~~MOVED FROM GR~~
Fated (Alex Verus #1)
by Benedict Jacka
Fated has Jim Butcher's seal of approval. Need I say more? I can certainly see why it appeals to fans of The Dresden Files--there are quite a few similarities, especially to Harry's earlier adventures.
Alex Verus is a professional wizard mage living in Chicago London and running a shop (which is probably in the phone book) that sells magical wares to the nonmagical community. Alex is tall and angular, with spiky dark hair and a tendency towards wisecracks. He apparently is an orphan, and his sad history involves abuse and betrayal by his evil mentor Justin Richard. Alex escaped Richard, but a young female apprentice apparently lost her life and the incident put Alex on the outs with the White Council of Wizards mages. Alex is a diviner, a mage who can see the future. He's been living a relatively quiet life, but his peace is disrupted when a mysterious object, called a "fateweaver", has been found, and it is protected in such a way that only a diviner can release it. Suddenly, all the mages, good, bad, and just plain selfish, are after Alex's services, and if threats of death are the only way to get his help, they're happy to oblige. Alex must navigate the situation while fighting off memories of his past--especially difficult given the reappearance of Elaine a fellow apprentice-- and while protecting his already cursed friend Luna. Fated, indeed.
If you enjoy Green's Nightside, McCullough's WebMage, or Del Franco's Connor Grey series, then I think Jacka's books are definitely worth a look. However, to tell the truth, this book didn't really work for me, possibly because I've read so many books in the genre lately that I've started to get jaded. I am extremely obsessive about tiny plot inconsistencies, and Fated was unfortunately fated to provide rich fodder for such irritations. If you don't get hung up on the details and are in the market for a fun urban fantasy story, then please give it a try. The action is practically nonstop, it's the closest you'll find to another Dresden, and there is a lot of creativity and quite a bit of battle magic. It's also a first novel and should therefore be given more leeway than I gave it. If you don't like to sweat the details, please also ignore my review, because I have a bad feeling that it is going to consist of cranky and exasperated nitpicking. Instead, go find yourself a copy of Fated and start reading.
Still with me? Are you sure? Because the nitpicking is about to start.
Just in case my oh-so-subtle plot summary failed to indicate it, I was somewhat bothered by the similarity between Alex and Harry Dresden. Jacka is clearly aware of this and Alex even lampshades it, saying, "I've even heard of one guy in Chicago who advertises in the phone book under 'Wizard', although that's probably an urban legend"(3). Everyone draws their lines of "acceptable homage" in different places, and for me, this was dangerously close to the boundary. I felt that having their back histories, the "wizard openly practicing his trade in a disbelieving world" motif, the structure of the book, the abusive mentor backstory, and the childhood-love subplot practically the same was just too close. Even the last few paragraphs of the first books are scarily similar. (Ending quotes spoiler-tagged, but the villains' names have also been removed for added spoiler safety.)
Granted, it is a ridiculously effective ending. But to get used again, by someone who has clearly read Storm Front? It's just a bit too similar for my comfort.
Unfortunately, I thought that the aspects of the world that were actually unique and not Dresden-derived had a lot of issues. Most of my problems derived from my sense that Jacka just didn't think it through.
First of all, I had some major problems with Alex and Luna. Luna acts as Alex's obligatory Girl Friday Female Sidekick, but Jacka made the interesting decision of stripping her of any Action Girl attributes and instead making her weak, whiny, and angsty. More irritatingly, Alex's repeated oh-so-cute phrase to her is a patronising "good girl" (yes, he literally and repeatedly says this) when she does as she's told and stays in the kitchen. Unfortunately, saying "good girl" to a human rather than a dog invokes my homicidal fury--hence this unforgiving review. In fact, the only character I really warmed to the tech nerd mage Sonder--and I found him rather distressingly similar to Pratchett's Ponder Stibbons (see above about me and my low "acceptable homage" threshold.) Granted, I really don't think Alex is any more sexist or irritating than Harry Dresden in Storm Front--but if I'd started there, I probably would not have continued the series. Instead, I first met Harry in Small Favor, by which point he has been thoroughly humbled and has a good working relationship with Murph. Hopefully Alex will grow as a character as the series continues.
Sexism wasn't my only frustration with Alex. Basically every interaction ends with him smugly telling us, "I knew that was going to happen." No kidding, buddy. You're a diviner. More problematic is the discrepancy between Alex's powers and his tendency to use them appropriately--or, to put it another way, how he always remembers a new power just when the plot needs it. If you take the union of his powers over the book, Alex has (1) a magic invisibility cloak, (2) a wind elemental "friend" who can fly him anywhere practically instantly, (3) the ability to talk to people in dreams, (3) the ability to use the elemental to essentially communicate telepathically with others, and (4) the ability to pathwalk: to walk far down potential futures and determine what happens in them. None of these abilities appear to have any costs or limitations. And yet Alex only uses them at moments where apparently Jacka wrote himself into a corner. My biggest problem was with the last talent. Throughout, Alex uses pathwalking to go pretty far (possibly days) into the future and actually dies repeatedly in pathwalk futures with no subsequent real-life harm. So why not use it all the time? By acting out enough improbable futures, Alex could solve all the questions. Want to figure out who the mysterious masked woman is? Pathwalk ripping off her mask. Want to figure out who the traitor is? Pathwalk and give him the opportunity to stab you in the back. The list goes on and on.
I actually think that the talent of divining has a lot of potential, and most of my irritation comes from mourning the waste of that potential. It felt like Jacka never thought it through at all--it was just a convenient superpower, used whenever he couldn't think his way out of a conflict and forgotten otherwise. To build up any suspense at all and avoid the Invincible Hero problem, magic needs to have a cost. In Mistborn, atium is expensive and burned through quickly. In The Dresden Files, magic requires energy and the Sight can drive you crazy. In Rivers of London, magic slowly destroys your brain. Jacka could have taken any of these--or he could have gone with something more creative still. Channelling the whole quantummy, probabilisticky, pseudo-sciency aspect of seeing the future, the "cost" of pathwalking could be that, a la Bohr, acting as an observer collapses some of the potentials. That would mean that visiting the future always has the danger of altering it in unpredictable ways by collapsing potential futures. This solution would remove the "pathwalking improbable paths to answer all questions" issue--you might accidentally get things stuck so that the negative consequences of the action were more probable. I really hope Jacka retcons something like this into his world.
Luna's "curse," which brings incredibly good luck to her and incredibly bad luck to everyone around her, was equally problematic. I found this inherently contradictory; for example, accidentally killing the folks around her makes Luna unhappy--so why does the curse do it? Isn't that against its mechanism of action? Even if we accept that the curse only relates to bodily harm and disregards emotional damage, what would happen if Luna threatened imminent self-harm if she hurt other people? We have several examples of the curse being "far-seeing" to prevent damage to Luna and bring it on others, so such a threat actually should have been effective. But what do you know? No one considered it. Even more frustratingly, rather early in the book, Luna is provided with a curse deflector by one of Alex's magical friends. They use it in one scene (guess what? One where it was needed) but then never again. And yet it apparently wasn't difficult to create. Why not carry it all the time?
Oh, of course. Another convenient and unexplained plot device that wasn't completely thought through.
Then there's the evil characters. Unfortunately, their names alone prevented me from being able to take them seriously. We have Khazad, Deleo, Onyx, Morden, and (oh, gawds) Cinder. Please, please, authors, if you're going to create an evil character, please do not give them a name that conjures memories of happy mice in tiny hats singing, "Cinder...elly, Cinderelly, night and day it's Cinderelly..."
It is extremely distracting. Because of his name alone, I was totally unable to take poor Cinder seriously, especially when he and Alex meet up at a ball ("Yes, Cinder! You shall go to the ball!") and was therefore quite inattentive to his threats of dire doom and desolation.
But back on topic. Mages in Alex's world declare an explicit, binary allegiance to Light or Dark (capitalizations Jacka's). So-called "Dark mages" cheerfully announce that they don't believe in any morality (muuahahahaha) and consider the only law and order to be that of power. I personally have issues with the whole "come to the dark side" motif. In real life, people tend to always rationalize their actions as righteous and morally justified. The most despotic dictators and depraved criminals tend to bend and twist morality to justify their own ends and present themselves as righteous leaders of holy crusades against evil. Perhaps there do exist sociopaths who really do consider themselves evil, but even they will use moral justifications to manipulate others. I find the idea of people openly aligning themselves with the Dark Side to be rather ridiculous, and Jacka's villains just aren't awfully good at being successfully evil. Rather than manipulating people and faking benevolence, they parade their well-appointed torture chambers and go into evil monologues. They also take on apprentices that they try to train up into their own "unenlightened self-interest" ideology, which is just plain stupid. You don't want to tell your underling to be selfish and to try to get power; you want to train him to have total and blind obedience and devotion to you. Perhaps more problematically, Evil League of Evil style villains tend to remove the interesting moral grey areas that noir and hardboiled are all about. To give Jacka his due, the actual characters are a little less morally black and white than the world presents them--for example, not all Light wizards are exactly angelic. But while this added yet another villain to the mix, it didn't remove most of the issues above.
I found the plot itself to be full of holes and breaks in logic. To take one early example, Luna is forced into hiding, but she is given a dress so pretty that she decides to accompany Alex to a mage's ball. And despite the fact that he just forced her into hiding from the people at the ball, he happily agrees. WTF.
There was also a rather clumsy flashback element to Alex's past to provide a full back history, something I thought could have been left for a later book. For all that, the idea of divination is fascinating in general, and although I disagree that anyone with precognitive powers could be considered an underdog, I think it's an interesting power to explore.
Overall, this definitely had the feel of a first book--it's rough around the edges but jam-packed with interesting ideas. I had a lot of nitpicky issues with characters and plot, but for all that, I think Jacka has a lot of potential, and I really do understand why the books appeal to Dresden fans. It is creative and full of action and the Dresden-like shenanigans for which we turn to urban fantasy. If you actually made it through the review, I hope I didn't discourage or infuriate you--again, I tend to be obsessive about internal consistency and this book had some issues in that department. Since I read the first Dresden Files book with a very different perspective, already knowing who he became by book 10, I was less harsh, but I strongly suspect that my reactions to the characters would be similar to those expressed here. So I'll keep an eye on Alex Verus--let me know when he reaches book 10 and I'll check back in at the Arcana Emporium.