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Wednesday, June 20, 2012


Author:  Benedict Jacka 
Plot Type:  Urban Fantasy (UF)
Ratings:  Violence—4; Sensuality—2; Humor—2
Publisher and Titles:  Ace
     1   Fated (2/2012)
     2   Cursed (5/2012)
     3   Taken (9/2012)
     4   Chosen (8/2013) 
     5   Hidden (9/2014)
     6   Veiled (8/2015)
     7   Burned (4/2016)
     8   Bound (4/2017)

This ongoing post was revised and updated on 6/7/17 to include a review of Bound, the eighth novel in the series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and reviews of the first seven novels.

                         NOVEL 8: Bound                         
     Mage Alex Verus is caught between a rock and a hard place in the eighth urban fantasy novel from the national bestselling author of Burned.

      "Right now I wasn’t seeing Richard as the teacher out of my nightmares; he was just another Dark mage, and I looked into the future to see what would happen if I turned that knife on him instead."

      Alex Verus is still haunted by his time apprenticed to Richard Drakh. He’s been free of him for many years, but now the only way to keep his friends from being harmed is to again work for Richard and his deadly ally. Even worse, Alex is forced to bring the life mage Anne into this servitude as well.

     After weeks of being hunted and finally cornered into what he thought was his last stand, Alex never imagined his life would be spared—and never anticipated at what price. This time, the diviner can see no way out.

        This review contains multiple spoilers for the previous novel,        
        so don't read it if you haven't read Burned.        
     As the novel opens, Alex is still under a death sentence ordered by Levistus and the Council. At the end of Burned, Alex had to make a choice: either be executed by the Council or become the property of Richard Drakh, the powerful mage who was his original (and hated) Master. Morden, who is the first and only Dark mage on the Council (as well as being Richard's closest ally), "motivated" Alex and Anne to choose service with Richard by promising to kill all of their friends and family members if they didn't make the right choice. By this point in his life, Alex has made so many enemies among both the Light mages and the Dark mages that someone is always trying to kill him. Usually, he fights back, but when the threat is to his family and friends, he decides that he must concede defeat—for the time being. (At one point in the story, Alex's friend, Variam, tells him, "You're kind of the mage equivalent of O. J. Simpson. Might want to keep your head down.") 

     As Alex and Anne attempt to return to their normal lives (although their lives have never been anywhere near "normal"), they are regularly summoned by Archon, a masked man dressed all in black who gives them Richard's orders and sends them out to do various magical tasks. At first, this new life isn't so bad. At least, they don't have to live in Richard's mansion, but since Alex's house was destroyed in Burned, he and Anne have to gate back and forth to his safe house in Wales. As part of the deal with Richard and Morden, Alex is to serve as Morden's liaison to the Keepers, and Anne as his liaison to the medical corps. Unfortunately, all of the Light mages consider them both to be evil Dark mages (even though Anne is a Light life mage), so they are treated with scorn and contempt and are given little or no work to do. Soon, the verbal abuse turns into physical violence when a pair of Crusader hit men attack and try to kill both Alex and Anne. 

     One interesting part of the initial meeting with Richard is that he explains why the Light mages kicked Anne out of the Apprentice program (a few books ago). Apparently, they were embarrassed that she was outperforming the masters, so they found an excuse to remove her from the program. Later, we learn exactly why she and some of Alex's other friends have had so much trouble negotiating the levels of the Light mage system. This information nicely fills in some cause-effect mysteries in the story lines of previous novels.

     As the story moves along (at a compelling pace), Richard gives Alex a difficult assignment. He has to go into a shadow realm and then into a connected deep shadow realm to retrieve a dreamstone, a magical object imbued with the power to allow its bearer to touch Elsewhere and reach some else's dreams. This part of the story provides the beginning of Alex's scheme to get himself and Anne out of Richard and Morden's clutches. It also provides an inventive battle scene in which the attackers are magical plants (with sharpened leaves and deadly thorns).

     In this book, then, Alex is caught between the Council, who hates him, and Richard's faction, which is using him, and he's having a very hard time finding a way to get away from either of them. As Alex sees it, "There are four basic responses to a threat. Fight, flee, deceive, submit." Unfortunately, he can't figure out how any of them will work for the situation in which he and Anne find themselves.

     In this adventure, Alex has to contend with a series of mages from his past. A few are friendly, but most are both hostile and dangerously powerful.

Vihaela: She is an extremely powerful life mage whose magic is a mixture of life and death that she uses for dark purposes. She always thought that she would be Richard's Chosen, but that position now seems to be held by someone else.

Cinder and Rachel (aka Deleo): We met Cinder and his partner, Rachel/Deleo
back in book one when they tried to kill Alex because he wouldn't help them retrieve a magical object. Cinder and Alex now have a friendly-ish relationship. Cinder wants Alex to talk to Rachel/Deleo and—somehow—form a truce and get her to break away from Richard. Rachel/Deleo is a schizophrenic Dark mage. When she is Rachel, she is reasonable, but when she is Deleo, she is a psychotic killer. In both personalities, she hates Alex for something that happened when they were both apprentices under Richard. In this book, she is mostly Deleo, so Alex has to watch his back at all times.

Onyx: He is yet another hostile Dark mage with a long-time grudge against Alex. Currently, he is Richard's Chosen. Meanwhile, he's jealous that Alex is Morden's new aide, so he's planning something vengeful and violent to let Alex know his feelings.

Lightbringer and Zilean: These sadistic hit men (working for the Crusaders) believe that Alex and Anne are privy to Morden's plots and schemes, and they plan to pry that information out of Alex and Anne even if it results in their slow, torturous death (which—for one of them—it almost does).

Talisid: He is a Junior Council mage and a Guardian black-ops operative who has befriended Alex and wants him to work as a double agent, feeding information back to him so that he can keep the Council informed of Morden and Richard's activities.

Rain: He is a Keeper, but he is friendly with Alex, and Alex trusts him.

     As Alex fights off attackers, juggles his work for the Keepers and for Morden, and tries to concoct schemes with his friends to save everyone's lives, he comes to realize that he is in an impossible situation as he scrambles back and forth among Morden, Richard, and the Council: "Right now...I'm losing...It's that they've got a plan. They're always playing the long game, looking to next month, next year. Meanwhile I just wait around until some sort of crisis happens, then I scramble to fix it. It's like they're shooting holes in a boat, and I'm running up and down trying to plug the leaks. Sooner or later there'll be too many holes, or one of the bullets will hit me, and that'll be it...I need a win condition...Something that'll put me in a position where they have to react to me." Alex's friend, Arachne reminds him of some advice she gave him in the last book: "Align yourself with a greater power...Become a greater power. Or die." What choice(s) will Alex make to free himself and Anne?

     And now for a peek at a powerful new story line that begins in the midst of the climactic showdown scene that ends the book. Do you remember the prophecy that Alex will help Richard Drakh get hold of a powerful relic that will allow him to control all of the British mages? (That would be the dreamstone.) And do you remember in the previous book that Richard sent Morden and some mages into the bubble realm to recover a storage box? And do you remember that the box probably contained a bound jinn? Well, in the climax of Bound, you'll find out what was in the box, why Richard wanted it, and what he plans to do with it. Jacka includes a good-sized chunk of jinn mythology that will give you something to think about until he reveals (with a major twist) Richard's true plans. This is the best part of the book, and it leads directly to a horrific, life-changing future for one of the main characters.

    This is another fast-paced, action-filled novel that ends with Alex in a new and totally unpredictable relationship with the Council.  I always enjoy each new novel in this series, and although this one sometimes bogged down just because someone is ALWAYS after Alex, there are some illuminating scenes between Alex and Luna that add a lot to our understanding of how her tragic childhood has affected her adult relationships. On a romantic note, all through the book, Jacka hints at the deepening feelings between Alex and Anne, but Alex is so insecure that he fails over and over again to tell Anne that he loves her. And now it might be too late!

     Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from Bound on the novel's page by clicking on either the cover art for print or the "Audible Narration" icon for sound.

     In this alternate London, people have various degrees of magical talent. Here, Alex Verus, the series hero, summarizes the world of magic: "You can think of magical talent as a pyramid. Making the lowest and biggest layer are the normals....they don't know anything about magic and they don't want to....Next up on the pyramid are the sensitives, the ones who...are blessed (or cursed...) with a wider spectrum of vision than normals. They can feel the presence of magic....Above the sensitives...are the adepts. These guys are only one percent or so, but unlike sensitives they can actually channel magic in a subtle way....And then there are the mages." (from Fated) (Note: "Alex" is the name given to him by his parents; "Verus" is his mage name.)

     The mages, who are the most powerful of all, can be either Light or Dark. The Light mages rule the world of magic through their Council, which (up until now) has forbade Dark mages from being members. "The Light Council is the decision-making body of the Light mages of Britain. It has thirteen members: six nonvoting, known as the Junior Council, and seven voting, known as the Senior Council. Beneath them is a sprawling organisation [sic] and bureaucracy…, but it's those seven members of the Senior Council who call the shots." (from Burned)

     The Dark mages are clamoring for admittance because they see Council membership as a means of attaining more power. Here, Alex explains the differences between the two: "So long as magic has existed, there's always been a split between the two paths: the Light mages, and the Dark....Dark mages follow a philosophy called the True Way...[which] says that good and bad as we see them are conventions....A Dark mage would tell you that you only feel stealing is wrong because your parents brought you up that way....To a Dark mage, power is reality. The more power you have, the more you can shape the reality around you....If you're not strong enough to take what you want, it's your fault." (from Fated) The Light mages, on the other hand, support the traditional conventions of good and evil and insist that they are on the side of the greater good, but as we'll see, they're not as pure as they would lead everyone to believe.

     Alex is a probability mage, a diviner who owns a magic shop in London. In the world of magic, diviners aren't the flashy, fire-throwing mages who can fly through the air with little effort. What a diviner can do is much more subtle. Here, he explains, "What a diviner sees is probability. In one future you go left; in another you go right; in a third you stop and ask for directions. A hundred branches, each branching again and again to create thousands....To me, futures appear as lines of light in the darkness. The stronger and more likely the future, the brighter the glow. The next thing you learn is how to sort futures, search for groupings of events in which things happen a certain way. And once you've done that, all you have to do is look back along the strands and find out which actions lead to them." (from Fated) In Veiled, Alex pares down that explanation to a more concise definition: "I can perceive the sensory data of my short- to medium-term potential futures in the form of if-then conditionals.

     Diviners can't predict every action or event because some things are truly random, like the roll of dice. The easiest predictions are made in situations in which choices are the fewest, while those involving free will are among the most difficult. Although Alex doesn't possess any warrior mage powers, he can create spells and use objects imbued with certain powersenough to protect and defend himself, so far at least. Alex's most prized possession is his sentient mist cloak, which is woven from moonbeams and spiderwebs. This cloak can sense its surroundings and change itself to match, thus making Alex invisible both to human eyes and to detection spells.

     When Alex was a teenager, he was apprenticed to Richard Drakh, a Dark mage who treated his apprentices cruelly. Drakh believed in "what you'd call the pure Dark credo. Power over all, no matter where it came from." (from Burned) Eventually Alex rebelled against the mage's evil ways and was imprisoned in Richard's mansion. When Alex finally escaped and went to the Council for help, the Council members turned their backs on him, forcing him to survive on his own. Now, he tends his store and tries to keep a very low profile, wanting nothing to do with any magesneither the Light mages of the Council nor the Dark mages of the shadow realms.

     Alex has only a few friends. Starbreeze, an ancient, shape-shifting air elemental, serves as Alex's means of transportation when he needs to travel quickly and quietly over a distance. Since Starbreeze hears everything that is going on in London (being a spirit of the wind), she is also a great source of information, although her attention span is so short that her facts tend to be somewhat garbled. Another one of Alex's supernatural friends is Arachne, a ten-foot-tall, half-ton spider who lives in a hidden tunnel in Hampstead Heath where she makes clothing for her special clients and counsels Alex as he grapples with his ongoing problems with the other mages. 

     Alex's best human friend is Luna Mancuso, a young adept who lives under a horrible curse. Luna's curse protects her from harm, but the harm gets redirected to those who are close to her. In fact, the closer Luna gets to someone, the harder the curse hits them. For example, the first boy she kissed went into a coma. Alex has tried to break the curse but has been unsuccessful, so Luna just lives with it, keeping people at a distance and living a very lonely life. Luna's curse reminds me of Chance, the heroine's on-again, off-again boyfriend in Ann Aguirre's CORINE SOLOMON SERIES, whose magical talent for luck works the same way.

     This is a terrific series, with quirky characters and an imaginative premise. Alex has just enough flaws and more than enough honor and intelligence to make a satisfying hero, especially when you add in his curiosity and his innate ability to irritate and enrage authority figures of all kinds. The action is compelling and fast paced, and the world-building is complex without being labyrinthine. Jim Butcher has praised the series highly, and I can see why. As Butcher says in his cover blurb, "Harry Dresden would like Alex Verus tremendouslyand be a little nervous around him."

     Another strong element of the series is Jacka's descriptive skill as he presents a gorgeous rendering of London. From the serenity of the Thames to the woods and fields of Hampstead Heath to midnight views of the city lights, Jacka paints an eloquent portrait of a city he obviously loves

     If you like this series, you might enjoy reading about a sorcerer in a different version of an alternate London: Kate Griffin's MATTHEW SWIFT. Click on the series title to go to my review. And definitely take a look at Jim Butcher's DRESDEN FILES if you haven't already done so.

     Click HERE to go to a web page of links to articles the author has written for a set of "Encyclopedia" articles about the background and setting for the ALEX VERUS series. It's kind of an "everything you ever wanted to know about magic" collection, all related directly to Alex's world. Click HERE to read the “Ask Luna” Q&A page on Jacka’s web site. 

                          NOVEL 1:  Fated                          
     As the story opens, Lyle, a Council sycophant shows up at Alex's shop and asks him to assist the Council in retrieving an historical artifact. When Alex asks Lyle a few questions, he learns that no other diviner would take the job, so he knows that Lyle isn't telling him the whole story. Soon, others approach Alexeach wanting him to use his diviner talent to retrieve the artifact, which will give its possessor immense power over other mages. Eventually, Alex finds himself struggling to stay alive as a corrupt Council mage, an extremely powerful Dark mage, and a trio of murderous rogue mages all try to force him to help them gain possession of the artifact, which turns out to be a magical wand. Unfortunately, Luna is also dragged into this dangerous situation, and Alex is determined that no harm will come to her. The story ends in the obligatory battle scene in which all of the contenders make their big grab for the wand. In the process, Luna learns more about her magical powers, and Alex has an important epiphanous experience.

     About two thirds of the way into the story we get some flashbacks to Alex's life as an apprentice Dark mage, and this brings into focus all of the vague references made to that time in his life that have been sprinkled through the story from the beginning. It would have been nice to get this flashback a bit earlier, although I was able to work out most of Alex's story by paying attention to Alex's occasional comments in earlier parts of the book. I did find it somewhat distracting having to stop and pull together those biographical clues while I was in the middle of such an intricately contrived plot.

     This is a solid start to an intriguing series. Alex's divination process as he follows the possible futures is fascinating to watch. He's a complex character, and I'm looking forward to his next big adventure—and to the development of his relationship with Luna. Starbreeze and her attention deficit problems make for some nice comic relief. Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from Fated on the book's page by clicking on either the cover art or the "Listen" icon.

                          NOVEL 2:  Cursed                          
     The action picks up just a short time after the climax of book 1 as the author takes a leaf from William Wymark Jacobs' notebook and uses his classic horror story, "The Monkey's Paw," as the thematic focus for this book. As the book opens, Alex is trying to teach Luna how to control the negative powers of her curse, but unfortunately, the lessons aren't going well, partly because Luna wants results sooner rather than later and partly because Alex isn't acting like a true Master. The two have been friends for quite awhile, and that friendship is getting in the way of the discipline both of them need to solve Luna's problems. Meanwhile, Luna has found a new friend in Martin, a young sensitive who desperately wants to be a mage and who tries to use a monkey's paw from Alex's shop to make his wishes come truewith predictably horrible results for everyone involved.

     Early on in the story, Meredith, a young female mind mage stumbles into Alex's shop just ahead of an assassin who is determined to kill her. After Alex saves Meredith's life, she explains that she is working for Belthas, a Council mage who needs Alex's help. Belthas wants Alex to track down two dark mages who have discovered a way to use special implements to drain the energy from magical creatures and absorb it into themselves. He claims that he wants to destroy the implements so that they can never be used. Alex doesn't trust Belthas, but he, too, wants to stop the dark mages so he agrees to help.

     The plot follows Alex as he locates the dark mages and discovers that they are his past nemeses, Cinder and Rachel (aka Deleo), whom we met in book 1 when they tried to kill Alex because he wouldn't help them retrieve the magic wand. In the meantime, someone else makes several attempts to kill Alex, and Alex isn't sure just who wants him dead. It's not that there aren't a lot of people who want Alex dead. It's just that he isn't sure exactly which one is after him this time. The book ends in the requisite battle scene as Alex, Luna, and Arachne are all placed in mortal danger, along with a few more of Alex's friends and enemies.

     The action in this book, for me, is even more compelling than book 1. Luna plays a much larger role in this story as she endangers Alex by focusing solely on ridding herself of her curse. You can hardly blame the poor girl for wanting to live a normal life, but Luna does have a couple of TSTL moments in this book that had me shaking my head at her naiveté. By the end, Alex has won a big battle but he has also put himself in the crosshairs of the bigwigs of the mage world, all of whom are now going to view him as a distinct threat. Alex is a complex and interesting character, with his innate sense of fairness and honor, his pragmatic view of good and evil, and his willingness to do whatever it takes to keep his friends safe. He has always fought against becoming a dark mage, but he can't quite behave like a light mage either. He's an anomaly, and in this world, that just means trouble. Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from Taken on the book's page by clicking on either the cover art or the "Listen" icon.

                          NOVEL 3:  Taken                          

     This adventure begins when Alex gets two requests: The first comes from a mind mage named Crystal who wants him to provide security at an upcoming apprentices' tournament at her estate, Fountain Reach. The second comes from Talisid, a Council mage who wants Alex to find out who is kidnapping apprentice mages. Alex turns down Crystal because she tries to mind read him and because he just doesn't trust her, but he accepts Talisid's request because it's a challenge and because he wants to protect the remaining apprentices, one of whom is his own apprentice, Luna.

     As is always the case, the reader tags along with Alex as he gathers clues but, frustratingly, doesn't always fully explain them to us right away. Almost as soon as Alex begins his investigation, he has to rescue Anne Walker, one of Luna's apprentice friends, from three gunmen who nearly kill her. Anne and another apprentice, Variam, have been under the protection of a rakshasa—a darkly mysterious shape shifter with roots in India who generally takes the form of a tiger. As the plot plays out, Alex, Luna, Anne, and Variam head for the tournament at Fountain Reach because that's where all the clues seem to point. Once there, Alex gradually figures out the identity of the villain—almost too late to save his own life and that of his allies. Just to make things even more interesting, Onyx, a viciously evil force mage, is also at Fountain Reach searching for the kidnapper, and he plans to punish Alex—fatally—for defeating him in their previous encounter back in book 1.

     By the time the climactic showdown scene rolls around, Alex has solved the case but, as usual, has also made some new enemies and endangered himself and his allies time and time again. This is another great addition to a terrific series, filled with action, suspense, and plenty of quirky characters. It's a series that must be read from the beginning, though, so don't start with this book. 
Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from Taken on the book's page by clicking on either the cover art or the "Listen" icon.

                          NOVEL 4:  Chosen                          

     As the book opens, Alex's life has been relatively peaceful for the past few months. The young mages, Anne and Variam (aka Vari), are having no luck in finding a mage to sponsor them, so they are bunking with Alex in the interim and along with Luna, they are attending training classes. Soon, though, the danger level rises when Will Traviss, a young adept, and his magical buddies try to kill Alex in revenge for his part in the kidnapping and death of Will's sister, Catherine, ten years ago when Alex was still an apprentice to the dark mage, Richard Drakh.

     The plot follows Alex as he tries to keep himself alive in the face of repeated attacks from Will and his followers, who call themselves the Nightstalkers. Each Nightstalker has a different magical talent, and their combined powers present a lethal force—all focused directly on Alex. In the meantime, one of the Mage Council's enforcement officers requests Alex's assistance in tracking down Richard Drakh, Alex's former Master. Apparently, the Council believes that Richard is returning after ten years absence, and they want to keep one step ahead of him.

     Although the plot is not complex—it's a series of attacks and parries—Will's hatred forces Alex to relive his actions during Catherine's abduction. The story includes many flashbacks that provide insight into Alex's horrible years as a virtual slave in Richard's mansion. Alex also takes a few dream trips into Elsewhere, where he reunites with Shireen and inadvertently sets the psychotic Rachel/Deleo on his trail once again. During the dream sequences, Alex learns the truth about Shireen's death and Deleo's emergence as a stone-cold killer.

     All the way through the book, Alex tries to reason with Will, but the young man is so blinded by rage that he is determined to take Alex's life at any cost. Finally, Alex is forced to stand against the Nightstalkers shielded by a nightmarish weapon that even he regrets using. In this book, Alex does a lot of angst-filled soul searching as he realizes that he has spent the past ten years trying not to be like Richard, but never trying to develop himself into anything else. When he is pushed—or lets himself be pushed—to the edge by Will's constant attacks, he wonders if he has failed, if he really is the dark mage that Will accuses him of being. This is a story of revenge and self-discovery, but it is also a story of friendship as Anne, Luna, Sonder, and Vari stand by Alex's side to defend him against the Nighthawks. By the end, though, his friends (especially Anne) aren't sure that they know Alex as well as they thought they did.

     On the surface, this book has the simplest plot so far, but below the surface, it is the most complex. We learn a lot more about Alex's history with Richard and his apprentices, and we watch Alex come to terms with his past actions. I recommend the book highly, but not as a stand-alone. You'll enjoy it more if you read it in the context of the previous three books. 
Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from Chosen on the book's page by clicking on either the cover art or the "Listen" icon.

                         NOVEL 5:  Hidden                          

     In Chosen, Alex revealed his dark side to his new friends, Anne, Sonder, and Variam, but only Vari stuck with Alex after learning about his murderous past. All three moved out of Alex and Luna’s apartment: Sonder and Vari took positions with the Light Keepers (the law enforcement branch of the Council), while Anne moved into her own apartment and is running a clinic. As Hidden opens, Luna is worried about Anne because she has been expelled from the apprentice academy and is now vulnerable to attack by the Dark mages, particularly Sagash, the death mage from whom Anne and Vari escaped not long ago. Alex tries to reason with Anne, but she sends him away because she can’t deal with his violent past. Little does Alex know that Anne has violent secrets in her own past. As she turns away from him she says, “I don’t want to become the kind of person who could do what you did.”—referring to Alex’s part in the deaths of five adepts in Chosen.

     When Anne is kidnapped by two unidentified men, Sonder brings the Keepers into the picture because he claims that the mind mage Crystal (whom we met in Taken) is behind the kidnapping. Everyone else believes that Sagash is the mastermind, but Alex, Luna, Vari, Sonder, and Caldera (Sonder’s boss)—spend the first half of the book searching for clues and narrowing down suspects. Sonder despises Alex and has a major crush on Luna, so the scenes in which the two men interact are fraught with tension, especially when Sonder tries to lure Luna away from her apprenticeship to Alex. In a follow-up to that scene, Sonder berates Alex, “Every time someone goes after you, they end up dead. You killed those adepts because that’s what you do….You said it was self-defence [sic], that there was no other way. You made it sound really convincing, but that’s always your line, isn’t it? It’s never your fault.” 

     In the second half of the book, Alex goes off on his own to rescue Anne—just as you knew he would. When he steps out of a portal into Sagash’s shadow realm, he finds himself in a dangerous situation that will probably result in severe injury or even death for himself and for Anne. His enemies in this realm include Sagash’s three apprentices, a horde of single-minded shadows (magical constructs) who want to kill him, two powerful mages who also want to harm/capture/kill him, and an enemy from his past who can terrify Alex with just a word or a look. In the end, Alex is forced to make a choice between two horrific options for himself and for Anne, one that would make them slaves, and the other that might kill them both. The requisite showdown scene is full of suspense and drama all the way to the end as Alex relies on his wits and a new friend to defeat his enemy and make a clean getaway. The identity and motivations of the person behind the kidnapping and the circumstances of the escape are cleverly conceived and constructed, making it entirely unpredictable and immensely satisfying. As the final scenes play out, each twist and turn is a bigger surprise than the last.

     This story line continues the soul-searching story line that began in Chosen—in which Alex examines his past and present deeds and misdeeds and wonders if he might be just as dark and evil as Richard, his detestable former Master. Alex even goes so far as to seek out his long-estranged father, but that reunion only reinforces his feeling of isolation. As it turns out, Anne has been guilty of some of the same dark and violent actions as Alex, and she is so terribly worried about her mental state that she has buried her dark side and has made up her mind that she will never kill again. But life doesn’t always allow you to keep all your promises—even the ones you make to yourself. Both Anne and Alex are working hard to accept the fact that though they have done terrible things, they can’t allow their dark sides to overcome them. But they must also admit that they will continue to do whatever is necessary to survive in a world filled with dark mages who are out to get them both. By the end of the story, Anne has opened up to Alex about her years under Sagash’s control, and the two have re-established their friendship (which may develop into something more).

     This is another strong story that takes us a step closer to the inevitable showdown between Alex and Richard. The dark shadow of Richard’s presence has been hovering in the background since the very beginning of the series, and it can’t be long before he makes a major move to get Alex back. Meanwhile, Alex plans to be ready for that day by working on his own skills and by enlisting the aid of his friends—friends he didn’t have the last time he and Richard tangled. Talisid, the Council mage for whom Alex has been working various jobs finally reveals his end game, and that complicates Alex’s situation even more. This series just gets better and better. Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from Hidden on the book's page by clicking on either the cover art or the "Listen" icon.

                          NOVEL 6:  Veiled                          

     I thought I’d escaped my past. But my old master is back and making a new play for power. And he’s not the only one targeting me…

     Diviner Alex Verus and the Council that governs the magical community have never gotten along. But with his former teacher back in Britain, Alex is in desperate need of allies, and he’ll do whatever it takes to get them—even if it means accepting a job with the Keepers, enforcing magical law. 

     Alex forms an uneasy alliance with his new partner, Caldera, but his attempt at legitimacy quickly turns lethal when a mission puts him in possession of an item that factions both inside and outside of the Council would kill to get their hands on. Once again caught in the middle of a deadly conflict, Alex will need all his abilities to figure out who his friends are—especially when enemies are hiding on all sides…

     This novel deals with multiple intrigues within the Light Council, which means that we need to understand just how the Council operates, both publicly and behind the scenes. As a result, Veiled contains a bit more world-building than any book since Fated.

     Alex Verus is caught in a sticky web of danger, with several large and dangerous mages intent on either using him for their own intents and purposes or just killing him off. In this book, Alex's enemies can be loosely divided into three groups:

>> Levistus and his agents: Levistus is a corrupt Senior Council mage who despises Alex for thwarting him in an adventure that took place in Fated. Since then, Levistus has sporadically sent assassins after Alex, but when Alex spurns his request for assistance in this book, Levistus doubles down on his efforts to annihilate Alex.
>> Richard Drakh and his supporters: Alex's former master is a Dark mage who wants Alex back under his power. After an absence of ten years, Richard is back in Britain (in his mansion in Wales), working hard to build a coalition of as many Dark mages as possiblea power base of his very own. His partner is a Dark mage named Morden, who is pushing to get Dark mages admitted to the Light Council, something that has never happened in the history of the Council and would have major ramifications for the magical community if it is allowed to happen. Although Alex hasn't seen Richard recently, he constantly feels Richard's presence and fears that he will unable to escape Richard's clutches for much longer.
>> And then there is the unknown Air mage assassin who tries very hard to kill Alex when Alex stumbles on a dangerous plot that involves a sex-slavery operation run by a Dark mage who is under the protection of several Council mages. Who hired the assassin? Which Council members are involved? Can Alex trust his fellow Keepers as he investigates the case? 
     In order to help the reader understand the machinations of Council politics, the author has Alex describe the seven primary Council factions: Crusaders, Guardians, Unity Bloc, Centrists, Isolationists, Directors, and Weissians. Following are brief descriptions of the four most powerful factions, each of which plays a role in the plot of this book:
>> Crusaders: Radical extremists, "the most militant of all the factions," who believe that the Council should actively fight against all Dark mages (including Alex, who is an ex-Dark mage).
>> Guardians: "Less extreme than the Crusaders," but only because they are defensive rather than aggressive, preferring to "do the minimum to prevent Dark mages from hurting other people, then leave them to fight among themselves." 
>> Unity Bloc: This faction directly opposes the views of the Crusaders and the Guardians. "The Unitarians want the Light and Dark factions to unite, bringing Dark mages into the Council and involving them in the political process."
>> Centrists: This faction generally seeks middle ground. "Increasingly the Unity Bloc was coming into favor with the Centrists, and the Centrists had more members than the Guardians and the Crusaders put together." 
     The action begins about six months after the events of Hidden. Alex and his team of allies have been running covert missions for the Council mage Talisid (a Guardian black-ops operative), who is trying to build a case against Richard. Talisid wants proof of Richard's law-breaking in order to cast aspersions on Richard's partner, Morden, and thereby keep the Dark mages from getting a seat on the Council. Unfortunately, Alex has not been able to turn up any solid evidence that Richard is violating the Concord, and Talisid's assignments have been getting more and more dangerous—too dangerous to continue to accept. 

     To protect himself against Richard and all of the other mages who are out to get him, Alex decides he will be safer if he joins the Keepers. The Keepers serve as the law enforcement arm of the Council and (more mythology here) are divided into three units:

>> Order of the Star: They deal with crime that breaks the peace of the Concord or the national laws of the Council. The Concord is "the international set of laws that all mages are required to follow." Beneath the Concord are "the national laws, passed as resolutions by the ruling Councils of each magical nation," and varying from nation to nation. 
>> Order of the Cloak: A low-profile group that is "responsible for preserving the secrecy of the magical world." They work with mundane authorities and deal solely with normals and sensitives.
>> Order of the Shield: They were the battle-mages who used to protect the population from magical predators. Now that magical creatures are nearly extinct, they are the Council's military reserve. They are called into action when a situation is too dangerous for Star to handle. Landis, one of the key characters in this novel (and Master to Alex's friend Variam), is a Shield.
     Alex is assigned probationary status with the Star Keepers, with Caldera as his immediate supervisor. Caldera, whom we met in Hidden, had reluctantly provided some assistance when Anne was kidnapped, and she appears to like Alex better than most of the other Keepers. (Nearly all of them make no secret of their hatred for Alex and his Dark mage connections.)

     When Caldera gives Alex a seemingly routine assignment to check out an anonymous tip about the possible use of magic at a remote railway station, the situation turns into a life-or-death battle between Alex and a French-speaking air mage who is intent on killing Alex and retrieving a magical focus (a small greenish ball the size of a marble) that Alex found near the station. In the meantime, another Star team is working on a case involving a missing apprentice. Soon, Alex begins to believe that the cases are connected and that there are traitors among the Star agents. 

     As Alex and Caldera investigate, Alex calls in some of his own team to assist (i.e., Luna, Variam, and Anne). Meanwhile, Luna's magical needs have outstripped Alex's range of powers and he must find a Chance mage to help with her training. This story line is mostly undeveloped in this novel, but will certainly be a big part of future books. 

     As Alex works with Caldera, they develop a nicely portrayed partnership that involves the building of trust between them. Caldera is an honest, idealistic law enforcement officer (in the vein of rookie policeman, James Gordon, on the TV show Gotham). She deeply resents Alex's suggestion that some of her Star colleagues are working behind the scenes for corrupt Council members, but when Alex provides proof, she reluctantly begins to trust his judgment. Caldera sees her job as Alex's supervisor as a chance to teach him to be a team player: "You're still thinking of this as a solo act. That's not how it works. When you're on call, you're part of something bigger than you, and that means you're not in charge anymore." This is a world-shifting concept for Alex, because he has ALWAYS been a solo act—a solo act working, for the most part, without a net to catch him if (when) he falls. If Alex is to keep this job—and it looks as if he will—he'll have to learn to trust the very people who have let him down over and over again throughout his life.

     This novel feels like a transitional book that begins a new story arc dealing with Richard and Levistus, each of whom wants Alex on his side. Although Richard never appears in person, his dark presence can be felt all though this book. At this point, the suspense has built as high as it can go, so it's about time for Richard to show himself and get into the game for real.

     A few reviewers have panned this book, citing Jacka's refusal to give Alex some weapons so that he can put up a fight instead of relying solely on his divining talents. These critics remind me of the fanatic NRA ranters: "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." But really, most of Alex's enemies don't use guns, and most of them have magical ways of deflecting bullets so a gun would have absolutely no effect on them. But most importantly, if a diviner like Alex is to survive any kind of attack, he must concentrate completely on visualizing all possible futures. Alex cannot possibly participate in a gun fight at the same time he is trying to look at myriad futures so that he can make the right move at exactly the right time. I don't believe that these critics truly understand Alex's mythology.

     Although this is a suspenseful, action-filled story, it is not one of my favorite books. I can see why Jacka needed to add it to the seriesto set up the coming events—but it moves rather slowly because it is packed with reviews of previous events and bits and pieces of new mythology. We don't see much of Team Verus in this novel; they mostly show up in the nick of time to save Alex's life from time to time. The most entertaining character is Landis, who comes across as a mash-up of Back to the Future's Doc Brown's absent-minded love of gadgetry and Wile E. Coyote's maniacal love of fiery explosives. I hope that we'll be seeing more of Landis in future books. All in all, this is a terrific series, and Alex is a complicated hero whose adventures always provide great escapist reading.

     Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from Veiled on the book's page by clicking on either the cover art or the "Listen" icon. 

                        NOVEL 7:  Burned                          
     I’m used to people wanting me dead. But, this time, I’m not the only one on the hit list—and time is running out. 

     Diviner Alex Verus finally made one too many enemies on the Council of Mages, and now one of them is angry enough to have him executed. Fighting for his life is nothing new, but this kill order also calls for the death of Alex’s dependents—and there’s no way that he’ll let Luna, Anne, and Vari take the heat. 

     With only a week before he’s history, Alex will have to figure out how to disassociate himself from his friends, scrounge up allies on the Council, and hopefully keep his head attached to his body. But saving himself is going to bring him into direct opposition with his former master and the Dark mages surrounding him. And, this time, escaping with his life might mean losing his soul.

     For years, Alex has clashed repeatedly with both Light and Dark mages as he constantly fought the system and insisted on maintaining his independence from both sides. Now, he is in the crosshairs of some powerful mages who have decided that he has gone from irritant to threat and that he must be stopped once and for all. In this fast-paced, nail-biting adventure, Alex finds out the hard way who will stand by him, who will betray him, and how his greatest enemy will destroy him.

     Alex’s troubles begin on the very first page of chapter one when he gets devastating news from Talisid, a Junior Council mage (and a Guardian black-ops operative), who has been hiring Alex to collect enough evidence build a case against Richard Drakh, the evil, power-mad Dark mage to whom Alex was once apprenticed. Talisid bluntly tells Alex that “Levistus has sentenced you to death. You’re to be executed in one week.” Even more horrifying for Alex is the fact that Luna Mancuso, Anne Walker, and Variam Singh—Alex’s close friends and just about his only allies—are also named on the execution order. Levistus is a corrupt Senior Council mage who despises Alex for thwarting him in several incidents in previous books, including the White Rose affair in Veiled. For years, Levistus has periodically sent assassins after Alex, but this formal execution order seems to have come out of nowhere. Talisid explains that Levistus waited until several of the other Council members were away for the Christmas holidays, making sure that just enough of his Council allies were available to ensure that they could establish a quorum and pass the resolution.

     Immediately, Alex comes up with a plan to protect Luna, Vari, and Anne. First, Alex works with Luna’s teacher, Chalice, to set up an immediate test so that Luna will become a journeyman mage and, thus, be untouchable by the execution order. Then, he persuades his mage friend, Landis, to accept both Vari and Anne as apprentices, which should protect them as well. While he is still trying to figure out how to save himself, Alex becomes the target of several attacks by hired thugs with ties to the Crusaders. (For a discussion of the Crusaders and other world-building elements, read the World-Building section of this post as well as my review of novel seven, Veiled.) Most of his attackers believe that Alex is assisting Richard in some dark manner and refuse to believe his denials. The worst of the attacks involves a fire mage and a crew of gunmen who manage to totally destroy Alex’s home and shop and seriously injure Anne, who comes to his aid. (Note: In that long and fiery battle scene, Alex and Anne try to fight back with spells and magic, while all the time Alex has several gate stones in his pocket. My question: Why include this lengthy scene when Alex—usually a very smart guy—has the means to escape right from the beginning?)

     The rest of the novel finds Alex stumbling through confrontations and soul-searching sessions with various friends, enemies, and frenemies, including various Council mages; his Keeper boss, Caldera; and his long-time friend, Arachne, who tells him that he has only three options—all unacceptable to Alex: "Align yourself with one of the greater powers…Or become a greater power. Or die." Alex even has a conversation in Elsewhere with the ghost of the long-dead Shireen (another one of Richard’s apprentices), who tells him that a dragon has foretold that Alex’s future depends on a decision that will be made by Rachel (aka Deleo), the mage who killed Shireen and drained her powers, thus causing her own madness. Shireen wants Alex to talk sense into Rachel, but Rachel hates Alex with a passion and wants him dead. Another prophecy comes into the picture later: that Alex will help Richard Drakh get hold of a powerful relic that will allow him to control all of the British magesa prophecy that Alex refuses to accept because he despises Richard and would never help him. Obviously, both of these prophecies—which are unresolved in this book—will be important elements of future novels.

     All through this book, Alex is at the mercy of everyone who hates him. He is constantly under attack from known and unknown enemies. He is basically homeless (except for his hideout in Wales). His friends are being threatened. People are betraying him right and left. He really has very few people he can trust. The cliff-hanger ending is heartbreaking—almost worse than actual death for Alex. PLEASE don’t read the ending first; you’ll ruin the story for yourself if you do. Jacka leaves Alex in such a dangerously deplorable situation that it is almost impossible to see a way out for our hero (although I don’t doubt that Jacka has a great one planned).

     Once again, Jacka has created a tense, action-filled story filled with nuanced, relatable characters. And speaking of characters: the Luna-Variam relationship deepens in this book, and there is a tiny spark in the Alex-Anne relationship. Like all of the books in this series, this one was impossible to put down once I started reading, due in part to the constant forward motion of Alex’s divining mind as he plots probable futures and takes evasive actions while fighting off fire sprites, grenades, and an army of murderous Light Keepers.

     Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from Burned on the book's page by clicking on either the cover art or the "Listen" icon. 

FULL DISCLOSURE: My review of Burned is based on an electronic advance reading copy (ARC) of the book that I received from the publisher through NetGalley. I received no promotional or monetary rewards, and the opinions in this review are strictly my own.

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