Jacka’s latest novel is “Cursed” (ACE, $7.99). It’s the second book (following the excellent “Fated”) to feature the mage Alex Verus. Verus is a diviner – he can see the future – who spent most of his mage career staying under the radar by essentially hiding in plain sight. He’s the proprietor of a magic shop, and although he has plenty of stuff like crystals and Tarot cards, that’s just camouflage. He also deals in real magical items, though very few know just how powerful some of his inventory is.
But Alex’s recent exploits have brought him to the attention of the mage elite – Light and Dark alike. All he wants to do is go back to the way things were. He wants to run his shop and train his apprentice and just be left out of all the intrigue and drama. Unfortunately, that is not to be.
Someone has rediscovered a terrible ritual designed to harvest the power of magical creatures, killing them in the process. These horrible deeds – not to mention the power imbalances they may cause – draw attention from the very highest level. Alex finds himself once more thrust into the midst of the mystery, left with no recourse but to try and find whoever is behind it all. Sure, he can see the future, but will he eventually run out of future to see?
It definitely feels like Jacka is hitting his stride. Alex Verus is the best kind of fantasy protagonist – an underdog. His magic might be powerful in its own way, but he’s almost always massively outgunned. He never seeks out danger, but it never fails to find him. He’s clever and self-deprecating, but he struggles to develop truly close relationships. As much as any magic-user could be, Verus is a capital-E Everyman in the best way.
One of the great things about “Cursed” is that while Jacka is clearly building toward an overarching big picture story, the short-term story arc doesn’t suffer. The author never loses sight of what makes this sort of fiction work – story. You have to have the story; even in a series, you can’t sacrifice the story for exposition. If you do, you remove the reader from the moment. Jacka obviously understands that; his long-term developments are subtle and unobtrusive.
Truthfully, a reader could pick up “Cursed” without having read “Fated” and not feel that they’ve dropped into the middle of something. That said, any fan of urban fantasy – or fantasy in general – would be well-served to fully invest in Alex Verus and Benedict Jacka. The payoff will be worth it.