The Urban Fantastic
I enjoy urban fantasy as a subgenre. Urban fantasy gives me something tangible to hold on to. Yes, there may be a dragon trying to kill everyone, but the heroes are riding a subway train to go kill it. There is a sense of familiarity among the magical, making even the mundane mystic. The urban, juxtaposed to the fantasy, when done correctly can give you another anchor into the world being built. I’ve always found those anchors to be my own private Easter eggs, especially if the city is one I recognize.
The undisputed king of urban fantasy is Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, with his main protagonist and everyone’s favorite Wizard P.I., Harry Dresden. The Dresden Files was so popular that it ignited an inferno within the urban fantasy section of the bookstore. The problem was, we were being saturated with Dresden lites, Dresden wannabes and Dresden has-beens. For every great urban fantasy series that manages to claw and fight its way out from under Harry’s domineering shadow, we had others content to sit in his shade. For every exciting series like The October Daye Books (by Seanan McGuire), The Kate Daniels Series (Ilona Andrews), The Mercy Thompson Series (Patricia Briggs) and The Others (Anne Bishop), we had familiar Dresden clones wars being fought by The likes of the Sandman Slim Series (by Richard Kadrey), The Iron Druid Chronicles (Kevin Hearne) and The Nightside Series (Simon R. Green). All had various loner-type wizards, who were the black sheep of their community for some reason or another and blah blah blah. They eventually blasted some evil BIG BAD back where he came from because “no one attacks my city on my watch” …or something like that. The Big Bad of course was always hiding some other Bigger, Badder, Big Bad and thus the Dresden imitations would go forth on yet another predicable adventure. Most of those series are now sitting in the ash heap of my DNF folder.
Yeah…The genre got clogged with clones quick. But out of these replicants I found a rare diamond in the rough, The Alex Verus series by Benedict Jacka. What quickly attracted me was the author seemed to know that he was standing on Jim Butcher’s shoulders while being simultaneously determined to escape his shadow. He even (quite cheekily) had Butcher write him a blurb for the book. Too many of the authors in the urban fantasy sub-genre are content to copy/paste entire scenes out of each other’s books, entire character developments out of each other’s pages. The Alex Verus series does a few things differently, from the magic system, to the locale. The intricate political structures of the mage’s council and the shades of grey found within the motivations of almost everyone are unique. The series is solidly written, the enemies are interesting, and the end games are unpredictable. This series is well worth the time and effort needed to delve into the 8 books preceding the latest incarnation.
This review will examine the latest effort in the series, Alex Verus #9, Marked. I find that one of the problems with a long running series, is that from time to time you are going to run into a book that just isn’t as good as the rest. That could be for a variety of reasons. It could be the author was distracted by other works, got lost within the confines of their own world and forgot to tie things together, or just for whatever reason had a “bad day at the office”. It happens to the best of series — The Wheel of Time had two such books, even the Dresden Files had a clunker with Ghost Story. No author is going to be able to push out Dylan after Dylan after Dylan (repeat two more times) for sustained eternal hot fire. I am sad to say that Marked is that book in this series.
Benedict Jacka becomes a victim of his own high standards. We’ve become accustomed to a certain level. Let’s be honest, when you are nine books deep you have a lot of work to do. You must keep building upon the world that you’ve been creating for 8 novels. You have to remember to tie up loose ends from the past few books and set the stage for the next 2-3 books. While doing all that, you need to have a standalone story that still is complete in and of itself. That’s a big ask. We love the authors that can do this, because of the BIG ASK it represents. In Marked, Jacka ties together a few loose ends from past books scenes, he sets the stage for the next few books, but the story doesn’t stand on its own. It feels like that HBO series (any HBO series) that’s about 14 episodes long, and you know around episode 7-8 they are just going to set the stage for the big ending, so you just got to kinda fight through those middle episodes to get to the pay off at the end.
Marked feels like a book that was really intended to set up the next 3 books, and about midway through the author was like “I got to cobble together some conflict and action to make this story stand on its own”. At the end of the book, it felt like I hadn’t learned anything new, the big bad was a bust and for the first time in the series, the action and ending felt formulaic. Marked, didn’t push the story forward, it just set the stage, and I know Jacka can do more than that.
The Good News
The good news is, if the past is prologue, the next book in the series will be (to quote the great American poet Jim Ross) a slobberknocker. Butcher, Sanderson and Jordan all followed up mediocre, middle books in a series with powerhouses. There is no indication that Jacka won’t or can’t do the same. One of the things that sets Alex Verus apart from his urban fantasy cousins is that as a divinity mage he was almost always aware of not only his surroundings, but of any future danger that would befall him. He is literally steps ahead of his opponents. I thought this was a clever handicap for the author. Because we know this about Alex Verus, we know he can see the future, we know he can avoid danger, we know he can map out possibilities, so to put him in any real danger, to put him in situations where he is surprised or taken off guard takes spectacular writing. Up until Marked I always felt like I was just as surprised as our protagonist when something unexpected happened.
But, since this is such a good series I am willing to let this book be a one off and I am happily awaiting the next installment. I anticipate the author will get back to form and that the development and exposition for the next couple of books has been properly set into place. So, while disappointed in Marked, I am optimistically hopeful that the next few books in the series will have made this one worth it. Sometimes you have to “eat your veggies” before you get to the dessert. Mr. Jacka, I am waiting to see what you cook up next.
Book #10 in the series, Fallen, is expected in October 2019.
Rating: 3 urban wizards out of 5
Something Similar: Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch
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