(This is part 2 of a 12-part series of author commentaries on the Alex Verus books. The master post with links to all the parts is here.)
I emailed off my rewritten version of Fated in March 2010. The initial response was silence. After two or three months, though, I started to get encouraging signals, and on June 2nd 2010 I checked my email to find a message from my agent saying “How many books do you envisage and can you write book 2 in 6 months?”
I didn’t know much about the writing business back then, but instinct told me that this was the sort of question that had very definite correct and incorrect answers. So I wrote back saying “lots!” and “yes!”.
And very soon I had a contract. Fated and two sequel novels would be published in 2012 at three-month intervals, with the hope of building enough of a readership that Orbit could keep on bringing out more books afterwards. All I had to do was write two more books by the end of 2011, and make them good enough to sell.
So I got to work on what would eventually become Cursed.
The result of all this was that Cursed was written under heavier time pressure than any book I’d done before, and any I’ve done since. Nowadays, when I start a new book, my approach is “take your time and do it right”. With Cursed, I dived straight in and made it up as I went along. I didn’t even start off with a real plot, and whenever I didn’t know what to do next I put in an action scene instead. Which is why poor Alex gets caught up in no less than four assassination attempts before the book’s even half done, and I just kept ramping it up from there. Killer golems, military hardware, a giant dragon, big explosions, infantry battles, magical combat, wish-granting artefacts . . . I wanted to make the book exciting and so I threw in everything and the kitchen sink.
Underneath all the action, though, were some more serious themes. The core of Cursed (as the title hints) isn’t the fighting, it’s Alex’s relationship with Luna. One of the problems I’d had in Fated – and the biggest reason I’d had so much trouble writing Luna’s character – was that I’d never really defined exactly what that relationship was. Was Luna Alex’s friend, who’d accompany him on adventures but who was otherwise independent? Was she Alex’s love interest and maybe-eventually-girlfriend? Or was she his apprentice and student? In Fated I’d left open the possibilities of all three, but by Cursed it was becoming clear that that just wasn’t working. I needed a clear answer.
In the end I got that answer by a method that was messy, but felt right. I gave the characters free rein and let them develop naturally to see how they’d handle it. Unsurprisingly, the answer was “badly”. Luna promptly got a new love interest, Alex got jealous and tried to push Luna to be more diligent about her apprentice duties, Luna rebelled and asked why she needed to be a dutiful apprentice when the monkey’s paw was so much faster . . . and so on.
The whole sequence of events made me realise what should have been obvious from the beginning. Luna COULDN’T be all three things at once. Luna couldn’t be a friend and equal partner to Alex because the power and experience differential between them was too great. And she couldn’t be both his girlfriend and his apprentice because, well, romantic relationships between teachers and students are frowned upon for very good reasons. The only two paths that made sense to me were (a) Luna striking out on her own, and (b) Luna becoming Alex’s apprentice for real and accepting his authority in a relationship that was very clearly established as a non-sexual one.
I picked (b), and it worked perfectly. The friction between Alex and Luna vanished and they settled into a comfortable relationship that would last for the rest of the series. Oddly enough, they ended up developing a much stronger friendship along the way. I think that Luna and (especially) Alex are the kinds of people who need boundaries, but aren’t very good about setting them. The nebulous nature of Alex and Luna’s relationship in Fated and early Cursed was bad for them both – the master-apprentice relationship, with its clear rules about what each can expect from the other, suits them much better.
This was also the book which established Cinder as one of the dark-horse favourites among my readers, which was quite impressive given how little page time he had. He’d continue to be one of the most popular recurring characters for the rest of the series.
The last thing about Cursed that stuck in my mind is to do with reader reactions.
I was quite active on the internet around 2012. I did various bits of book publicity and visited a lot of blogs and forums, and something that I saw come up a lot in book discussions was the topic of rape and sexual assault, and how much a lot of readers didn’t like them being included in stories. There was a lot of discussion about how overused it was for such a serious topic, and how it frequently destroyed readers’ enjoyment of a story, particularly when it wasn’t the focus of a book. Everyone seemed to agree that one of the main characters having something like this happen to her was massively important – it should be accompanied by trigger warnings and the trauma and recovery should be a major focus of the story. It didn’t matter if the scene was written as violent – tricking/compelling someone into sex was just as bad. Basically, any kind of nonconsensual sex was A Very Big Deal and should be handled extremely carefully. I took note of this, and moved on.
It was only years later that it occurred to me that I’d written exactly that as happening to Alex in Cursed.
And not a single person had mentioned it.
When I say “not a single person”, I’m not exaggerating. Quite a few readers made negative comments about Meredith being a seducer, but it was the fact that she was a female seducer that they had a problem with. The actual act of her magically mind-controlling people into sleeping with her? Didn’t register at all. I tried bringing it up a couple of times to people that I knew had strong opinions about the prevalence of rape/sexual assault in fiction, and both times the response was along the lines of “huh, yeah, never noticed that”.
Now, I knew why Alex hadn’t been particularly traumatised by the experience. Alex has gone through a ton of abuse in his backstory and as a result, even as early as book 2, he is (by normal standards) ridiculously mentally resilient. Having someone magically influence him into sex not only doesn’t make the list of the 10 worst things that have ever happened to him, it wouldn’t even break the top 100. But that didn’t explain the lack of attention it got from readers.
I’d like to say it’s strange how that whole thing went under the radar . . . but the truth is, I know EXACTLY why it went under the radar, and that knowledge bothered me for quite some time. Eventually I got over it and accepted it, but it was a definite learning experience that changed my outlook on the world.