Fated by Benedict Jacka (2012)
Fated is the first installment in the Alex Verus series. Alex is a mage living in London where he runs a magic shop. He is not necessarily on the good side of the Council, the power center of Mage society. As you might expect, Mage society is stratified, and there are further differences between Light Mages and Dark Mages. Alex, who has good reasons to dislike the Council as well as Dark Mages, really just wants to be left alone, but inevitably he is dragged into the struggle for power between the two opposing factions. Alex is a diviner, which means that he can see into the future (and at times, there are echoes of the Oracle in The Matrix, who reminds us that she cannot see past a choice that hasn’t yet been made). In Alex, then, we have a cerebral mage who uses his brain rather than his physical brawn to solve problems. Although Alex is not in the Council’s favor, he is the only diviner in London, and so they are forced to ask for his help in opening the recently discovered Precursor Relic and retrieving a powerful magical artifact called a fateweaver before it falls into the hands of a Dark Mage. Power struggles ensue with Alex caught in the middle, and of course he must survive on his wits and a little bit of luck while saving the day.
The summary of this book might remind you of other series about mages and witches, and I can’t deny that this book definitely shares in common the traits and conventions of stories about magical societies—the “good” vs. “evil” battle, the protagonist who is alienated from the magical society and yet is somehow the only one who can keep that society in balance, the supporting cast of characters that help the protagonist succeed in his challenge, and the underlying suggestion that though the protagonist may be alienated from the magical community, he is not entirely isolated nor is he entirely alone or without people he can trust and depend upon. There is also the familiar convention of introducing a love interest for the protagonist who is currently out of reach because touching her means death (I’m not going to go into why I find so many things wrong with this convention but seriously? Does every female character have to be a fatal threat to the male protagonist?). As readers we know why this convention exists—it’s an easy way to build sexual tension and keep two people apart who obviously want to be together, and well, it’s a device that works so it’s no wonder it continues to be used. Think of the number of times you’ve seen it or even the first time you saw it (Logan and Max in Dark Angel instantly comes to mind). I would have liked for Jacka to have devised another way of accomplishing this tension and for me that’s probably the aspect of the book I disliked the most.
So what makes this book different? I’m not sure that I would say that it really is different, but I do think that this book does some things really well, especially for the first installment in a series. The protagonist is likable and engaging. Alex has a strong voice, and I like the way he addresses readers in order to pull us into the story and imagines what we’re thinking. There’s a moment where he says to the reader something to the effect of: I know you’re wondering why it’s taken me so long to figure this out. It’s playful and made me smile, and I like that in a book. Alex doesn’t take himself too seriously. Another thing that is done well is the cast of supporting characters. Though I was a bit impatient with the don’t-touch-me-or-you’ll-die device, the introduction of Luna, a young woman who also is on the outside of Mage society, is a good character in that Jacka can do so much with her and say so much about our current society through her. Other characters that I expect will continue to appear in this series are Starbreeze, a friendly wind spirit that helps Alex get to where he wants to go; Arachne, a giant spider who is also a seamstress and designer of fabulous clothes; and another young mage who I won’t name by name for fear of spoiling part of the story but who reminds me of Spencer Reid on Criminal Minds. Also, the story has fantastic movement. There’s only one place where it slows down a bit and that’s primarily a result of giving us some of Alex’s backstory. Still, this book kept me turning the pages, and it kept my interest engaged. It made me want to read the next book in the series, and for me, that’s critical in the serial format.
I picked up this book because there was a blurb on it by Jim Butcher, author of the Harry Dresden series, which I am a huge fan of (and indeed, in the first chapter of this book, Alex makes a vague reference to Harry that readers of Butcher’s series will catch instantly). If you like the Harry Dresden series, I think you will like this book. Ultimately, Alex Verus is like many of us—he is flawed, he’s made some mistakes, and he’s just trying to do the best he can with what he has to work with. I think he also is in that tradition of “sleuths” that has to practice situational ethics, which means that sometimes his choices fall into a morally grey area, but I think that that makes his struggles more true to life and makes him more complex as a character. If you’re looking for a new series to try, I definitely recommend giving Fated by Benedict Jacka a read.