Benedict Jacka

Alex Verus #1
Category: Fantasy
Morality: B+
Writing: B-

Readers who enjoy the urban fantasy vibe but are put off by the darkness and moral ambiguity common in the genre may find just the ticket in this beginning to a new series. Alex Verus is a mage with the ability to see the future, but he keeps a low profile due to a past falling-out with the powers-that-be in the magical world. However, it appears that due to the discovery of an ancient magical artifact, his future-reading abilities are in demand, and not all the people coming to call are exactly reputable…

This book has similar elements and a similar feel to darker and more ambiguous works of urban fantasy such as the Dresden Files – there’s a nod to Harry Dresden on the third page, and Jim Butcher provided cover quotations – but there’s no sex and less graphic violence or disturbing content than you’d expect to encounter in a typical urban fantasy setting. Not only that, but Alex is a principled fellow; he disapproves of the movers and shakers of the magical world because they are too inclusive in their attitude toward Dark mages (hence his falling out with the powers that be). And the Dark mages’ philosophy, one which Alex cannot accept, revolves around their belief in the relativity of right and wrong and the supremacy of power.

What with all this, you’d think the book would feel “sanitized” or genre-defying, but there’s enough cityscape (London! fun!) and enough genuine evil in the villains to keep things squarely in the genre. It actually took me awhile to realize how essentially moral the story’s set-up was, simply because it felt like I was reading a more conventionally ambiguous urban fantasy novel. Plus, there are enough intriguing hints (and a few details) about Alex’s dark past to keep him interesting and believable as an imperfect person trying to do the right thing. (Not only does he have a dark past, but it is this dark past which – believably – drives his opposition to Dark philosophy.) His friend/side-kick Luna, who suffers from a curse which prevents her from getting close (physically) to anyone without causing that person harm, is also an interesting and sympathetic character. And there are enough hints about the history of the mages’ hidden world – as well as more mundane world-building details – to keep the reader buying into the story and interested in learning more. Overall, I found the book enjoyable and entertaining, and if I didn’t like it as much as I like the Dresden Files, I would also probably find it less problematic to recommend to a wider audience.

Anytime you have a plot dealing with the ability to see or predict the future, you also run into the age-old conflict between fate and free will. Many SF books and films have dealt with this conflict in interesting and thought-provoking ways, but this is not one of those SF books. Of course the author comes down on the side of free will (what would be the use of seeing the future as a superpower otherwise?), with the “future” actually existing in Alex’s vision only as a chain of possibilities, each of which depends on decisions yet to be made. Yet Alex’s power is clearly here as a character and plot device only, not as an excuse to explore a philosophical conundrum. Which is just as well. The story is still fun without philosophy.

Content warning: There is some strong bad language (employed mostly by the evil characters).

Posted by Sasha | April 6, 2012

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