Urban Fantasy is a genre filled with wizards and witches, vampires and werewolves, monsters and heroes. There’s so many books in this genre that it can be hard to find one, or even a series, that can keep entertaining for more than a few pages. Everyone seems to need a gimmick and that can make the world setting either unbearable or inconsistent. About eight months ago I stumbled upon the Alex Verus series by Benedict Jacka. Almost literally too–I was in the library and just happened to pick it off the shelf to see what it was like.
In many ways, Verus is just like a lot of others in the genre. He’s a loner wizard with a couple of friends, a little bit of magic, and even more powerful enemies. However, he stands out in a lot of ways. Instead of becoming a massive superpower inside of a few books, Verus has actually been losing power in some ways. The books have been more about stripping Verus down until he’s relying solely on himself. His wits in the climatic moment have been the solution far more times than any grand plan (like Dresden) or sheer magical ability (like the Iron Druid or Anita Blake). Verus is a reactionary character, which is sort of ironic considering his magical power is divination.
That’s the beauty of the world setting here, too. Divination can be a tricky, tricky magic to have and that’s Verus’s one trick. In his world, if you’re good at one magic, you tend to only have the one magic. It seems to break down into mental abilities versus elemental abilities and about the only thing that can be used by most mages are gate spells, but that’s not something Verus can actually do on his own. Divination, or at least Verus’s understanding of it, doesn’t seem to lend itself to the gate magic very well. He also has a hard time looking far into the future because of a very basic world setting rule: Everyone’s got free will. This rule means that until someone makes a decision, it’s impossible to know what they’re going to do exactly. Verus’s magic runs more along the lines of predictions and probable outcomes–his magic basically makes it easier to compute what people are going to do given certain variables. In a conversation that can be tough, since people’s word choices change how the dialogue would go. Combat situations or long searches are easier for him to predict because the cause and effects are more formulaic.
One of the other big details I’ve noticed about Alex Verus is that it’s not very hard to interpret the character as asexual. Sure, a couple of times Verus has found a woman attractive, but he’s never really flirted with them. His bed’s unoccupied except for himself and that doesn’t seem to bother him in the least bit. (In fact, he’s so used to sleeping alone and being alone in his flat that in like book 2 or 3 it throws him off when someone’s sleeping out in the living room). Verus doesn’t go on for great lengths on how attractive the people in his world are. He doesn’t have a long list of ex-partners that crop up and make his life hell. Hell, in the seven books that are out so far, Alex hasn’t mentioned ex-partners, or trying to date. At this point in most series, the protag has had notable on page sex, but not Alex. He seems to like Anne and possibly wouldn’t mind coming to some sort of romantic situation with her, but he’s not obsessed with any one part of her anatomy. When she’s reintroduced each time, there’s no overture of how sexy she is and how much he can’t stop thinking of her. She’s simply Anne. The only key to how much Alex likes her is relayed through others, who point out that everyone else believes Anne is downright creepy. Alex never sees that in her, just treats her like a person like everyone else. There’s only one character in the series that has gotten the ‘attractive’ character tag multiple times in a row and Alex turns that around saying that the woman is the kind of attractive that makes her super-intimidating. The only other woman to which Alex showed a bit of obvious attraction turned out to be a charm mage–meaning that she was manipulating Alex’s hormones and brain waves into liking her (which when he figures that out makes her suddenly unattractive to him). In a genre where characters are often bumping uglies when they’re not dealing with monsters, Alex stands apart. I’m not sure the author intended for this to be true about Alex, but I’m going to keep my fingers crossed and hope Alex stays this way.
The series does have some downsides (somehow, for being full of Brits, my brain isn’t translating them that way. It could be American bias, but I’m thinking there’s something about the syntax that’s just slightly off), so it’s far from a perfect read, but if you’re looking for something a little different in a genre filled with fairies, fireballs, and overwhelming odds, Alex Verus might just be the breath of fresh air you’re looking for.