There’s been a slew of excellent fantasy featuring London, recently – Kate Griffin’s Midnight Mayor series, Ben Aaronovich’s Peter Grant series and Nick Harkaway’s latest hefty offering, Angelmaker, spring to mind, for starters. Now add another newcomer – Benedict Jacka. The snag in choosing a genre as popular as urban fantasy, however, is that it is already crowded with plenty of excellent writing. Can Jacka’s new hero, Alex Verus, favourably compare in such company?
In the heart of Camden, where rail meets road meets leyline, you’ll find the Arcana Emporium, run by one Alex Verus. He won’t sell you a wand or mix you a potion, but if you know what you’re looking for, he might just be able to help. That’s if he’s not too busy avoiding his would-be apprentice, foiling the Dark, outwitting the Light and investigating a mysterious relic that’s just turned up at the British Museum.
If you’re thinking that the blurb sounds a tad familiar, you’d be right. There is a lot about this book that will be squarely bang in the middle of the genre conventions – London is used as an effective backdrop to a lot of the magical chicanery; Alex Verus with his trolleyful of emotional baggage could fairly be described as isolated and conflicted; there is a swathe of magical infighting that somehow sucks Alex in… But what is also true is that Jacka has added some twists of his own. Alex is a probability mage. His particular gift is the ability to be able to see into the future. Jacka has thought through what this gift actually would encompass – and I found his take on divination a plausible and enjoyable version that provides Alex with problems and strengths in equal measure.
And he certainly has problems as he crosses paths with the Dark Mages, whose brutal treatment of their apprentices – or anyone else who takes their fancy – is overlooked by the Council responsible for magical law and order. There are a number of vividly depicted antagonists whose brand of aggressive battle magic manage to make Voldemort look almost cuddly. There are also some intriguing allies – Luna, whose family curse means that if anyone gets too physically close to her they end up dying; Starbreeze, a friendly air elemental that whisks Alex off at the speed of wind that ensures the pace doesn’t flag and Sondor, a bookish mage with a real interest in History.
The writing is slick and accomplished. Scene setting and exposition are all seamlessly woven into the story arc, which is a deal harder than Jacka makes it look. As I’ve mentioned, the story is set in London and Jacka uses particular landmarks, such as the British Museum, to great effect. While Alex is hauled unwillingly into the middle of the action, we are also given slices of backstory that explains why he is so paranoid and anti-social. Overall, this debut is a thoroughly entertaining, satisfying read that establishes Jacka as One To Watch. If you have a weakness for conflicted wizards that operate in a hostile, layered world and haven’t yet encountered Fated, then I recommend that you go looking for this book – because when you do, I’ll be very surprised if you don’t immediately go hunting for the sequel, Cursed, once you’ve completed the book.