Marked by Benedict Jacka

Rating 6.5/10
At book 9 in the series, we’re all getting to know Alex Verus pretty well. As usual, he’s stuck right in the middle of all the drama, with any number of people out to kill him and he is having more than his fair share of bad days.

At book 9 in the series, we’re all getting to know Alex Verus pretty well. As usual, he’s stuck right in the middle of all the drama, with any number of people out to kill him and he is having more than his fair share of bad days. While Morden’s cooling his heels in prison awaiting trial, Alex has taken over the Dark Mage seat on the Junior Council, giving him a chance at gaining influence right at the top of Mage society. It’s not that easy, of course, at least three of the seven Senior Councillors flat out want him dead and this makes discussions somewhat… unproductive. They don’t want Alex taking part in any Council deliberations, but the Vault theft in the previous book brought a lot of imbued magic items into the wrong hands, and he’s the one leading most of the salvage operations. He’s too damn useful, especially as a potential negotiator between Light and Dark Mages in their quest to get back what was lost.

The opening sequence has Alex and a Keeper team out for an aggressive retrieval, one which has him using his new Matrix-style bullet dodging and fight master status. Not something he’s particularly utilised as much in this way before, but it’s effective, if a little bit of a late entry in to the power playbook. It does fit well with his blasé attitude about people trying to kill him, repeatedly brushing it off with the usual humour: 

‘Isn’t that bounty on you still open?’ Luna asked.

‘Yes, but they haven’t actually tried to drag me off the streets’.

‘They bribed a guy to kill you less than three hours ago,’ Varium said.

‘It wasn’t a serious assassination attempt’.

Varium, Anne, and Luna all looked at me.

'What?’ I asked.

There’s some great dialogue in general, especially the interactions with all the baddies who show up, including Deleo, Onyx, and, my personal favourite, Cinder. Pretty much all of the most interesting people in the series are Dark Mages, especially Richard Drakh, who remains mysteriously just out of reach. There are hints about his plans but little extra about him as a person, and his magic has still never been properly revealed. So the surprises come not from the villains we know, but ones we don’t expect. It’s an interesting choice, but not entirely convincing, being somewhat forced to fit the direction of the plot rather feeling like an authentic character path. 

The main problem with this instalment is that apart from some battle set pieces, it’s just not as exciting as the ones that have come before. Part of the issue is the info dumping moments when Alex is talking to the reader and explaining the inner workings of the Council. The other part is the focus is on relationships, specifically that between Alex and Anne. In Bound, Alex seemed determined to take control of his destiny, stop reacting and start planning for the future. All positive, take charge stuff. Yet in this he kind of faffs around asking everyone about Anne and what’s wrong with her and what should he do to help her or fix her or something. The answer is always the same. Talk to Anne. And does he? Sort of. But first he spies on her and then has lots of half conversations with her, while endlessly thinking about her and their potential relationship. Honestly, it’s all a bit pathetic. On the other hand, his friendships remain an essential part of his nature, one of the reasons he keeps trying to power up is to make sure he has the skills necessary to keep them safe. And what this book does very well is delving into the other reasons he might want more control, more strength, more influence. Those darker ones that have nothing to do with protection and everything to do with his personal desire for power, something that has been skirted around before. He chose to be Richard Drakh's apprentice, after all. Perhaps he’s not the altruistic saviour he sometimes considers himself to be. Now this is the kind of internal drama I can get behind.

Maybe all this stuff was necessary, but it’s not moving the story forwards enough. It felt like filler and the ending was a little too over emotional for me. I love this series enough to feel disloyal saying that, but as so many UF fans know, when this starts to happen in a long running series it tends to indicate a rather serious decline is coming right afterwards. Some authors pull it back (Jim Butcher after Ghost Story/Ilona Andrews after Magic Shifts for example) sometimes bringing it even harder than ever….but it gives me anxiety. I hate the thought that I might have to lose another group of friends. (Damn you Laurel K Hamilton, I’m still bitter). I’m not over it yet, not by a long shot, but things need a really big shake up. And I don’t mean a wedding. Unless it’s a red one.

ARC via publisher.

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