Orbit, out now
Camden, North London. A tangled, mangled junction of train lines, roads and the canal. Where minor celebrities hang out with minor criminals, where tourists and moody teenagers mingle, and where you can get your ears pierced and your shoulder tattooed while eating sushi washed down with a can of super strength beer. In the heart of Camden, where rail meets road meets leyline, you might 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 apprentice, foiling the Dark, outwitting the Light, and investigating a highly toxic Relic that has just turned up at the British Museum…
The latest addition to the 2012 urban fantasy scene comes in the form of Benedict Jacka’s debut adult novel, Fated. Set in North London and fronted by Alex Verus, a talented diviner with a mottled history, Fated is the first in a series of books following its protagonist’s magical escapades.
Somewhat of a rogue, Alex Verus is a man aligned neither to the Light mages nor the Dark, sharing a history with both that has led him to preferable isolation. His only real friend is Luna, a girl with a curse that prevents any kind of intimacy, and his day job consists of running a magic shop that most people assume is a joke. But a peaceful existence isn’t likely to last in Jacka’s Camden, and Verus soon stumbles into a highly dangerous situation that not even his seer skills can extricate him from.
On opening, Fated walks a fine line between something all too familiar and a story that promises something substantially more involving. Thankfully after about a quarter of the way through, the novel takes the more exciting route, suddenly speeding up and pulling you headlong into one of the fastest reads you’re likely to experience. Key players are quickly introduced and the requisite doubts and suspicions are laid out. After that, it’s an involving mix of action and intrigue that make the pages blur.
The author’s protagonist Verus frequently threatens to sink into one of those all too familiar clichés that are the confident, cocksure, always-has-an-answer-for-everything characters that serve only to irritate the reader. But each time Verus reaches the brink Jacka pulls him back, ensuring that his cool confidence is broken up by more grounded moments of surprise and emotion that aren’t to be assumed in a character with future telling abilities.
That’s not to say there aren’t one or two cringe inducing moments (cheeky one-liners such as ‘You’re nuttier than a bowl of Alpen’ will invite a wince), but Verus manages to stave off the stereotype with the right mix of character and charisma.
An obvious concern with a protagonist who can predict the future lies essentially in the point of the story, but Jacka handles this well with regular, detailed accounts of how Verus’ sightseeing ability works, allowing the reader a greater insight into his character and lending the story credibility. The overall plot avoids being too predictable, managing to stay away from the obvious and keeping the reader guessing.
Verus’ sidekick Luna is a great member of the ensemble cast, though it’s less her personality and more her magical attributes that stand out. Possessed of a curse that transfers bad luck away from her onto anybody close by, it means that in addition to a rather distressing childhood she can’t be close to another person for any length of time without putting them in considerable danger. It’s an interesting feature that plays out well within the context of the story, though its function in the final pages is somewhat questionable.
Sadly, what lets the novel down is the finale. Though comprised of an involving action-heavy sequence that keeps you on edge, Alex’s escape from his final fix feels rather tenuous. The ending in general is also weak, as the overall situation resets itself to almost how it was at the start, rendering the whole adventure somewhat inconsequential. In addition, despite possessing a large amount of sensitive information that many characters wouldn’t like divulged, Alex’s continued survival after the event feels more than a little unbelievable.
Comparisons to Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files are inevitable, and though Fated is very clearly in the same vein, it’s a book with some great ideas of its own that deserves to be read as such. An exciting, involving and enjoyable read, Fated presents a great new voice in fantasy fiction. 7/10