Compelling, un-put-down-able, emotional, and with gripping prose that at times takes you right into the bloody room
I’ve made no secret of my love for Benedict Jacka, nor for urban fantasy set in London. It might be a very particular genre, maybe overly specific, but in my experience it is one of the most enjoyable genres to read. And yet, I missed the publication of Fallen, the tenth book in Jacka’s ‘Alex Verus’ urban fantasy series, and only when 2020’s Forged was published did I realise my mistake.
Nevertheless, here I am, finally, and what a surprise awaited me as I read through one of the more interesting literary decisions I’ve encountered in a while.
Over the past two decades we’ve seen the emergence of anti-heroes become a trend across fantasy, especially in grimdark fantasy where it’s sort of a basic requirement of the subgenre. There are of course the occasional bad guys who we find ourselves rooting for - for me, nothing beats the conflicting emotions I have to deal with when reading Star Wars novels with Grand Admiral Thrawn in the picture - and any number of bad guys and anti-heroes who simply just are.
But until I read Fallen by Benedict Jacka I hadn’t experienced a character who desperately wants to be the good guy finally give up, turn in his “lightside” credentials, and accept the cold logic of being a bad guy - or, as close to a bad guy as I think the author is willing to allow.
Alex Verus, the titular hero from Jacka’s wildly successful urban fantasy series, has always tried to be the good guy – even if he has racked up a relatively impressive body count along the way. Desperate to stay unattached from either the Light or Dark mages, trying to walk a middle road none really appreciate or allow, Verus has run headlong into everyone there is to run into in magical London and Great Britain.
When finally, everything is taken away, and his failures seem to simply have become too much, Alex finally takes the power he needs to walk the road he’s been trying to walk for so long. In so doing, for even the casual observer, he throws his hat in with the Dark mages - not necessarily politically, but at least in terms of ends over means.
What I found most interesting, however, was the way in which Benedict Jacka similarly walked a fine line between giving Alex Verus over to the dark side (so to speak) and keeping him from being a good guy. While many will find his ends do not justify his means, it’s never quite as simple as that, and Jacka manages to weave whatever imaginary line exists that would turn Alex Verus into an unpalatable character.
It helps that Verus is surrounded by characters which provide contrast to the ideological spectrum he is navigating. But, unlike some of the previous books Fallen is very much about Alex, and how Alex manages to work his way out from unimaginable suffering. In this, Jacka should be roundly applauded, because this feels like a worked-for and earned turning point in the series, and there is no authorial contrivance or presence felt as things fall apart and then right themselves - though, right themselves in a different configuration than they were before they fell apart.
In fact, I can find very few things to criticise with Fallen. There were a few occasionally sloppy pieces of prose which muddied the water, but these are virtually invisible and only found by someone who, in my position, must try and look beyond the subjective and find the objective. The only legitimate fault I could consider laying at the feet of Fallen is the ease and seeming indifference with which Alex finds himself moving towards the ends justify the means. Don’t get me wrong, the particular scene in question - found around the three-quarter mark, but which I won’t spoil - is expertly and dispassionately written and provides some of the necessary detachment which the author uses to navigate the fine line between “good” and “bad”. But it was very visceral, and Alex has always been a very emotional character to read.
That being said, maybe that’s the whole point.
Fallen is a high-water mark for Benedict Jacka’s ‘Alex Verus’ series and a challenging benchmark for other urban fantasy writers. Compelling, un-put-down-able, emotional, and with gripping prose that at times takes you right into the bloody room, Fallen serves as a significant signpost towards this series’ end game. If you’re a fan of urban fantasy, then I wouldn’t necessarily suggest you jump into book ten (of what is expected to be a twelve-book series), but by gosh it’s been a fun ride to get here, and it only keeps getting better.
Review by Joshua S Hill
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