(This is part 7 of a 12-part series of author commentaries on the Alex Verus books. The master post with links to all the parts is here.)
Burned was the second big transitional book in the Alex Verus series, and it marks the point at which the series shifts from book-length episodes to a single long-term story arc. Books #1-#6 are mostly self-contained; books #7-#12 are all parts of one much larger story where the end of each book leads directly into the beginning of the next.
The events of Burned also marked a shift in tone. In books #1-#6, Alex is a small fish. He’s not very important in the larger scale of things . . . or at least no-one thinks he is, which in practice means more or less the same thing. This lack of importance means that he can (for the most part) walk away at the end of each adventure and be reasonably safe. But this is already changing, and by books #5-#6 there are warning signs on the horizon that trouble’s approaching. In Burned, it arrives.
That trouble ends up being pretty extreme. I think the early books in the Alex Verus series had given readers a bit of a sense of security – no matter what happens, each book ends with Alex going back to his shop and his regular life and the status quo. By the end of Burned, that status quo has been blown up. You can sum up the story of Burned as “Alex loses things he cares about,” and the most obvious things he loses are material possessions. First is his mist cloak, signifying that he’s coming to the end of the part of his life where he can solve his problems by hiding or running away. The second loss (and the harder one for Alex to bear) is his shop. For the entire series so far, Alex’s main job has been managing the Arcana Emporium. It’s probably not something that most people would see as very important, but it matters to him – for him, it’s a way to help people in a small but significant way, something that I tried to show with that last scene where Alex advises a young novice in his shop. When the Arcana Emporium burns down, Alex is cut adrift. He plays around in later books with the idea of opening it again, but by the time he’s in a position to do that, he’s reluctantly come to understand that it’s just not a viable option.
The reason that Alex can’t go back to being a shopkeeper is because of the third thing Alex loses, which is his anonymity. By the end of Burned, Alex is aide to the newest and most notorious member of the Junior Council, which puts him on everyone’s radar – he’s probably in the top 30 most famous mages in Britain. (Unfortunately for him, he’s not even remotely close to being in the top 30 most powerful or influential mages in Britain, and that mismatch will make his life extremely uncomfortable in the books to come.) Even Alex’s safe house in Wales isn’t very safe any more – enough people know about it that in a couple of books’ time Alex’s main use for it will be as a distraction for would-be assassins.
Fourth on the list of Alex’s losses is his relationship with Caldera. Their fight in the roundabout under Westferry Circus breaks their friendship in a very final way, something that I don’t think many of my readers were expecting. A lot of people were angry with Caldera after reading Burned; they’d been hoping that if something like this ever happened, she’d take Alex’s side. Others were upset, and were hoping for the two to reconcile (I particularly remember one commenter shouting “BRING HER BACK AND MAKE HER NOT STUPID PLEASE”). I was honestly a little surprised at both reactions. I thought I’d made it clear from the very beginning that Caldera was a by-the-book cop. She’s loyal to the law, to the Keepers, and to the Council, in that order – yes, she’s friends with Alex, but he comes in at a distant fourth place at best. Alex understands this very well, which is why he makes the deliberate decision to hurt Caldera to save his own life. Caldera never forgives him for this.
And finally, Alex loses his independence. One of the most important conversations in the series takes place early in Burned, where Arachne tells Alex that he has three choices: align with a greater power, become a greater power, or die. Burned ends with Alex being forced into the first option, in the form of becoming Morden’s aide, but he doesn’t do so willingly. He won’t fully commit to one of those three choices until the events of book #10.
Sometimes when I write a book I don’t know whether it’ll be a failure or a success. Other times, I’m pretty sure readers will like it. For Burned, I was pretty sure readers would like it. Burned was a ‘payoff’ book, similar to Chosen, with lots of drama that built on things that the last two books had set up, and I had the feeling that it would be received well.
It was. Burned set a new record for ratings, and generated a lot of positive reviews. I think some readers had been feeling that there hadn’t been enough movement in the story during Hidden and Veiled, and Burned helped restore their interest.
I did want to keep a few cards up my sleeve, though, and so Burned continued the deception that I’d started in Hidden about Richard’s true goals. The events of Burned implied that Richard’s objective was Alex, even though everything Richard had done to protect or recruit Alex applied just as much to Anne. Instead of trying to conceal that fact, I hid it in plain sight – I had Richard make his offer to them both in Hidden, and let readers assume that it was Alex that Richard really wanted and Anne was just incidental. I had the feeling that most readers would automatically be inclined to believe that Alex was the important one because he was the main character, and they did. In fact, the deception worked a bit too well – even after Richard explicitly told Alex in book #8 that “it’s not about you”, a lot of readers still assumed that Alex was Richard’s target and they’d missed something! Even as late as book #10 I was coming across reviews and commentary that interpreted things happening to Anne solely in terms of the effect they had on Alex, when the truth was that they were happening for the exact opposite reason.
There was one final change that happened to the series at around this time – invisible to readers, but important to me. The year I wrote Burned was the year I stopped worrying about Alex Verus’s future. While I wrote Burned in 2015 my agent negotiated a contract with my US and UK publishers for Alex Verus #8 and #9, and I think that was when it really sank in that I didn’t need to worry about getting cancelled any more. The Alex Verus books had built up enough of a readership that no matter what happened, I’d be able to see the series through to its conclusion.