Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Fated (WW)

(As a reminder, Writing Wednesday is when I slip a book review in between the movie reviews.)

This weekend, my wife and I drove up to Canada and back. Among other things, it gave us a chance to check out an audiobook. We picked Fated, the first book in the Alex Verus series by Benedict Jacka. We mostly got the book because we'd heard that there is a Harry Dresden call-out in it.

While the call-out is awesome, it's not the only Dresden bit you'll notice. There is a decided similarity between Verus and Dresden. But more than that, it's pretty clear that Jacka has read Butcher a lot, as the pacing and world-building feels like an early Dresden novel. Note that this is a big plus in my book. But for those who don't care for Dresden, there are also enough differences to set it apart.

What is it about? Well, it's urban fantasy, so it's about a mage. That mage's name is Alex Verus. Unlike most urban fantasy protagonists (including notably Dresden), Alex is not a boom-tastic battle mage. He is a diviner. He knows things, including, notably, the near future. As such, he mostly stays alive by knowing exactly when to run away.

In Alex' London, mages get divided into two camps, called Light and Dark. The dark mages are not evil in a classic sense. Rather, they are strong proponents of "might makes right" and the idea that the rules of society mostly serve to protect the weak. Oddly, the book never really goes into the guiding philosophy of the light mages, but it's at least more cooperative and honorable. The Council is currently ruled by the Light, but the Dark is making a strong play for power. Alex is attempting to stay out of all these politics, happy to just run his little shop in Camden.

Unfortunately, something has come up. Something that requires a diviner to solve. And Alex is the only diviner in town that hasn't already run for the hills. Mostly because he's trying to save a damsel who happens to be in distress at the same time. So now he's threatened, kidnapped, bewildered, and spending WAY too much time watching himself die in his predictions.

Urban fantasy is one of those genres where your first question is always, "Why should I pick this one up, and not one of the dozen others with nearly identical set-ups?" In this case, there are a few obvious things to pick out. One is that the morality is all about shades of grey, but without any of the usual implication that Big Evil wants you to turn. Morality is just about choices, choices all have consequences, so which side you're on is just a matter of which consequences you can stomach.

Another is that the writing is solid. It's nothing particularly scintillating in this first novel, but I can see a lot of potential there. And even if it doesn't take you to the heights, it also neatly avoids typical pitfalls. The plot is well tuned, the characters are rounded and believable, the world-building is nicely grounded and only shows up when necessary.

But the biggest thing that sets this book apart is the way the divination is used. Alex can see the future, but he sees all the futures. So he has learned techniques for sorting the futures by probability, and grouping them based on outcome. This allows him to do some awesome things like walk across the lobby just as the guard is looking down. But requires enough effort, concentration, and asking the right questions that it isn't any kind of omniscience. He still gets taken by surprise on a regular basis, and in ways that make sense. It also has one interesting limitation: it cannot predict free will. If the guard is just going through the motions, responding to stimuli, and not really making choices, he can be predicted. If he has to make a real choice, like whether to accept a bribe, the divination can't see past it. It's a really well done bit of magic that is powerful, sensible, creative, and just darn nifty.

Applying the feminism tests, the book comes out rather well. While the first-person narration makes actually witnessing conversations between women awkward, it is very clear that some are taking place. So I give it a pass on the Bechdel Test. There are two different female characters who pass the Mako Mori Test, one as an ally and one as an enemy. There are a couple different moments when the book could have gone down paths of sexualization or of using rape as a device, and it doesn't. Much like my description of his writing talent, his feminism isn't inspiring or noteworthy, but it avoids the obvious sins.

I would recommend this book. It's not something I would shove in someone's hands, but it's good. We purchased and downloaded the sequel before we'd finished the first one, and are already enjoying it.

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