The Blurb On The Back:
Everything is on the line for probability mage Alex Verus …
Once Alex was a diviner trying to live under the radar. Now he’s a member of the Light Council who’s found success, friends … and love. But it’s come with a price – the Council is investigating him, and if they found out the truth, he’ll lose it all.
Meanwhile, Alex’s old master, Richard Drakh, is waging a war against the Light mages. To protect those he cared for, Alex will have to become something different. Something darker …
The Review (Cut For Spoilers):
It’s a year since MARKED.
Probability mage, Alex Verus is now in a relationship with life mage, Anne Walker. Anne’s dark alter-ego is safely under lock and key in Anne’s version of Elsewhere and Anne has broken the link with the jinn that Richard Drakh wants her to join with. Luna’s still happily running the Emporium and Vari continues to work as a Keeper in the Order of the Shield.
But Alex can’t relax. The Council of Light is still investigating what happened at San Vittore when Vihaela busted Morden from his cell and Sal Sarque and Levistus are pushing to make Alex responsible for it while Alex is trying to protect Anne, who was under the control of Dark Anne at the time and posed as Vihaela. So far, Alex’s efforts have worked, but that’s mainly because the Council has their attention on the war with Richard Drakh, who continues to tie up their forces and strike at key sites with his Adept army while his own base of operations remains frustratingly difficult to trace.
As Alex’s options start to narrow, he finds himself running out of tricks, out of strategies and out of friends. Caught in a vice between the Council of Light and Richard Drakh, Alex will have to take extreme measures and make some decisions he’s been avoiding for a very long time …
The 10th in Benedict Jacka’s ALEX VERUS urban fantasy series overcomes a clunky and repetitive first half to really take off once Verus makes a momentous decision that provides a real game changer and I’m looking forward to seeing how it plays out in the last 2 books. The action scenes are fast-paced and exciting, I enjoyed an old character’s return, mourned another’s inevitable departure and still care what happens to Verus and his friends.
I’m going to start this review by emphasising that I’m a big fan of this series, I’ve read all the books and enjoyed them (albeit some not uncritically) so I came into this book with big expectations. I think that’s part of the reason why I was so disappointed with the first half of this book. For starters, stylistically the writing was very clunky. Usually Jacka’s very good at rolling exposition into the story in a way that feels very natural and doesn’t hinder the pace but that touch was missing here for me. In part, I think that’s because there’s a fair amount of repetition of quite complicated plot. That isn’t surprising – we’re 10 books into this 12 book series and an awful lot has happened, especially as Jacka’s built a complicated world filled with numerous factions and players, each with their own agendas and alliances – but the focus here is on the events in San Vittore, which were only one book ago and are, I’d suggest, something most readers would remember so for Jacka to belabour why Verus is trying to protect Ann was something that irritated me – as were his scenes with Dark Ann, which again retread old ground as he tries to persuade her that the deal with the jinn will endanger her and she once again rejects it.
However, part of the reason why I found the first half so frustrating is also due to the fact that I am not that much of a fan of the Alex/Ann relationship because Ann is essentially half a person and I have a lot of sympathy for Dark Ann’s point that Ann is quite passive, well behaved and looks to others in a crisis. Dark Ann may be ruthless, self-serving and psychopathic, but at least she has some oomph to her. My frustration with Ann really came to a head in a scene where it should have been obvious given the circumstances that Alex was possessed or under someone else’s control – both from what he’s saying and how he’s behaving. Given that Anne has been with him for a year by this point, I genuinely didn’t buy her reaction and what happened next had a dull inevitability to it that purely served to take Alex to the next point of the plot. Certainly the emotional punch that it was supposed to give the reader didn’t make contact with me as Jacka did the same thing in MARKED (where it at least had novelty and shock value).
Once you’re past the first half though, things in the story really start to get interesting. Yes, we’re once again chasing a situation where Alex is trying to save Ann and stop Richard’s plans, but now the stakes are even higher. This is because Alex once again finds the resources of the Council of Light ranged against him and has burnt all his goodwill with Caldera who has made taking him in her personal mission (something that does make me sad given her early relationship with Alex, but which does make sense given how she is and her devotion to playing by the rules) and lost other potential allies such as Sonder (whose brief appearance here was welcome and shows a development that actually made as much as sense as Caldera’s) while at the same time, Richard no longer needs him and his other allies are unable to help for fear of bringing the Council’s attention down on themselves. All of this leads Alex to a decision to boss up that was potentially inevitable, but also takes his character down a much darker path. I am very interested to see where Jacka takes that, not least because of the serious consequences that are clearly heading Alex’s way.
I liked the call backs to a major point from the earlier books (and I especially liked the return of Starbreeze and a former adversary of Alex’s) and Jacka also ties back in with the dragon’s prophecy in a way that was smart and satisfying. There was a character departure that had been signalled for some time, but which managed to be both sad and a triumph and I thoroughly enjoyed Alex’s interactions with Rachel/Deleo, which did not go the way I had anticipated. Most of all though, I really loved the way we finally find out what Richard’s magic is – mainly because I called it in my review of the last book and it just feels so good to be right. I have to say that I do find Richard to be a rather flat antagonist in many ways, but the way Alex finds a way to counter him and his reaction to at was completely satisfying and I’m interested to see how he decides to strike back.
All in all, for me the second half made up for my problems with the first half, not least because it’s jam packed with exciting action, which really keeps the pace moving. The series is stopping after 12 books, which I think is the right decision (if only because it’s really difficult to sustain a storyline for so long and keep it interesting and there are sections here that sagged under the weight of everything that’s happened). However, the set up for those final 2 books promises to be really interesting and certainly everything is at stake for Alex as I genuinely don’t know if he’s going to leave this series alive – all of which means I am now desperate for book 11.