Why I Didn’t Choose The “Total Victory” Ending

(This is part 5 of an 8-part series on the ending of the Alex Verus novels.  The master post with links to all the other parts is here.)

Because it was terrible.  

That’s the short answer.  Keep reading if you want the long answer, but let’s be clear:  I never seriously considered ending the series this way.   

The only selling point of this ending is catharsis.  Readers had been watching Alex get trodden on for a long time, and by this point, a lot of them really wanted to see him win.  This ending would have made those readers happy . . . in the short term.  But it’s still terrible, and here’s why.

Consistency

The first problem with this ending is that it doesn’t fit.  

The world of the Alex Verus series is one of limits.  Alex can see into the future, but he can’t throw fire.  He can use magic items, but their effects are relatively weak.  And while as a recognised mage Alex has a certain amount of power and autonomy, it’s very clear right from the start that he can’t just do whatever he wants.  The Light Council will bring down the hammer if he gets caught breaking their laws, and if he says the wrong thing to a Dark mage, he risks being killed on the spot.  Even when Alex rises in power, as he does over the course of the series, this draws the attention of stronger enemies and rivals, which brings new problems in turn.  The limitations and restrictions that Alex is under change, but they never go away.

The world of the Alex Verus series is also one where consequences matter.  Alex’s history as a Dark apprentice causes the Council to mistrust him.  His actions as Richard’s apprentice cause the Nightstalkers to come after him in book #4.  The way he deals with the Nightstalkers causes a rift between him and Anne in book #5.  His covering up for Anne is what gets him outlawed in book #10.  The books feature good consequences as well as bad ones, but generally speaking, whenever Alex breaks the rules in some major way, it eventually comes back to bite him.

So why does all this suddenly change?  Why can Alex suddenly forget about limits and consequences, and do whatever he wants?

In a consistent world, if Alex tried to take over the country in this way, people would come out of the woodwork to oppose him, since they’d (correctly) see him as a Dark mage who was trying to become a dictator.  The most likely consequence of this would be that the country would be plunged right back into war . . . a war that Alex would lose, since while Alex at the end of Risen is enormously powerful, he’s still not powerful enough to take on the entire country at once.  To take over the Council he’d have to persuade a plurality of people that it was in their best interests to accept him as their ruler.  This would take a vast amount of time and political manoeuvring, at which point we’re basically not writing an ending at all so much as transitioning into a new and much more politics-focused storyline.  

But big as all these problems are, they’re nowhere near as bad as the mess this ending would make of the theme.

Theme

In this alternate ending, the entire series becomes the story of Alex’s rise to supreme ruler.  Alex gets everything that he personally wants and makes the country into a better place, and he does so via raw power, forcibly removing anyone who tries to stop him.  

So what does this mean for the theme?  What message is the series now sending?

Well, basically the message is that the Dark mages were right all along.  Power really is the only thing that matters, and the best solution to problems really is to just crush whoever’s in your way.  Looked at from this point of view, Alex’s big mistake wasn’t joining Richard, it was leaving him.  He should have listened to Richard from the start.  

This ending also casts Alex’s effort to avoid the Dark path in a very different light.  Alex spends a lot of the series trying not to take the ruthless, cold-hearted approach to solving problems.  It doesn’t always work, and in the last three books he comes close to giving up, but much of the series is the story of Alex trying to hold onto his principles even when it would be really, really convenient not to.  This ending undermines those efforts:  by having the Dark path be the optimal one, it devalues all of Alex’s past choices and struggles.  It turns out that all of his efforts to do the right thing were pretty much a waste of time and we could have just as easily skipped about six books with no particular impact on the story.

And while this is a “victory” ending, it’s not at all clear that it’s a good ending.  Alex might be the viewpoint character of the series, but by the end of book 12 he’s pretty damn violent and ruthless.  Would having him as dictator actually be a good thing?  Would Alex be able to resist the temptation to abuse his new power, just as the Council did before him?  And even if he was able to avoid being corrupted, what sort of legacy would he leave behind?  The next generation of mages and adepts would grow up with Alex’s success as a model to follow.  What would happen when they started disagreeing about what to do?  

Ultimately, with this ending, the Alex Verus series becomes little more than a power fantasy.  “If only I had some unfair advantage that made me invincible, everything would turn out great.”  Readers  would probably still enjoy it, but when they looked back on the series as a whole with their new knowledge of where it was going, they’d be much more inclined to judge it negatively.  They’d be right.

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Alex Verus Alternate Ending 1: Total Victory

(This is part 4 of an 8-part series on the ending of the Alex Verus novels.  The master post with links to all the other parts is here.)

The world of the Alex Verus setting isn’t fair.  There are massive disparities in power and privilege between the members of magical society, and those on the top don’t much care about the people on the bottom.  The good guys don’t always win and the bad guys don’t always lose.  Alex and his friends try to do the right thing, but they’re operating with very limited resources and it’s often all they can do to protect themselves.  

A lot of readers were hoping that the ending would change all this.  They wanted Alex to stop ending up with mixed victories and win a total victory, and use that to become some kind of transformative figure who would reform magical society into something fair and just.  

So what would that look like?  

Well, in this scenario, Alex doesn’t withdraw into exile at the end of Risen.  Instead, he takes advantage of his new abilities to take possession of one of the recently-emptied seats on the Senior Council.  

Being a member of the Senior Council makes Alex pretty safe in terms of personal immunity, and as a voting member, it also means that he can influence Council policy going forward.  Things wouldn’t get transformed overnight, but there would be gradual, subtle shifts towards better treatment for non-mages, a reconciliation between mages and adepts, etc.

But we did say this was the TOTAL victory ending.  So why not go all the way?

Let’s say that Alex doesn’t just join the Senior Council, he gains control of it, using some combination of appointing people who’ll do as he say, blackmailing existing members with the information he can access via November, or just using straightforward “do-this-or-else” coercion.  From this point on, between his personal and political power, Alex is pretty much free to do whatever he wants.  He can chase down and either exile or kill off his Light and Dark enemies, reform the Council, order that from now on adepts and apprentices will have equal legal rights to mages . . . the whole nine yards.  

What all this does is transform the overall shape of the series.  At the time, most of the Alex Verus books featured him struggling just to survive, but now, with the benefit of hindsight, we can look back and see each book as a step in his gradual rise to power.  The whole series becomes an ascent where Alex goes from underdog to overlord. 

We could go into more details as to what Alex does with his new power, but it isn’t really important.  The point is:  Alex wins.  What he does from that point on is entirely up to him.

The end.

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Theme: The Message You Send

(This is part 3 of an 8-part series on the ending of the Alex Verus novels.  The master post with links to all the other parts is here.)

A story’s theme is the message it conveys, and the underlying meaning that the narrative explores. 

Themes are complicated and subjective, and if you ask three people what the theme of a story is, you’ll usually get three different answers.  Figuring out which is right is hard, and requires you to think about the story in a lot more detail than you usually would . . . and even if you do that, there’s no guarantee that you’ll get the right answer, or even that there is a right answer. 

For all these reasons, it’s tempting to avoid thinking much about a story’s theme.  It’s hard, it can be boring, and there’s not much reward.  As a result, many people, when the subject comes up, will shrug or say they don’t care . . . which is a big mistake.  Theme is the heart of a story, and more than anything else, it’s the reason a story exists.  It’s sort of like the engine of a car – you rarely see it or think about it, but it’s where all the power comes from.  Without it, all you’ve got is an empty shell.  

Readers won’t always notice or connect with a theme, but when they do, it has a bigger impact on them than anything else, and it has the power to generate the most intense feelings.  If readers like a story’s theme, they’ll fall in love with the book and remember it forever.  If they don’t, they’ll hate the book with a fiery passion and will often transfer that hatred onto the author.  There are two reasons that authors get death threats, and this is one of them.  

So how does this tie into endings?

Well, endings are where a story’s theme becomes obvious.  You can kind of hide a theme throughout the body of a book, but as with a jigsaw puzzle, the more pieces you fit together, the clearer the picture becomes.  And once it’s clear, then readers can look back at the beginning and middle, and see the book as a whole, and figure out what message the author was sending. 

Or to put it another way:  the ending is where you figure out what the writer’s got to say.  At which point several things can go wrong.

• The writer can turn out not to have anything to say.  There’s no real resolution and everything just sort of peters out.  

• The writer may have something to say, but it’s incoherent and contradictory.  You do get a resolution, but it’s the kind of resolution where the more you think about it, the less sense it makes.  

• The writer does have something to say and it’s neither incoherent nor contradictory, but once the reader understands it, they decide that they hate the book, and the writer in general.  

But these are all worst-case-scenarios.  What’s much more common is that the ending reveals the story’s theme, and it’s just sort of . . . okay.  It’s not obviously stupid or offensive, but it’s not particularly exciting or well-executed, either.  Throughout the story, your interest might have been kept up by the mystery of what was going to happen and the possibility of something more, but once the ending is revealed and the mystery’s stripped away, it turns out that there wasn’t actually anything more.  You end on a vague feeling of disappointment, and that disappointment lingers and makes you less inclined to read another book by the same author.   

Another way to think about it is that if consistency makes an ending intellectually satisfying, a story’s theme is what makes its ending emotionally satisfying.  It’s the payoff, the final result of all the work you put in to follow the story through its twists and turns to its finale, and whether the theme is well or badly done is what decides whether that work was worth it.  

Out of the two things that make an ending good or bad – consistency and theme – theme is the most important by far.  A story can be horribly inconsistent, but if the theme lands well enough, readers will love it anyway.  It’s common for fans of a series to nitpick incessantly and spend hours and hours pointing out everything wrong with it, to the point that outsiders are likely to ask:  “why are you even fans of this if you complain about it so much?”  Answer:  because they like the theme.  If readers like a theme enough, they’ll forgive everything else.  

So as you can guess, when I was deciding how to end the Alex Verus series, it was theme that I focused on.  Next week, we’ll look at the first of the rejected alternate endings, which I’ve dubbed “Total Victory”.  

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Consistency: How Well The Pieces Fit

(This is part 2 of an 8-part series on the ending of the Alex Verus novels.  The master post with links to all the other parts is here.)

The first thing that makes an ending good or bad is how consistent it is with the rest of the story.  

When I say consistency, I’m talking about in-world consistency.  All fictional worlds have rules, but not all fictional worlds have rules that stay the same.  Generally a writer is allowed one really big leap away from reality at the beginning of their story, but from that point on they’re expected to be consistent.  This can apply to the ‘physics’ of the fictional world (if a laser gun works one way in the first few chapters, it should generally keep working that way) to the personality of characters (if Secondary Character B strongly believes in one thing, he shouldn’t change his mind without a very good reason) to broad patterns of behaviour (can problems in this world be solved by people talking things out, or not?) and even to what the story does or doesn’t pay attention to (do people ever run out of money, or is there always an endless supply of everything?)

That doesn’t mean that things can’t change in a story;  they do.  Secrets are revealed, new aspects of someone’s personality come to light, and so on.  But it’s very important that significant changes should generally be done towards the beginning or the middle of a book.  The closer you get to the end, the more disruptive it becomes to make big sweeping changes – if the writer does do this, it works a lot better if this is foreshadowed, so that the reader has time to see that something’s coming and possibly even figure it out on their own.  

Another way to think about it is that in the beginning and middle of a book, you hand the reader a bunch of jigsaw pieces, and in the ending, you fit them all together.  When you talk about ‘consistency’, that’s another way of saying how well the pieces fit together.  In a perfect story, they all fit exactly and there are no gaps.  In practice that’s impossible, but so long as you do other things well, you can get away with a mistake or two or three – readers are a very forgiving lot when it comes to a story they like.  On the other hand, if your completed ‘puzzle’ has a giant hole where the middle should be, you’re going to get complaints.  

Consistency is one of the easiest things in a story to criticise.  When people complain about a story being unrealistic, or ask “Why didn’t they just . . . ?” or accuse it of having “plot holes”, or argue that things “don’t make sense”, it’s consistency that they’re talking about.  Often these criticisms can feel rather nitpicky, and it’s tempting when you see a 1,500 word book review or a 2-hour-long YouTube book critique to just roll your eyes and tell the complainer to stop overthinking it.  After all, most people don’t care that deeply about this stuff.  So does consistency really matter?  

Well, actually, yes.  

Consistency gives verisimilitude – the appearance of truth.  It transports the reader to what Tolkien called a “secondary world”, which they can believe in as long as they’re within it.  The reason people get so annoyed about inconsistencies is that they break the spell, leaving the reader back out in the primary world, looking in at the little secondary world from outside. 

Like trust, consistency and verisimilitude are hard to gain and easy to lose.  You build them up slowly, by having things work the same way every time, without any inexplicable gaps.  If you do it well, you can get to the point where the reader can anticipate what’s going to happen purely based on in-world reasoning.  This makes your world feel like a real place, with a sense of order – things happen based on underlying principles, rather than because the writer says they do.  

And since the ending is the climax of the story, it’s where consistency matters the most.  Ideally the reader should be able to look at the ending, and from there look back and see an unbroken chain of cause and effect stretching all the way to the story’s beginning.  The reader’s left with the feeling that everything happened for a reason, and if asked, they could explain what that reason was.  It’s intellectually satisfying.  

You can talk for ages about consistency (and people do) but I think at this point everyone knows what I’m talking about.  Let’s move on to theme.  

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Author Commentary on the Ending of the Alex Verus Series

(Note:  As with the main Author Commentary series, this is a master post that functions as an index.  Scroll down for the links to each individual post.)

I’m writing this in July 2022.  The first book of my new series has been finished and sent off to my publisher, and I’ll be starting Book 2 soon, but right now I’ve got a little bit of free time, so I thought I’d write a collection of posts about how I ended the Alex Verus series.  

This series will be divided into two halves.  In the second half, I’ll talk about the two alternate endings I considered for the series, and why I rejected them.  But before I can do that, I’ll have to explain what I was judging those endings on.  Which brings us to the subject of . . .

Good Endings and Bad Endings

Everyone knows that a good ending to a story is important.  But what makes an ending good?

The easy answer is to point to things that make for a good book in general – strong characters or good writing or a well-crafted plot – but those aren’t really features of an ending, they’re features of a book as a whole.  When you say that a book has a good or bad ending, you’re generally talking about how well the ending works as an ending, and that’s mostly unrelated to the book’s overall quality.  A book can be beautifully written and have compelling characters but still end in a totally unsatisfying way.  Which brings us back to the first question:  what makes an ending good?

This isn’t a subject I see people talk about very much, but it’s one I’m interested in, and it’s something I’ve worked out my own ideas about.  In my opinion, there are two things that make an ending good or bad:  consistency, and theme. 

I’ll talk about these two things in the next two posts in the series.  After that, I’ll jump into the alternate endings.  

Series Index:

  1. On The Subject Of Endings (this post)
  2. Consistency:  How Well The Pieces Fit
  3. Theme:  The Message You Send
  4. Alex Verus Alternate Ending 1:  Total Victory
  5. Why I Didn’t Choose the “Total Victory” Ending
  6. Alex Verus Alternate Ending 2:  Bad Things Happen
  7. Why I Didn’t Choose the “Bad Things Happen” Ending
  8. Conclusion
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Commentaries and Endings

We’re coming to the end of these author commentaries, but there’s one last thing about the Alex Verus series that I want to talk about:  the ending.  And by ending, I mean the very end:  the ‘Epilogue’ chapter at the end of Risen.  

Assuming you’ve read Risen (if you haven’t, you should DEFINITELY stop reading this post, and this series, right now), you’ll know how the Verus series ends.  But there were a lot of other ways it could have gone.  In particular, there were two alternate endings to the Alex Verus series that I considered:  

  • Alternate Ending 1:  Events unfold as they did at the end of Risen, but instead of retiring, Alex uses his new powers to reshape the Council, and the country as a whole.  
  • Alternate Ending 2:  Alex dies at the end of Risen.  This single change causes a domino effect that triggers a long chain of increasingly bad consequences. 

Originally I was planning to make maybe two blog posts out of this, but once I started writing, I quickly realised that it was going to be much longer.  Both of these two endings would be multiple chapters (if not a whole book) if I actually wrote them for real.  I’m obviously not going to do that (I’ve got a new series to write!) but even if I only sketched out the endings in summary form, that still didn’t cover the question of why I didn’t choose them, and why I thought the current ending was better.  And before I could do that, I’d have to explain what I meant by ‘better’ in the first place, which means discussing what I think makes an ending good or bad.

So at the moment, my plan for this mini-series is as follows:  

  1. On The Subject Of Endings (Index Post)
  2. Consistency
  3. Theme
  4. Alternate Ending 1:  Total Victory
  5. Why I Didn’t Choose the “Total Victory” Ending
  6. Alternate Ending 2:  Bad Things Happen
  7. Why I Didn’t Choose the “Bad Things Happen” Ending
  8. Conclusion

. . . which adds up to two months or so of posts, not counting any weeks I take off to do news updates about the new series or Ask Lunas or something.  So this is going to take a while, but I think by the time it’s done, a lot of your questions about the ending of the Alex Verus series will be answered.  

We’ll start next week!

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Alex Verus #12.5 – Risen (Part 2)

(This is part 12.5 of a 12-part series of author commentaries on the Alex Verus books.  The master post with links to all the parts is here.)

In the final chapter of Risen, Alex finally takes on his old master and teacher, Richard.  Readers had been waiting for this for a long time, and by this point I’d had hundreds of emails and questions about Richard, all wondering about how his and Alex’s story would end. 

. . . Just kidding!  I did get hundreds of emails and questions about Richard, but they weren’t about how his story would end, and not a single one of them expressed the slightest interest in how a confrontation between him and Alex would go.  What everyone seemed to want instead was Richard’s entire life story.  To begin with the most common question was “what’s Richard’s magic type?” (which I got so many times that I included it in the FAQ) but as the series progressed, the questions began to revolve more and more around Richard’s past, and what he’d been up to in those missing ten years.  Note that none of the other villains, such as Levistus, Morden, or Vihaela, got this kind of interest – it was only Richard.  

All of which presented me with a bit of a problem.  

It wasn’t that I didn’t have an answer.  I generally have at least a vague idea of the backstories and personal histories of all the major characters in my books, and Richard was no exception – I knew roughly what he’d been doing in those missing ten years, and why.  The problem was that I’d really never designed the story to include it.  The Alex Verus series is told in first-person, with only one chapter in the entire series that isn’t told exclusively from Alex’s point of view.  Occasionally I’d work in ways for Alex to catch glimpses of the pasts of other characters (such as the flashbacks in Elsewhere that Alex witnesses in Chosen) but this required a fair bit of work, and couldn’t be done too often since it led to Alex to sitting around passively watching stuff, which would have slowed the story down if I’d done too much of it.  For various reasons this wouldn’t have worked very well with Richard.  

The other option for revealing Richard’s backstory would have been for Richard to just tell it to Alex, and I toyed with the idea of doing this at some point during the final half of the book.  It didn’t really feel right, though.  Richard’s particular character and set of attitudes just did not fit at all with him explaining his backstory to Alex as though he was dictating an autobiography.  I think a lot of people were expecting for Alex’s old master to give some sort of justification for his actions or an explanation about the whole thing had all been something he’d been driven into because of some tragic past event or whatever, but when I sketched that out in my head, I didn’t really like the result.  I felt that including that kind of thing would lessen Richard as a threat and cheapen the final confrontation.  

At this point I’ll have to get into some details about Richard’s character.  This isn’t included anywhere in the series, though some readers have already guessed the core of it.  There’s a chance I might do a Richard story at some point in the future, though, in which case this does risk being a bit of a spoiler.  So, consider yourself warned.  

Still here?  Okay.  

Richard represented the dead-end of the pure, extreme Dark path, in the same way that Levistus represented the dead-end of the least attractive aspects of Light mages.  Although they began their journeys in different places, they ended up similarly obsessed with power.  While Levistus concentrated on political and institutional power, Richard was more focused on the kind of power that he could maintain direct control over with as few links in the chain as possible.  

One of the themes of the Alex Verus series is the conflict between expediency and morals, and Richard is what you get when you go all the way towards the “expediency” end.  When Richard started on the Dark path, he had principles and values.  From time to time, these would come into conflict with the most efficient way to achieve his goals, and each time that this happened, he chose to prioritise efficiency and sacrifice everything else.  Over time, these sacrifices became greater and greater, until eventually his goals started becoming eroded too.  And by the time he meets Alex at the end of Risen, he’s become trapped on the path he’s on, no more able to leave it than a train can go off its rails.  Every aspect of him has become optimised towards acquiring as much power over as many things and as many people as he can, and he can’t even hold a conversation without trying to use it to gain some sort of advantage.  This is why it doesn’t make sense for him to tell Alex his backstory – doing so would give away information that could potentially make him vulnerable, and wouldn’t bring him any material gain, so why do it?  

Unfortunately, the result of all this is that, by the time of his final confrontation with Alex, Richard isn’t really all that interesting a person.  He’s a sphinx without a secret, doomed to endlessly chase an unattainable goal.  Which was a bit of a problem, because a substantial fraction of my readers had built him up in their heads into some sort of deep, complex character with a compelling master plan.  I’d come up with this rather simple and straightforward villain, and somehow or other ended up with an audience eagerly expecting a big reveal that didn’t actually exist.  

I did briefly consider trying to deepen and expand Richard’s motivations and goals a bit, but the problem was that it didn’t really fit with the rest of the story.  All of his actions so far had been perfectly consistent with him being a pure Dark mage, and I would have had to rework things to make him into something else.  So in the end I decided to just leave things as they were.  Alex finally gets to pull back the curtain on Richard, and finds nothing special.  Sometimes people who were hugely influential on you turn out to be nowhere near as impressive as you once thought, and sometimes people have no particularly noble or complex goals.  As with Rachel’s story, it’s not the most satisfying of morals, but it’s hard to argue that it’s unrealistic.

We’re getting close to the end here, so the second-to-last thing that I’m going to bring up is the subject of character deaths.  Some characters – specifically, certain antagonists – were always going to bite it in Risen, but when it came to other characters and in particular the supporting cast, I didn’t make up my mind as to whether they’d live or die until quite late.  

(Final warning for spoilers.  If you haven’t read Risen, stop reading now.)

The Alex Verus series ends in a small-scale war, and the nature of wars is that they cause both good people and bad people to die.  Alex’s maybe-death was set in stone, but I did feel that it would be a bit unrealistic to have everyone else survive.  So I took a hard look at the cast to see who was the most disposable.  

Anne and Luna I ruled out straightaway.  (If you’re wondering why, take a second to imagine how it would make the epilogue feel.)  I slightly preferred the idea of Variam dying (Anne causing his death would at least have had some foreshadowing), but I hated where it’d leave the series emotionally.  My readers would have lynched me if I’d killed Hermes.  Arachne was gone.  Which, working my way down the list, brought me to . . . Sonder.  

I didn’t really have a narrative arc for Sonder anymore.  He’d been the Light mage in Alex’s group, and Alex’s increasingly awful relationship with the Council had pretty much torpedoed any chance of the two of them making up.  I didn’t have anything planned for Sonder in Risen, apart from some vague ideas of him and Alex meeting up, realising that they’d never bridge the gap between them, and going their separate ways. 

In short, Sonder had enough history with Alex to matter, while still being narratively disposable.  So I started mentally sketching out ideas, and the scene I came up with for his and Alex’s final interaction – with Sonder refusing to put himself at risk to protect the security forces guarding the accumulator, and instead choosing to stay where he was specifically because it was as far away from the front lines as possible – had an irony to it that appealed to me.  So I killed him off.  Sonder by this point hadn’t been a popular character for a while, so I wasn’t expecting his death to make my readers particularly upset, but it was something that would realistically have an impact on Alex, as well as giving Anne’s actions some personal consequences for the group as a whole.  

And that’s pretty much it.  All that leaves is the ending!

As I think most people guessed, the lead-up to Risen’s epilogue is basically me having fun with the reader – I was going to tell them the end of the story, I was just teasing them a little first.  I’d had that ending planned for a very long time, and now that I was finally there, I thought I’d relax and play around a bit.  

The question of why I ended the series in the way I did, though, is actually something I have a bit more to say about.  So now that we’ve finished going through all 12 Alex Verus books, I’m going to write a little bit about endings in general, and the possible endings for the Alex Verus series that I chose not to use.  More next week.

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Alex Verus #12 – Risen (Part 1)

(This is part 12 of a 12-part series of author commentaries on the Alex Verus books.  The master post with links to all the parts is here.)

Ending a series, especially a long-running series, comes with a certain amount of pressure.  First impressions count for a lot, but when it comes to a long story, last impressions count more.  The ending is the end, which means that when the reader closes the book for the last time and walks away, it’s the part that’s going to be freshest in their mind, which makes it stand out in their memory.  

Endings also affect the rest of a story in a way that beginnings and middles don’t.  If the first 10% of a story is totally disconnected from the rest of it, readers are often willing to give it a pass – no-one’s going to judge the whole story on that first 10%.  (They might give up and never read the rest of the story, but that’s a different issue.)  Likewise, you can get away with having big chunks of filler somewhere in a book’s middle – some authors do this quite regularly.  But if it’s the last 10% that’s disconnected, then you’ve got a problem.  People think of story endings as like the conclusion to an essay – they’re supposed to follow on from the middle, and if the ending’s bad, people are more likely to decide that the middle is bad, too.

All of this means that an ending has a disproportionate impact on reader feelings.  The more that readers like a story’s ending, the more forgiving they usually are to its flaws.  (“Sure, it starts slow, and the middle drags a bit, but it’s totally worth it once you get to the end!”)  On the other hand, a bad ending can easily sour a reader completely – it’s not unusual for fans of a book or TV series to do a 180 and become anti-fans if it ends badly enough.  Game of Thrones is probably the most famous example – the final season managed to not only destroy all of the fanbase’s goodwill towards the current season, it retroactively tainted their memories of all the previous ones, as well.

This meant that Risen was a really important book.  Not only was it going to have a huge impact on how readers felt towards the series as a whole, it would have a knock-on effect on my future books, too.  If I messed this up badly enough, it could tank my whole career.  So when I finally sat down in the spring of 2020 to start work on the book, you might have reasonably guessed that I was feeling somewhat stressed.  

Oddly enough, you’d be wrong.  I found writing Risen to be quite easy, for three reasons. 

First and most important was that writing Risen involved very few decisions.  I made about half of the big decisions about where the series was going to go back in book #5, had made the other half by around books #8 to #9, and nailed down the shape of the final arc in book #10.  By the time I got to book #12, all the lines had been drawn and it was just a matter of colouring them in.  There were details to fill in and battles to choreograph and conversations to write, but all the big decisions were done, and making big decisions is far and away the hardest part.  Writing Risen was less work than an average Alex Verus book, and much less work than one of the real ‘decision point’ books like Hidden.  

Second, I was pretty sure the book was going to be good.  I get these feelings sometimes with my books – not every time, not even most of the time, but every time that I have them, my readers seem to feel the same way.  I had that feeling with Chosen (book #4), with Burned (book #7), and with Fallen (book #10), and I had it again with Risen.  There were lots of big events that I’d set up and which were now ready to be triggered, and I was pretty sure my readers would enjoy seeing the payoffs.  

And thirdly and finally, I was just an old hand at this by now.  By 2020, I really did feel that I knew exactly how to write an Alex Verus novel, and that gave me a confidence that I hadn’t had back when I was starting out.  

Happily enough, my readers agreed.  It’s now been over six months since the release of Risen, and looking at Goodreads (which is my usual go-to for reader reactions to my books, due to the sheer volume of ratings that books get there), Risen’s my highest-rated book by a long way.  At the time of writing, it’s got a Goodreads rating of over 4.5, higher than anything else I’ve ever written (the runner-up is Fallen, on around 4.4).  As a result, the Alex Verus series has joined the list of fantasy series that are (a) successful, (b) finished, and (c) finished in a way that its readers are generally happy with, which is a nice accomplishment to have.  No matter how things go with my future books, I think at this point it’s a safe bet that for the rest of my life, I’ll be able to look back on the Alex Verus series and be pleased with my work.  

Well, so much for the series.  On to the actual events of the book!

Risen starts off with an action sequence in Sagash’s shadow realm.  Although both the events and the location are important, the chapter’s main purpose is to showcase just how much Alex has changed.  Back in Fated, Alex was a shopkeeper who whiled away his time selling novelties to tourists.  He was snarky, somewhat lonely, moderately powerful, and generally content with his quiet life and his small handful of friends.  Hardly anyone paid attention to him, and on the whole, he liked it that way.  Fast-forward to Risen and Alex is one of the most notorious and feared mages in Britain:  a cold, ruthless, and driven battle-mage who cuts through a small army of jinn without slowing down.  Alex’s interactions with Ji-yeong also demonstrate how far he’s come from his old passive, conflict-averse self.  While Alex is calm and fair towards Ji-yeong, if she’d attacked him there on that rooftop, he would have killed her instantly.  Ji-yeong senses this, and acts accordingly.  As a Dark apprentice, she’s quick to pick up on power disparities:  she realises that she’s a predator facing an apex predator, and is careful not to provoke him.

While the first chapter of Risen shows the growth in Alex’s personal power, the second chapter shows the growth in his political power.  In Fated, hardly anyone even knew Alex’s name;  now, when a Light Council delegation meet with Richard’s cabal, Alex has a seat at the table.  He might be the least powerful of the factions at the meeting, but when he talks, people listen.  

But all this powering-up has consequences.  Back in Fated or Cursed, a single man with a gun was a threat to Alex, and a mage or a group of adepts was a lethal danger that usually sent him running.  By Risen, this is no longer true.  Between his divination mastery, the fateweaver, and his arsenal of imbued items, Alex has become so enormously powerful that he can go through situations that would kill other mages without even breaking a sweat.  While this can be satisfying for a reader, it also means that the street-level adventures that Alex used to spend his time on in the earlier books just don’t really work anymore.  It’s not until halfway through the book that Alex comes up against any enemies that seriously threaten him, and when he does, it’s only because they’re ridiculously powerful (jinn-possessed mages with the combat power of a small army).  This works for Risen because all the storylines are converging and, as it turns out, ridiculously powerful enemies are exactly what he’s going to have to go up against.  But it’s also a sign that, one way or another, the story’s drawing to an end.  Alex’s enemies in Risen are the kind of things that can threaten entire nations, and it just doesn’t make sense to have him going up against those all the time.  

The two major threats to Alex in Risen are Richard, and the jinn-possessed Anne, and most of the book is spent on either building up to his confrontations with them, or dealing with them and their forces.  Since both of them have a lot of forces, this makes the latter half of the book very action-heavy, but I tried to include enough breaks to give Alex and the readers some time to react to what was happening and reflect a bit on the changes.  These parts ended up being some of my favourite bits, especially Alex’s conversations with Luna.  

Of the two threats, Anne and the jinn end up being the more straightforward.  The jinn sultan is a creature out of its time – for all its power, it’s not a match for the combined strength of humanity, and the only reason it causes as much trouble as it does is because the Council and Drakh’s cabal are spending most of their energies on trying to backstab one another.  As soon as the Council forces are free to focus on the jinn, they overrun them quickly.  There’s a reason that mages, rather than jinn or magical creatures, rule the world in the Alex Verus setting.

Of course, for Alex, it’s more difficult than just ‘defeat the jinn’ – he wants to do so while also protecting Anne, which in turn requires dealing with her mental problems.  Alex eventually solves this in a way which again highlights how much he’s changed.  The old Alex would have tried to talk Dark Anne and Light Anne around and come to some kind of diplomatic solution, as he did in book #9, Marked.  Unfortunately, the solution at the end of Marked didn’t work – if anything, it made things worse.  The new Alex no longer cares about playing nice, and uses his new powers to solve the problem with brute force.  Although the book doesn’t make it clear, this ‘solution’ was essentially a desperation move that carried a high risk of leaving Anne mentally crippled or catatonic, and Alex only does it because by this point he’s completely out of other ideas.  Luckily for him, Anne has two things going for her:  her own mental resilience, and some outside help in the form of Arachne’s last gift.  

The final threat is Richard, but this commentary is already long enough for one post, so I think we’ll split it into two.  The second part will come next week!

Posted in Author Commentary | 6 Comments

Looking Back

Well, the new book is done, hopefully for good this time.  Now that I’ve had a few days to recover, here’s a look at where we are, and where things are likely to go!

This rewrite has taken me about four months – I scribbled down the first notes of what would eventually become the plan back in early February, which I wrote about here.  The rest of February and all of March was spent on planning, I started the new version in April, and now here we are.

Although I find rewrites to be hard work, the good news is that I’ve also found them to have a big impact.  Every time that I’ve rewritten one of my novels, the jump in quality has been noticeable – everyone who reads both versions invariably tells me that they like the new version more.  I think a lot of it has to do with coherence.  When I write something new, it’s still very fluid and unformed, and there’ll be all sorts of completely new stuff thrown in, ideas sprouting off in unpredictable directions.  This is fun to write, and hopefully fun to read, but does mean that the end result can feel a bit incoherent, like it’s trying to go in lots of directions at once.  When I go back for a rewrite, one of the things I do is rework those ideas, adjusting them to be consistent with each other and to call back or ahead to the other story elements that didn’t exist when I first put them in.  The result tends to be a much tighter story.

The trade-off of all this is of course how long it takes, but one nice surprise that has come out of this particular rewrite is how supportive all of my readers have been.  Having to tell your readership that you’ve decided that your new book isn’t good enough and that you’re going to be putting publication on hold while you spend the next 3 to 6 months rewriting it instead . . . well, it’s not exactly the kind of news you want to be giving.  But pretty much everyone who’s responded, whether online or in person, has told me some version of “that’s fine, focus on making it good, we’ll wait”.  So, thanks for the patience!

I’d like to be able to tell everyone that the book’s now in the queue and give you all an idea of how long you’ll have to wait for it to come out, but unfortunately, as I wrote about back here, we’ve now got to the stage in the process where I no longer have full control over the timing of things.  The book’s publication date is now up to my publishers, which will depend on two things:  the slot that the book gets assigned to, and how much they want changed.  I’m hoping that my publishers won’t ask for any extensive rewrites (given how long this last one took, it’d be pretty soul-crushing to have to do another), but even if my suspicions are correct and they like it, the final publication date is still up to them.  If I had to take a guess, I’d bet on this book coming out in the summer or autumn of 2023, but I don’t know exactly when.

At some point I’m also going to start putting up some online material for the new series, the equivalent of Alex Verus’s Encyclopaedia Arcana.  I haven’t decided whether to do this before or after the first book’s publication – I have a lot of material for the new setting, but one of the features of the first book is that the reader learns a lot of things as the protagonist does, and I don’t want to spoil the story.  I’ll have a think and decide closer to the time.

And that’s about it!  Again, thanks for everyone’s patience.  It’s been a long road getting here, but at this point I’m pretty sure that all of the hardest work is finished.  As usual, I’ll let you know as soon as I know more.

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Finished

New book is done.  (Again.)  I sent the manuscript off to my publishers two days ago, exactly on time.

I’ve been working on this pretty much flat-out for the past month and now that it’s finally finished, I’m exhausted.  I’m going to collapse for a bit.  More details next week!

Posted in News | 7 Comments