Marked by Benedict Jacka: Alex Verus takes some of the biggest risks of his life

MarkedMarked

by Benedict Jacka
Series: Alex Verus, #1

Mass Market Paperback, 310 pg.
Ace Books, 2018
Read: July 5 – 9, 2018

“So who was it this time?” Anne asked as I walked over to inspect the device.

“I can see the future not the past.” The bomb was a stack of plastique packed into the gym bag, the wires ending in contacts stuck into the blocks. It was crude but powerful, enough to blow apart the house, the victim, and anyone else unlucky enough to be within thirty feet or so of the front door. “I suppose I could get Sonder or someone to track down whoever it was, but honestly, I don’t think it’s worth it.”

“It feels a little bit strange that you don’t even bother identifying the people trying to kill you anymore.”

“Who has that kind of time?”

This is one of those books that I wait so long for (not that it was delayed, I simply couldn’t wait to read it) and then after reading it, the draft has spent too many days open with out words filling the space. I don’t know why — I had and have many opinions about what transpired here, but can’t seem to get them out. So, let’s start with the publisher’s blurb and see if that helps:

           Mage Alex Verus is hanging on by a thread in the ninth urban fantasy novel from the national bestselling author of Burned.

When Mage Alex Verus ends up with a position on the Light Council, no one is happy, least of all him. But Alex is starting to realize that if he wants to protect his friends, he’ll need to become a power player himself. His first order of business is to track down dangerous magical items unleashed into the world by Dark Mages.

But when the Council decides they need his help in negotiating with the perpetrators, Alex will have to use all his cunning and magic to strike a deal–and stop the rising tension between the Council, the Dark Mages, and the adept community from turning into a bloodbath.

This is not a book for someone to jump into this series with; I guess, technically it could work — but man . . . there’s just so much you wouldn’t get. But for those who’ve dipped their toes in the water — or have fully submerged themselves in the deep end — this is going to scratch that itch.

Typically, there are more balls in the air than you can easily track — there’s all the new political moves and movers that Alex has to contend with, his continuing efforts to prove to former friends and allies that he’s trustworthy (well, that he shouldn’t be intensely distrusted anyway), there’s a rising sense among the adepts that they need to organize — and Alex is dumbfounded that none of the Light mages seem to see this as something worth paying attention to — and then there’s Richard’s continuing efforts to disrupt Alex’s life. And then there’s all the stuff that Alex hasn’t figured out that’s going on around him yet.

Due to the political office (however temporary) that he finds himself in, and the nature of the threats he’s facing down — this is one of the least personal stories in the series. At the same time, Alex is driven to risk more of himself to save his friends and maybe even save a foe.

I don’t know how to talk about this without spoiling much. I can tell you that as nice as it is for Arachne not to have all the answers — I wanted more of her and that the rest of Alex’s friends get to shine in ways they normally don’t. Also, given where things end, I’m already impatient to get my hands on the next one.

So, I don’t have much to say, but it’s good. Alex Verus fans should grab it, and people who aren’t yet, should check into the series and catch up.

—–

4 Stars

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Bound by Benedict Jacka

BoundBound

by Benedict Jacka
Series: Alex Verus, #8

Mass Market Paperback, 326 pg.
Ace, 2017

Read: April 10 – 11, 2017


I expected this book to start with the equivalent of Voldemort bending Wormtail to his will while Nagini snacks on a Muggle. I couldn’t have been more wrong — Richard (lamest name ever for an arch-enemy, which is why it’s so good) simply lays out his plan and tells Alex and Anne what they are supposed to do. No threats, no maniacal laughter, no giant snakes eating anyone.

“I was expecting . . .” Anne said.
“Expecting what?”
“I don’t know. Something worse.”

Me, too, Anne. Me, too.

Basically, Alex has to act as the personal aide to Morden (the first Dark Mage on the Council) when he’s not being the most ignored Keeper in history. He’s been working on earning the position of full Keeper — now he’s given it, and is resented by the rest. Even when things go well for him, it’s a disaster. Similarly, Anne is the least utilized person in the Healer corps.

Right now I’m fighting Levistus and Richard, and I’m losing. Part of it’s because they’ve got better cards than me, but that’s not all of it. It’s that they’ve got a plan. They‘re always playing the long game, looking to next month, next year. Meanwhile I just wait around until some sort of crisis happens, then I scramble to fix it. It’s like they‘re shooting holes in a boat, and I’m running up and down trying to plug the leaks. Sooner or later there’ll be too many holes, or one of the bullets will hit me, and that’ll be it.

Which is a pretty good summary of how things are going for Alex. He goes to great lengths — some might even say extraordinary — to be proactive. I won’t say how well it works, but if you’ve read any of these books before, you’ll have a pretty good idea.

This book probably has the best use of Luna we’ve seen — I really liked everything Jacka did with her here.

We’ve had Richard looming as a threat since the beginning. Richard in the shadows, a danger that few believed was real. But Alex knew all along he would be back. And now that he is, he’s great. There’s no destroy the world plans, just evil planning and machinations and a calm exterior. You will do what I say, or I will end you — and I couldn’t really care either way. He’s worse than we ever could’ve expected. Love it.

Ultimately, this is pretty much what every Alex Verus book is — Alex struggling to earn and/or gain the trust of the Establishment — particularly those he likes and respects, and any gains he may make towards those ends are jeopardized by his efforts to help others.

Now that I look back on the whole thing, I can see the clues I missed, but that’s how it works with hindsight. When you know what’s relevant and what you can ignore, then everything is obvious, but it’s not so obvious when you’re caught up in surviving from day to day. At least until life reaches out and smacks you over the head.

(not just a commentary on Alex’s methods and life, but on everyone’s).

It was nowhere near as dramatic as the ending to Burned, but poor Alex is actually in a far worse state now than he was at the beginning of the book, which was no mean feat — but I should’ve known that Jacka wasn’t finished beating up his creation. I really don’t know what else to say without indulging in spoilers — so I’ll leave it at this. Bound is another great installment in this series, one of the best and most reliable around.

—–

4 1/2 Stars

Burned by Benedict Jacka

BurnedBurned

by Benedict Jacka
Series: Alex Verus, #7

Mass Market Paperback, 326 pg.
Ace, 2016

Read: April 25 – 26, 2016

Right now I was not wandering around and seeing the sights, for three reasons. First, it was dark. Second, the city was in the middle of a civil war. And third, I was supposed to be conducting surveillance on the inhabitants of the building across the street. Which was why, instead of enjoying the experiences of travel and new cultures, I was crouched on a dusty rooftop, hiding behind a parapet, shivering in the cold, and trying to make sure that no one on the other side could see me, since from looking into the futures I already knew that they had assault rifles and were following a policy of shooting first and asking questions later.

In case you’re wondering, this isn’t an especially unusual night for me. Sometimes I really question my life choices.

Reading Burned, you almost get the idea that Benedict Jacka’s been holding back on us — at least, he’s just been getting warmed up over the last 6 novels. Either one is saying something, considering how good the series has been since it’s debut.

Jacka waits all of 6 paragraphs before getting things moving, and things don’t stop moving. The first 100 pages are great and contain more action than most Verus novels — and the rest? Just better. Marking this one as a 5-Star was a no-brainer.

So here’s the hook — someone, for reasons beyond his ken (though he has many, many theories initially), has made some political moves and Alex is going to be declared a criminal and given the death sentence in a week. Not just him, either — but those who are his dependents (Luna, Anne, Varium). The four of them are going to have to tackle this situation in very creative ways to get the sentence changed.

In the meantime, there’s a very eager group of people trying to take care of things before the deadline. To say that they’re determined would be an understatement.

To survive, to have a hope of surviving, Alex has to call upon every friend, every ally, every one-time-friend-now-something-else, every trick up his sleeve. He does it, he actually grows as a character, too.

But will it be enough to save any of them?

I want to say more, I really do — but I don’t know how to. It’s just one of those books that to talk about you really have to talk about everything. So we’ll leave it at that.

I’ve seen people call this the Changes of the Alex Verus series — and it absolutely is. I’d also call it the Staked in terms with the protagonists coming to grips with the effects that his being in the lives of his nearest and dearest has on their life, and what that means for his future involvement with them. Which is not to say that Jacka’s latest feels anything like Butcher’s or Hearne’s books — it feels like Verus just turned up half a notch. It’s just such a great read — it grabs you on page 2 and drags you along wherever it wants to take you right up until the “He is not actually doing this” moment — which are followed by a couple more of them.

There are now two things I have to look forward to: the next Alex Verus novel — and whatever novel we’ll soon be calling the Burned of ____ series.

—–

5 Stars

Veiled by Benedict Jacka

VeiledVeiled

by Benedict Jacka
Series: Alex Verus, #6

Mass Market Paperback, 295 pg.

Ace, 2015

Read: August 11 – 13, 2015


This was not at all what I expected going in to this (granted, I only read the first couple of lines of the Publisher’s Description) — sure, I knew Alex’s mouth would get him in trouble, he’d have to outwit someone more powerful than him, Luna would be underused — despite Alex depending on his friends to pull him out of trouble.

What I didn’t expect was Alex Verus vs. Bureaucracy, not the catchiest of titles, but pretty accurate. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like the Star Wars prequels with all the bureaucracy, trade negotiations, etc. Jacka keeps things tense, keeps things interesting, even as what Alex is battling is really just Office Politics (along with other kinds of politics).

Alex tries to take one more step towards credibility, of shedding his Dark mage past (not that almost anyone will let him), to a position where he can do some good, and hopefully have allies when Richard steps out into the limelight. Long-term, strategic thinking — I like it when UF heroes act like that. It’s brains, not brawn, that carry the day here.

This isn’t to suggest, that this is a dry — or combat-free — book. Alex gets down and dirty, as usual — against some pretty tough characters. But, I’m not convinced that the worst people that Alex and his friends went up against were the ones wearing the Black Hats. Not that they were angels, but, man, there were some nasty people in these pages.

There are some really interesting developments with Luna’s training and development. Alex makes a couple of useful allies — including a combat mage who is quite possibly the most entertaining character in the series thus far. And because that’s never enough for him — Alex picks up one new enemy and deepens tensions with another.

And Richard? Well, something tells me that specter’s going to be looming for a bit longer. But then again, I thought we were going to get a few more Kitty Norville books and that we’d see Richard in action here — so what do I know?

I seem to be mostly rambling here, so I’m just going to say: Alex Verus is a character you should get to know, in a series that should be on your TBR list. I wouldn’t start with this one, I really think Fated is where you want to climb aboard.

—–

4 Stars

Review Catch-Up: Hidden by Benedict Jacka; The Winter Long by Seanan McGuire

These have been nagging at me for eleven months now. No, I have no explanation for why it took me so long, but I’m glad I took a lot of notes on both. I’m going to get this posted before I start the next Jacka novel (which should be happening today). While I’m at it, the next Toby Day is a couple of weeks away.

Anyway, overdue mini-looks at a couple of the best Urban Fantasies I read in 2014:

HiddenHidden

by Benedict Jacka
Series: Alex Verus, #5


Mass Market Paperback, 293 pg.
Ace, 2014
Read: September 26 – 30, 2014
. . . man, I have really missed Alex. Everyone’s favorite diviner has really come a long way, lately — shedding the near lone-wolf thing, and is now looking after a passel of magic rookies. Whether they want him to or not.

Anne Walker is definitely in the “or not” category. She’s done all she can to stay away from Alex — but she probably didn’t mean to include being kidnapped as one of those ways. Alex goes to some pretty dark places to help someone who doesn’t want it.

At the same time, Alex (via the Council) is feeling some pressure for the events of the last book. They’re also pressuring him to do some official work for them. Plus the rumors are getting more and more intense that his mentor, Richard, is back. If that’s true, no one is going to be happy. Naturally, everyone thinks that Alex knows what Richard is up to. And every time he says he doesn’t, he convinces them that he does.

So yeah, Alex has his hands full.

I think it was Chekhov who said that if a magic user grabs a focus in the opening chapters, that by the end of the book . . . Anyway, that was a nice use of it.

Not that Alex has had an easy life over the last couple books (or we wouldn’t be reading them) but the one big take away from Hidden is that it’s going to get a lot worse for our friend (I swear I hadn’t read that note when I wrote about Veiled over the weekend). There are other take aways, mostly happier, but I’ll leave that to you to find.

A wholly satisfying read. Get to know Alex Verus.

4 Stars

The Winter LongThe Winter Long

by Seanan McGuire
Series: Toby Daye, #8


Mass Market Paperback, 358 pg.
DAW, 2014
Read: September 13 – 16, 2014

I don’t like parties. Someone always tries to assassinate someone I actually like, and there are never enough of those little stuffed mushroom caps.

A book starts off with a line like that? You’re going to have fun.

Thankfully, one’s appreciation of a book doesn’t depend on how the protagonist acts. When I was on page 46, I wrote , “Granted, this is early, but Toby’s being stupid, foolishly so. She’s not paying attention to anything said during the fight she just had — actually, technically didn’t really have. Instead, she’s reacting to something that happened to a friend, and acting out of fear, prejudice and alarm. That disappoints me. Her saying, ‘that smile, brief as it had been, was all I could have asked for. A smiling Tybalt was a Tybalt who was still capable of stepping back and looking at the situation rationally. I loved him, but even I could find him frightening when he was fixated on vengeance.’ Man, choke me on the irony, McGuire.”

There’s just go much about this novel that I can’t describe without spoiling it. Let me limit myself to a couple of more notes: Toby lost a lot of blood on this one — I mean like The Bride in the Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves kind of a lot. It’s a good thing she has a healing factor to make Logan jealous. While she’s bleeding she’s having her world rocked.

McGuire takes a lot of what Toby’s “known” since we met her (all of which is what we’ve “known,” too) and turns it upside down and shakes the truth out. Every other book in the series has been affected by these revelations — in one fell swoop, she re-wrote previous 7 books — which is just so cool. It’s not that we’ve (we= readers and Toby) been wrong, our understanding is just . . . askew. There’s also some nice warm fuzzies in this book, which isn’t that typical for the series. McGuire’s outdone herself.
5 Stars

Chosen by Benedict Jacka

Chosen
Chosen by Benedict Jacka
Series: Alex Verus, #4


Before I say anything about this really good book, let me point you to The Big Idea that Jacka wrote about it over on John Scalzi’s blog, if that doesn’t convince you to try this, nothing I say will. If you read this and are intrigued, go grab the first three books before you read this one. They’re more than worth it.
First off, I want to talk about the non-plot related stuff in the first chapter, but it’s better if you read it yourself — it warmed the geeky cockles of my heart in a way few other books have this year.

The fun is short-lived, of course. Verus is still training Luna, trying to find a place for the former Dark Apprentices, Anne and Variam, that he took in following the events of Taken. While he’s busy, he’s realizing that for the first time in long time, he isn’t alone, he has friends, companions — there’s the three just mentioned, plus the mage Sonder and, of course, Arachne. You start to get the idea that Verus is on the verge on contentment, starting to think about a future in this community he’s building (and not the way he’s known for).

Which is a tried and true signal that things are about to go pear shaped. Which it does, pretty decisively. It’s been clear from the start that Verus’ past is dark, but we’ve never been given many details. Well, that’s over — we get a real clear look at what life was like for Verus while he was apprenticed to Richard Drakh, and what it was like for him as he started to break away. While we’re learning this, Verus himself gets a much clearer view of what was going on back then.

What sets this off is the relative of someone that Verus and his fellow apprentices had wronged (details avoided), years ago has come to town. He’s an untrained adept, and so are his friends — they start off as a vigilante gang attacking Dark Mages. It doesn’t take long before they find their way to their target, Alex Verus.

It takes all Verus’ cunning, guts, and determination to survive this. Everything’s on the line here — his friends learn almost as much as the reader does about his past (and their reactions are complex and ring true emotionally), he barely escapes his first encounter with the gang with his life, and he has to open himself to part of his life he’d rather be done with. And the tactics he has to employ to save his life — and others’ — are morally murky at best.

There was really nothing about this book I didn’t like — Jacka keeps getting better and better (and he started very strong). To say that I’m eager for book #5 is an understatement, it’s going to be great.

—–

5 Stars

Dusted Off: Taken by Benedict Jacka

Taken (Alex Verus, #3)Taken by Benedict Jacka
Series: Alex Verus, #3


My rating: 4 of 5 stars

really don’t know what to say about this one…good read. Another good read in a string of ’em. Jacka’s got this down–Verus and co. are back and better than before.

I really like the way that these characters are growing and the world is being built.

I feel like I should have more to say, but I don’t. Ready and waiting for the next one!