Fated by Benedict Jacka
|Formatt:||Paperback / eBook|
|Release Date:||February 28, 2012|
I am always apprehensive at the thought of urban fantasy including magic. I love both UF as a sub-genre and I does bloody love me a good magic system, but the idea of combining them always seems just a little bit wrong. More often than not, magic is weaved into the very nature of the fantasy world in which it’s set and so by placing magic in, say, modern day London it often seems like either the magic system is poorly justified or the city (London) has been skewed beyond recognition which begs the question, why bother setting it in London? Well, Fated is urban fantasy, set in London, with magic…I couldn’t help but think yikes! However, the buzz surrounding this novel was enormous prior to release, with it being frequently touted as one of most anticipated books of the year. Having read it, Fatedended up in our top 12 Books of 2012 on the recent Fantasy-Faction podcast – so you might have an idea already of where I’ll be going with this.
Alex Verus is a shopkeeper in contemporary London but rather than selling fruit and veg or pay-day loans Alex runs a magic shop, The Arcane Emporium, where tourists can buy pretty much anything magic related as long as it’s relatively benign, such as a crystal ball. The good stuff? Well, that’s kept in the back, and if you know what you’re looking for then maybe Alex can help you find it. This story isn’t about the shop though, so you can stop mopping your brow in fear of a cheesey, sit-com style novel because this one is action and adventure through and through.
In a world filled with people with different sensitivities to magic, Alex Verus is a diviner, which means that he can foresee the results of his actions before he’s physically made them. If you’ve seen the film Next with Nicholas Cage, then you’ll have a pretty good idea of how this can work. If you haven’t seen the film then DON’T watch it, as Cage once again ruins something potentially great (sneeze…GHOST RIDER… achoo!) and instead, let me explain how cool this idea is as it sure isn’t just a little bit of fortune telling.
Verus sees every possible outcome of his actions so with a little concentration he can potentially do anything such as disarm a bomb by hypothetically trying every possibility until he gets it right. He can then walk up to the ticking explosive and to anyone nearby it’ll look like he’s a bomb disposal genius and saved the day with a simple flick of a wire, whereas actually he’s been blown up a thousand times in perceived futures to get the knowledge he needed. Apply this skill to a room full of laser beams and spinning blades and you have a good idea of just how cool this power can be. I can imagine it would also come in handy with bra straps…damned fiddly mood killers that they are.
Anyway, it is this power that makes Verus highly sought after. You see, there is a magical artifact which promises absolute power (don’t they all), but the arrow in the knee here is that for anyone trying to get it there is also an enormous elemental beast that likes to come and deter people. Both ends of the magical spectrum want Alex’s help to by-pass this beast and Alex isn’t too keen to work with either side which brings me to my first point.
Fated is filled with conventions and ideas that are often seen in fantasy stories and actually in any stories for that matter, things such as the skeletons in the cupboard that come back to haunt the protagonist or the classic boy/girl confusions and if not done well these conventions can often come off as cliché or contrived. If done properly though, with clever twists and takes, they can make for a modern classic. Fated, stand up and take a bow.
The best example of Fated twisting a popular convention is how it plays with the idea of Good and Bad mages in the magical world. Usually good is good and uh, bad is bad, but in Fated it’s all a matter of perspective. For example, to the Dark mages, power is everything, and so they take children for slaves and hurt them regularly. But it’s not necessarily because they are evil, it’s because they take the view that it’s the child’s fault for not being strong enough to fight back and so, only those who can resist will survive and grow to be the strongest. They don’t see this as evil, it’s just that their ethics are different and it’s a really twisted take on survival of the fittest, but Jacka uses it brilliant. In their own ways, the ‘good’ side of the magical world isn’t any better, and is sometimes worse. You’ll see what I mean.
Fated presents a small, but tightly realised ensemble cast of supporting characters, which works perfectly to hint at a wider world without losing the dynamic of a small set. From Luna, Alex’s best friend/apprentice who can’t be touched due to a particularly vicious curse placed on her, to a nearsighted, many-legged ancient one, to a curious air elemental with the attention span of a goldfish on whizz, you’re always given something new to marvel at and consider. They are all so incredibly well put together, and Jacka shows a clever understanding of interpersonal dynamics (the sadness of Luna is heart breaking especially when Verus, being the archtypical boy, doesn’t understand her) and also plays nicely with the idea that to have a sense of humanity often takes more than just being human.
This isn’t to say all characters were perfect though, as Cinder and Khazad, two of the lead antagonists who play the kryptonians to Delio’s General Zod, sometimes came across as simply too angry and inept for people who are meant to be the best in the maging business. Granted they served to highlight Verus’s quick thinking as he outwitted them, but I frequently saw Cinder and Khazad as a kind of grown up Crabbe and Goyle who had been given Red Lantern rings. This is a minor niggle though as there are more than enough seriously wicked characters to make up for it.
In terms of voice, Jacka absolutely nails Verus and has created a character who, I believe, is a perfect study in how to craft a solid, well rounded, first person protagonist. He is didactic without being irritating, he is cool and suave in tough situations, but is often baffled by Luna whom he cares for deeply, and for a guy who is a self imposed pariah he’s also incredibly social with all the other creatures who live in the cracks. In fact, I would argue that Verus is the Indiana Jones of the urban fantasy world. He’s cocky and tough when he needs to be, he explores the world and knows all the right (or wrong) people and gets screwed over regularly, but by day he’s just a shopkeeper who doesn’t fully ‘get’ girls. He is brilliant and I suspect he will soon be mentioned in the same sentences as Kvothe or Arlen Bales for compelling leads.
Aside from the afore mentioned antagonist, it is difficult to find gripes with Fated, it simply is that good. Saying that, there was one other thing that niggled me, and that was an issue with pacing, which seemed slightly skewed. In fact, after about the two-thirds of the way in, it was as if an elephant had sat down on the see-saw and flung the unfortunate child at the other end up in to orbit. Yes, Fated suddenly rockets from a cool action/adventure/sneaking around mix in to full on John McClane. This isn’t to say it’s necessarily a bad thing, as I couldn’t stop turning the pages, and ashamedly I did shout ‘Yippee Kay-Yay Motherfuckers’ at least twice, but I certainly missed the wise-cracking Verus after things got heavy. The end battle is awesome though, just saying.
The Bottom Line
Fated is an excellent example of not just great urban fantasy but also of brilliant story telling. There is a near perfect mix of everything and it has been masterfully crafted with a meticulous eye for those pieces of humanity that make a great protagonist and a fantastic story. I am often worried when the first book announces that it is the start of a ‘major new series’ as it always seems a bit presumptuous, but with Fated I truly cannot wait to see where Jacka takes Verus next.