(This is part 3 of a 12-part series of author commentaries on the Alex Verus books. The master post with links to all the parts is here.)
Taken was the last Alex Verus novel that was a pre-Alex-Verus novel, in that it was the last one written before Fated came out. I started it in the spring of 2011, and finished around the beginning of January 2012, a few months before Fated’s release. (I’d hoped to finish earlier, but I had my final law exams in the summer of 2011 and had to put Taken on hold for a few months.) At the time, I still had no expectations of becoming a full-time author. My writing hadn’t earned me a living wage for the past 12 years, and I didn’t really believe that was going to change. As far as I was concerned, law was my career; writing was a side job.
As I got ready to start writing Taken, though, the first signs were showing that it might become something more. Around early 2011 my agent secured a contract with Penguin USA, and it was agreed that the books would be published in the US and Canada as well, on the same schedule as the UK ones. All of a sudden I was getting twice the money (and more than twice the potential readership) for the same amount of work. It didn’t make me any more successful – I’d yet to sell a single book – but it did reduce the amount of pressure I felt.
Partly as a result of this, I wrote Taken quite differently from Cursed. Cursed had been very fast-paced and action-packed, whereas for Taken, I dialled things back a bit. With Cursed, I’d tried to write an Alex Verus story that was an action thriller. In Taken, I went for a theme that was more of a cross between “mystery” and “supernatural horror”. As it turned out, “supernatural horror” fit the Alex Verus setting quite well.
The change in theme made Taken a slower book than Cursed, but that had its upsides. Since the plot wasn’t rushing so quickly from one battle to another, there was time to have some longer conversations and let the characters develop a bit. Luna got to settle into her new role as Alex’s apprentice, and I started to show more parts of mage society. There were fewer fights, but I tried to make the fights that did happen tenser and more interesting, especially the hide-and-seek between Alex and the assassins in the flats in Archway, and the motorway chase in the Jaguar. I thought the whole book worked better as a result, and apparently my readers agree, since Taken is rated slightly but significantly higher than Cursed on every review site I’ve found.
Taken, like Cursed, was written to an episodic model. The episodic model was how I’d imagined the Alex Verus series at the beginning, and how I’d sold it to my publishers – the idea was that characters would change and develop, but each book would be a clearly separate story, and so readers could skip books or jump in later in the series without missing much. It was the same model used by the early books of the Dresden Files, along with most TV shows. Without intending it, though, I was already drifting away from the episodic model, and Taken was probably the last Alex Verus book that followed it one hundred percent. The villain in Cursed is Belthas, and the villain in Taken is Vitus Aubuchon, but by the time you get to Chosen and Hidden the villains start to be more numerous and complicated and the conflicts don’t get neatly tied up at the end of the book anymore.
Taken was also the book where I introduced Anne and Variam (technically Anne makes her first appearance at the end of Cursed, but it’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it). When planning out Taken I decided I wanted some apprentice mages for Luna to interact with, and so I went back to a pair of old children’s fantasy novels that I’d written in 2007-2008. The first book had three main human characters: an air mage called John, a fire mage called Variam, and a light/shadow mage called Caitlin. (Anne joined them in the sequel.) For reasons that made sense to me at the time, I dropped John and Caitlin, kept Anne and Variam, and modified their backstories to have them show up in the apprentice programme at about the same time as Luna. At the time I had no idea how important they’d become – they were an experiment that I was prepared to keep or abandon, depending how things went.
By the end of Taken, most of the core elements of the Alex Verus series were in place. We had the central group of five – Alex, Luna, Anne, Variam, and Sonder – plus Arachne as a mentor figure. The main concepts of the world (magic types, the Council, Dark mages, shadow realms, imbued items/focuses/one-shots, and so on) had all been developed. From this point on, the series would focus less on establishing the world, and more on telling stories with what was there already. Future books would keep adding to the setting, but those additions tended to be smaller and more incremental.
Of course, back then, I had no way of knowing that there WOULD be any future books.
The contract I signed with Orbit in 2010, and the contract I signed with Penguin in 2011, had been for three novels: Alex Verus #1, Alex Verus #2, and Alex Verus #3. There was no guarantee there’d be an Alex Verus #4. My publishers seemed to like the series, but publishers don’t decide whether to keep or abandon a series based on how much they like it. They make that decision based on a very simple calculation: does it make a profit or a loss? Publishing a book costs money: you have to pay an advance to the author, pay the salaries of all the people who work on the book throughout its production cycle, and finally pay to mass-produce the book itself. Publishers add up that number, then they look at the book’s sales to see how much money the book’s made, and they add up that number as well. Then they look to see which number’s bigger.
It’s not always that simple. Sometimes publishers will keep on a prestigious but low-selling author for publicity reasons, and often with new authors publishers will take the attitude of “we’ll spend a little bit of money now in the hope that it’ll pay off down the line”. But ultimately publishing is a business and there are very sharp limits as to how much of a loss business owners will tolerate. If that loss gets too big, you’re out.
With Taken written, edited, and sent off, I’d done all I could. The success of the Alex Verus series was now out of my hands. Its sales in 2012 would determine whether it would live or die.