(This is part 4 of a 12-part series of author commentaries on the Alex Verus books. The master post with links to all the parts is here.)
With Chosen, I decided right from the beginning that I was going to move away from the episodic model. This was going to be a ‘series’ book rather than a stand-alone – it would be less self-contained than the previous three, which meant that I could build on the events of Fated, Cursed, and Taken to tell a larger story.
I also decided somewhere in early 2012 that Chosen was going to introduce the major antagonist for the Alex Verus series. I didn’t have to think very hard about who that antagonist would be. There had been a natural arch-enemy for Alex ever since Fated, and it was just a matter of deciding when to bring him in.
In setting Richard as the major antagonist for the Alex Verus series, I permanently diverged the series from the Dresden Files. Fated got (and still gets) loads of comparisons to Dresden due to the similarities between Alex and Harry’s backgrounds – both were apprenticed to dark mages as teenagers but rebelled against them. However, Harry Dresden’s backstory has him kill his old teacher and move on. There are consequences (such as the Doom of Damocles), but for the most part, a line gets drawn under the whole thing – the series is generally less focused on Harry’s past and more focused on external threats. Most of the Dresden books revolve around some kind of supernatural evil threatening innocent people, and Harry has to be the hero and save the day.
Alex’s story would be quite different. Since Richard is not only alive, but vastly more powerful than Alex, he casts much more of a shadow. Alex starts off the series completely outmatched by his old master, and it takes him a long time to work his way up to the point where he can meaningfully oppose him. Richard’s continued presence also has a less obvious, but more important effect – it forces Alex to struggle to define himself. Is he different from his old teacher? If so, how? This fit in with one of the major themes of the Alex Verus series, namely that the biggest threats don’t come from outside; they come from other humans and from ourselves.
So that gave me Chosen’s big theme. Next, I needed a more short-term problem for Alex to deal with. And as it turned out, I had an idea for that, too.
In my teens and twenties, I read a lot of books and comics and watched a lot of TV and movies. Over time, I noticed patterns – stock plots that would get used over and over again. One of these stock plots that every long-running series would use sooner or later was “protagonist did something bad in the past and now has to make amends”. The severity of the bad thing and how serious the amends were would vary, but the general pattern was the same. The story would set up a conflict where it seemed that the only two possible choices were “have the main character go unpunished for the bad thing” and “have the main character be seriously punished for the bad thing”. Then in the resolution, the story would take a third option. Maybe it would turn out that there was some misunderstanding, and the protagonist wasn’t really responsible for what happened after all. Or maybe the person looking for justice could be talked down or brought around somehow, whether by a show of repentance or by giving them some sort of affordable reparation. In either case, the problem would be ‘fixed’ and the series would move on.
But what if the problem couldn’t be fixed? What if there wasn’t a third option?
I thought that sounded interesting.
So I started planning. The natural way to fit this idea into the Alex Verus series was for Alex to have done something in his time as a Dark apprentice. Eventually the friends/family of the victim catch up with him, and want justice. And they’re right, he really did do what he was being accused of. Except their idea of justice is something he’s totally unwilling to accept – namely, executing him. What would he do?
I didn’t know. So I wrote the book to find out.
As it turned out, Alex’s answer ends up being: “yes, what I did was bad, and I’m willing to try to make amends for it, but I’m not willing to die for it. As far as I’m concerned my life’s worth more than your definition of justice, and if you come after me I’ll do whatever’s necessary to stop you.” It wasn’t a very traditionally ‘heroic’ answer, but it felt to me like a rather realistic perspective on the subject of historic wrongdoing that I didn’t see get articulated very much.
Next I needed a set of antagonists to be the vengeance-seekers, and so I designed Will and the Nightstalkers. Working out their powersets and origins felt rather like designing my own version of the Teen Titans or the X-Men. And somewhere along the way I had a rather dark thought. What if I designed this group as the magical version of a ‘teenage superhero team’, young and idealistic and confident and ethnically diverse, and gave them a backstory involving them going on adventures and fighting evil, convinced that they were the heroes of the story?
And then what if they then went after someone completely out of their league and all got horribly murdered?
For whatever reason, that struck me as hilarious. I don’t know what that says about my sense of humour.
Anyway, with that, I had all I needed. I worked on Chosen throughout the spring and summer of 2012 – I had less time pressure since I was done with my law course by then – and I finished the book at the end of September, sending it off to my publishers a few hours before the deadline.
Aside from the Nightstalkers, Chosen also changed Alex’s relationship with Rachel and Cinder. Cinder had straddled the line between ally and enemy in Fated and Cursed, but Chosen moved him firmly out of ‘enemy’ status. He wouldn’t become a formal ally until book #8, but from this point on he was never really in danger of going back into the enemy camp. Cinder had by this point become a very popular character with my readers, probably because of his honesty – his rough but honourable style came across as a lot more attractive than the behaviour of the Council. Rachel, on the other hand, was definitely an enemy, but Chosen would give Alex a reason why he couldn’t just get rid of her – he’d made a promise to Shireen.
That promise (spoiler alert) wouldn’t turn out well. I hadn’t planned that out at the time, I just thought it was an amusingly unfair problem to dump on Alex’s head. “You have to redeem an insane mass murderer who hates you. No, I don’t know how. Good luck!”
Finally, Chosen introduced a new character, Caldera. It made sense for Alex to have a point of contact in the Keepers, and I thought it’d be interesting to use her to show the Keeper point of view. I put a lot of effort into writing Caldera’s character, and I was fairly pleased with the results, but to begin with, readers seemed largely neutral about her – she received very little attention. This would change later on.
When Chosen was released at the end of the summer of 2013, it was as successful as I’d hoped and more. Its reviews were far better than those of the first three books, and the enthusiastic word-of-mouth publicity did a lot to build up my readership in those crucial early years. My sales were still microscopic compared to the big names, but I think this was the point at which readers started to see Alex Verus as something more than just a substitute for when they’d run out of Dresden Files. The enthusiasm would set high expectations for Alex Verus #5, Hidden.