Urban Fantasy

Ace Books; May 29, 2012

277 pages (paperback)

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7 / 10 ✪

Please beware minor spoilers for Fated, Book #1 of the Alex Verus series, and possible minor spoilers for Book #2, Cursed.

Ever since the fallout with the Fateweaver, Alex has been keeping his head down, immersing himself in work at his Camden shop and doing his best to play mentor to an unorthodox apprentice. Yet neither has been working out too well.

Now that he’s on the Council’s radar, it’s only a matter of time before they come calling—so Alex has been picking up odd jobs from his contact Talisid, and planning for what happens if SHTF. Unfortunately, it seems he’s underestimated them.

Caught in the middle of a clash between Light and Dark, Alex signs on to investigate a rumor of mages harvesting magical creatures for their life-force—a process as dangerous as it is disgusting. As he doesn’t want the research to fall into the wrong hands (or any hands, preferably), Alex is set on destroying the process before any other magical creatures can die. But it seems he’s underestimated just how much some mages are willing to go for a chance at more power. And while they’ll happily kill him in order to gain it, is he willing to do the same in order to prevent its use? Or will he step aside while his new allies grow much stronger, and maybe him as well?

Sonder was looking in my direction as I walked back into the room. “What was that?”
“What was what?”
“I thought I heard a bang.”
“Rats.”
“And something that sounded like a scream?”
“Big rats.”

Better than the first one, albeit with a slower start and a slightly more divergent plot. Still, when it all comes together the story takes off. A couple missteps relating to later books and the blending of plot lines ruin what could’ve been a better sophomore effort, but I promise you, the series does get better the later in it one reads.

While a better read than Fated, Cursed is still not yet indicative of Jacka hitting his stride. The plot is certainly more intricate than the fairly straightforward fetch quest of its predecessor, but “more intricate” does not always mean “better”. Indeed, with a slower start and a more divergent plot, Cursed gets bogged down in expectation and ends up a muddle of threads and plot-lines—and something which confuses the lore come later books. That said, with far better character personality and development, it really gets the series moving from some pair of related books to something which one day might comprise a good series. And hey—it does.

Despite its quagmire of plot-devices and threads, Cursed is never a challenge to read—at least once past the 40-page mark. Make it there and you shouldn’t have any more problems. It’s not that making it through these first forty is all that difficult; it’s an interesting setup, building up the plot via lore that would’ve been nice in the first book. It’s just that, unlike the previous entry, Cursed doesn’t stamp on the accelerator and leave it to get the reader immersed. Instead, it builds events up a bit—then stomps down.

I really don’t have too many thoughts on this one. I mean, it shows the classic “sophomore slump” common to new series, but the “slump” isn’t any worse than the original. In fact in some ways it’s better. My recollection is still that the series only goes up from here, but I suppose I should amend that now. While I know that later books get to be the kind of thing you can devour in about a day—it’s not quite here yet. But “nothing after Fated gets any worse” doesn’t sound as good. Taken (Book #3), I remember as being really good, Hidden (Book #5) taking everything to another level. As for Books 4 & 6… well, I guess we’ll just have to see. Check back next month for the review of Taken, and for more on Benedict Jacka.

Fated – by Benedict Jacka (Review)

Alex Verus #1

Urban Fantasy

Ace; February 28, 2012 (US)
Orbit; March 1, 2012 (UK)

278 pages (paperback)

Author Website

Goodreads
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3.5 / 5 ✪

Alex Verus is part of another world hidden in plain sight. A mage himself, he owns a magic shop in Camden, a little on the nose perhaps, but not unheard of—much like a certain guy who advertises in the phonebook under “Wizard”. Comparatively, Verus’ life is quiet by comparison—something he’s quite a fan of. See, for years Alex has done his best to remain under the radar, out of everyone’s business but his own.

But when the Council comes calling, it seems there’s little chance of that continuing. See, Alex is a diviner, meaning that while he doesn’t have access to any kind of flashy magic like the ability to shoot flames or ice or force, the ability to raise the dead or create vast armies of constructs, the ability to heal or snuff out life with a touch and a thought—he does have the ability to make people very, very nervous by reading their every move for every interaction. Now, divining isn’t a science or anything like you see on TV; he can’t foretell anyone’s death (unless it happens to be in the very close future), he doesn’t tell fortunes, and no, he can’t predict the lottery. What it is is probability and chance—two things Verus has extensive experience with, and have not only kept him alive, but made him very good at his job.

It’s this that the Council is after. And they’re desperate.

So when Alex turns them down, they don’t take it well. Fortunately for the Council, the next group to come calling are a group of Dark Mages, and they ask a great deal less politely. See, Dark mages are consumed with power beyond anything else—anything they want, they take, and if you’re not strong enough to resist them, then it’s not anything you deserve having. The strong lead; the weak follow.

So when Alex turns them down, they take it even more poorly. Soon he has cause to rethink the Council’s offer, but there’s still concern. Because when Verus sees the object in question, he has great misgivings giving such a thing to either side. In a perfect world, Alex might just walk away and let the two go to war over it. But this isn’t a perfect world. So it begs the question: just what is he going to do now?

‘ “What’s motivating you?”
“Well… right now, staying alive would be good.”
Morden shook his head. “ Oh, I think you can do better than that.”
“Um, staying alive is a pretty big motivation for me.” ‘

Thus begins the Alex Verus reread!

With part 1 of 12 successfully complete, I’ve slightly better hopes of accomplishing this feat in 2022, though most of the challenge is still ahead of me. And I have quite an ambitious idea for just what it may entail. While I’m a big fan of the series, I’ve only actually read one of the entries before—and it wasn’t Fated.

So here it is: a return to the roots of one of my favorite urban fantasy series. And… it’s okay. Pretty decent, even. The first book, at least.

Fated isn’t the greatest read ever, nor is it the best beginning to a series that I’ve ever read. It’s okay—though obviously the work of a relatively new author. There’s not much depth, not much character development (although we spend most of the time exploring Alex and his history, so that’s not any great surprise). The first great disappointment is in the supporting cast. They’re… kinda shallow. By which I mean they don’t have a whole lot of substance to them, or any kind of development or history that’s worth caring about. As a returning reader I can tell you that some of them flesh out quite nicely in the future—just not in Fated.

The first time I read this, I stumbled regularly over the first 100 pages or so. It took me much longer to get into the story, which is a bit of an issue in a 300 page book. This time, I had no such trouble getting into the story. I really moved along quite quickly once the plot got rolling—and I managed to get into it much easier since I had a vague idea of where it was headed.

“ If there’s one thing all diviners share, it’s curiosity. We can’t really help it; it’s just a part of who we are. If you dug out a tunnel somewhere in the wilderness a thousand miles from anywhere and hung a sign on it saying, Warning, this leads to the Temple of Horrendous Doom. Do not enter, ever. No, not even then, you’d get back from lunch to find a diviner already inside and two more about to go in.

Come to think about it, that might explain why there are so few of us. “

As I said, this is obviously an early effort by a recent author. But what does that mean? Well, in this case it means that it’s not as polished, not as refined, not as immersive as their later work, once they’ve established their writing style and have some experience under their belt. It does seem to be thought out and written according to some plan, as such not wandering around waiting for something to happen. There’s a story pretty much straight out of the gate, and while it’s not very innovative (at least at first), it certainly doesn’t lack for creativity either. The language is also a bit fiddly, but it’s not like there are grammatical or punctuation errors or anything. It just… sometimes takes the long way to say things. And hell, some authors do that more as their career expands. It’s not even something you’d certainly notice. It’s just not… the same language the author uses in later books—once he’s really developed a feel for these things.

The thing that didn’t change was its entertainment value. I found this just as entertaining—if not more—the second time around. When I first read Fated back in 2016, it took just short of two weeks (but then there are many reasons for that). This time around, it took me about three days. And while I have to admit it was a very straightforward plot (at least at first)—it was quite enjoyable. Even more so knowing how the story grows from here. It’s honestly a bit like Storm Front (by Jim Butcher, first entry in the Dresden Files) in that it’s not the author’s best story, but it’s definitely enjoyable, certainly entertaining, gets the series off on solid footing, and sets the stage for what’s to come. And there is in fact a nod to the Dresden Files in the early pages: ‘ I’ve even heard of one guy in Chicago who advertises in the phonebook under “Wizard”… ‘—so there’s that.

TL;DR

For those of you who didn’t want to read my jaunt down memory lane—yeah, whatever. The short of it is that Fated isn’t the best book out there. It smacks of being written by a relatively new author—characters don’t have a whole lot of substance, and aren’t developed much; the plot was straightforward and far from innovative; and, in my first time through at least, I had trouble getting in to the story. But while not terribly innovative, the world is certainly creative and well-told. Another world hidden within our own, but this one not entirely out of sight. Alex Verus isn’t a flashy mage, but a thoughtful one. And he’s not without his skill. It’s a great intro, as these things go, and the series only gets better from here!

The series continues with Cursed, which—to be honest—I’m drawing a blank on. I mean, I remember liking it, but not any specifics. Huh. I guess you’ll have to check back in February to learn more. Or… you could always just read it yourself first:)

Alex Verus – Beautiful World of Books

For this year’s series reread, I’ve selected Alex Verus, a series of a dozen urban fantasy novels written by Benedict Jacka. It’s pretty much perfect as there are 12 books: one for each month. While I’m not 100% sure how closely I can stick to it, I at least hope to get through the first nine (those that I haven’t posted reviews for), and coordinate each for its own separate month. That said, there’s a decent chance I’ll end up bingeing a few in a row (or maybe the whole series)—but I guess we’ll see. For now, let’s just look at the covers and dream.

Ace

These are the US covers for the Alex Verus series. All twelve are here—Fated, Cursed, Taken, Chosen, Hidden, Veiled, Burned, Bound, Marked, Fallen, Forged, and Risen. While I don’t have a strong preference as to which covers I like better, I am partial to these because they’re the ones that bedeck my own shelves:)

Orbit

The UK (Orbit) covers often have two styles, but they weren’t different enough that I considered separating them into alternate blocks. Also as far as I can tell, one doesn’t span the entire series. This is the style that you’ll see in Fated, Taken, Chosen, Hidden and Veiled; with the entire cover the same hue and shading and the Jim Butcher quote adorning the bottom half. The others take this bottom and slap on a map of London which I quite like, albeit one tinted in whatever color the book features. If you look closely you’ll find the alternate covers have this map as well—though it’s much more indistinct. But as I said, I don’t think this style spans the entire series; I could only find it for the first half or so. Personally I like the later style better. More character, or something.

And that’s all 12 books of the Verus series! Have a favorite, or do you like both of them? Have you read this series, and if so, how many times have you been through them? Mostly I’ve only read each once, though I’ve reread Bound twice, somehow. If you haven’t heard of them/read them by now, do you think this might change your mind? Honestly, this is probably my favorite urban fantasy series, just based on the level of consistency. Both it and the Dresden Files are amazing, but some of the latter weren’t nearly as good as others. A few in the Alex Verus weren’t as strong as others, but never dipped below four stars, while Dresdens’ (particularly some of the later ones), ranked around three.

Hopefully you’ll check back at least once a month to hear my thoughts on each book, assuming everything with the reread goes well. This month’s review of Fated will probably come at the end of the month, as I have a couple ARCs to make it through first!