(This is part 8 of a 12-part series of author commentaries on the Alex Verus books. The master post with links to all the parts is here.)
Alex Verus #4, Chosen, and Alex Verus #7, Burned, had a lot in common: both were climax/transitional books with lots of big dramatic confrontations. And in both cases, they were followed by slower books that started off a new arc of Alex’s story. Hidden had been slightly less successful than Chosen, so I was expecting something similar to happen with Bound.
To my surprise, it didn’t. Bound was significantly more popular than Burned – in fact, as I write this in mid-2021, it has the third-highest rating of anything I’ve ever written, only beaten by Alex Verus #10 and #11. I’m still not sure why. The best answer I’ve come up with is that Bound, like Veiled, was an experiment where I played around with the formula: it was just that this time, the changes worked a lot better.
The most obvious experiment I did with Bound was to change the story’s timeframe. Previous books had usually taken place over a week or two, with the bulk of the story concentrated into just a few days. Bound, on the other hand, covers a nine-month period in Alex’s life, starting in January and ending in October, which I think is a longer stretch of time than every other individual Alex Verus novel put together. I did wonder whether my readers would find this to be too slow a pace, but I needn’t have worried – they seemed to adjust to it just fine. The longer timeframe meant that I could include some subplots that could develop more gradually than would have been possible before.
Where Veiled had been a police story, Bound shifted the story into the realm of politics. There had always been a lot of political manoeuvring in the Alex Verus series, but in books #1-#7 it had taken place way over Alex’s head. Bound, on the other hand, is the point at which Alex starts to become a political player. He starts at a disadvantage, and he’s a lot weaker than the established figures, but for Alex that really isn’t anything new and he quickly finds that his Dark mage background gets more and more applicable to Council dealings the higher up he goes. It’s not emphasised in the books very much, but the sort of political dealings that Alex gets into in books #8-#10 are much closer to the activities of a ‘typical’ diviner. Alex’s focus on close-range combat is very unusual for someone of his magic type – most diviners take the attitude that if you’re in a fight, you did something wrong.
Another big change in Bound is that it’s the first time in the series that Alex has a boss. Although he was with the Keepers in book #6, Bound is the first point at which Alex is really forced to work for someone, as opposed to being independent. I hadn’t thought much about how Alex was going to handle taking orders from one of the series villains, and so I let things develop on their own to see how they’d turn out. Somewhat to my surprise, Alex and Morden got on much better than I’d expected, quickly settling into a smooth (if not exactly friendly) working relationship. The ‘relationship’ even survives the various semi-betrayals of books #8 and #9, and by the time Alex and Morden finally part ways in book #11, Alex realises that while he still doesn’t like Morden, he doesn’t really hate the guy any more. (With hindsight, the fact that Alex and Morden could work together so effectively was probably a hint that for all his professed animosity towards Dark mages, Alex had a lot more in common with them than he was willing to admit.)
However, the bigger reason that I made Alex’s dealings with Morden relatively stress-free was that I quickly realised that I really didn’t need to make things any more miserable for him than they were already. Alex’s life just absolutely sucks in Bound. He’s working for Team Evil under the threat of death for himself and everyone he cares about, most of his Light mage colleagues are estranged from him if not outright hostile, his enemies on the Council are periodically trying to snatch him away to a horrible death, and worst of all, there’s pretty much nothing he can do about it. Out of his few remaining allies, Alex can’t spend time with most of them without putting them at risk as well. About the only person he can be around without making her situation worse is Anne, and that’s only because her own position is just as awful as his is. It’s only a matter of time before one of them is in the wrong place at the wrong time, and as it turns out, the one whose luck runs out first is Anne.
What happens to Anne in book #8 is one of the darkest and most unpleasant scenes in the entire series. I didn’t enjoy writing it, but it’s there for a reason – it’s what makes Anne finally snap. Anne, by this point in the series, has gone through a lot. She’s taken a lot of beatings, but between her magic and her natural resilience, she can recover from suffering and trauma very quickly. Partly as a result of this, everyone around Anne has unconsciously started to assume that no matter how badly she gets hurt, she’ll shrug it off.
Unfortunately, they’re wrong. Everyone has a limit, and Bound is where Anne hits hers, and due to her particular psychological issues, this comes out in the behaviour of her dark side, which is where Anne redirects all the parts of her personality which she’s unable or unwilling to deal with. Up until this point, Dark Anne has been more-or-less willing to toe the line. But the torture in Bound, combined with the years and years of mistreatment by Light and Dark mages, is what makes her finally go over the edge. Alex, unfortunately for him, doesn’t see this. It’s not that he doesn’t care for Anne – he does (in fact, he’s pretty much in love with her by now). But he’s not a psychoanalyst and he’s better at understanding his enemies than his friends. He would have had a hard time in any case, since Anne’s private and self-contained personality makes her danger signs quite small and easy to miss, even for those closest to her (Luna doesn’t spot it either). Ironically, the one who does recognise the threat is Variam, but by the time he tells Alex, Alex is too busy with their numerous other problems to deal with it until it’s too late.
I didn’t want to make Bound too depressing, though, so the book does have some more hopeful parts, of which the biggest is Luna’s story. While Luna technically graduates in book #7, Burned, she hasn’t made the mental shift from apprentice to journeyman, as shown by the fact that she still kind of needs Alex to tell her what to do. Bound is the point at which that changes. Luna realises that she needs to choose a path of her own, and after thinking about it for a while, the one she decides on is her first point of connection with the magical world – Alex’s shop. Using what she’s learned, Luna rebuilds and re-opens the Arcana Emporium, becoming its new proprietor. There’s a scene towards the end of the book where Alex tells Luna not to re-open the shop, knowing that she’ll refuse. When Luna says no, Alex calls her by her mage name for the first time, and from that point on, he never gives Luna an order again. They’ll stay friends and allies, but they’re no longer master and apprentice: for the rest of the series, they’re basically equals.
With Bound, Luna’s story arc comes full circle. She’s gone from a stranger walking into Alex’s shop, to apprentice, to journeyman, and now she’s taken over Alex’s position as owner and manager of the store for a new generation. As such, Luna’s story from this point onwards is basically done. As Alex moves further into the realm of high-stakes politics, Luna stays in the Arcana Emporium as a link to the world he’s leaving behind.