(This is part 10 of a 12-part series of author commentaries on the Alex Verus books. The master post with links to all the parts is here.)
Fallen is the third, last and most important of the transition books in the Alex Verus series. Although it’s not the end of the series, in a way, Fallen is its climax. Fallen is where the big decisions get made, while Forged and Risen play out the consequences.
Back in Burned, Arachne tells Alex that he has three choices: align with a greater power, become a greater power, or die. Alex puts this decision off as long as he possibly can, and the events of the first 1/3rd of Fallen are all designed to make it clear to Alex that this isn’t an option any more. One by one, all of Alex’s other options are stripped away until he’s forced to make his choice.
From the beginning of the series, readers had tended to react towards Alex in one of two ways. Some had seen him as a basically decent guy who’d made some bad decisions in the past but who was generally trying to do the right thing. Others had seen him a morally grey anti-hero. (For whatever reason, female readers were more likely to see Alex the first way, while male ones were more likely to go for the second.) Both viewpoints were reasonably accurate, but the ‘trying to do the right thing’ comment was probably closest to the mark. An awful lot of Alex’s behaviour stems from the fact that he’s a Dark mage by temperament and is trying not to be. His instincts push him towards being power-focused and ruthless, but since he’s seen first-hand just how ugly that can get, he deliberately chooses to be more restrained and to give people second chances. Until he can’t.
Alex’s dark side had been on display many times in the series. When pushed to his limit – the encounter with Khazad in Fated, or with the Nightstalkers in Chosen – he’d always been ruthless. But with hindsight, probably the most revealing interaction is one that I think most readers forgot about completely: his conversation with Martin at the end of Cursed. Out in the darkness on Hampstead Heath, where there’s no-one else to hear, Alex admits to Martin that he sometimes finds it really hard to act like a good person, and that when he looks at the kinds of things that he’s pushed into doing, he wonders how big a deal it would be if he just went the rest of the way.
On that occasion, Alex (reluctantly) takes the moral high road. But back then, he has the option to – he’s more powerful than Martin, with resources and allies. In Fallen, he’s forced into a similar position, except that he’s alone, outmatched, and facing much worse consequences if things go wrong. And when Richard orders Alex to hurt and manipulate Anne, and Alex tries to take the high road again and refuses, he gets treated extremely harshly as a result. (This in effect was the universe telling Alex “you’re not in a privileged position anymore, you don’t get to keep your hands clean.”) His old ways of doing things haven’t worked, and he’s going to have to change.
This change is a long time coming, and Alex spends a long time turning it over (represented in the conversations he has with Richard, Luna, Variam, and Arachne). But he doesn’t make a final decision until about two-thirds of the way through the book, in the bubble realm, just before picking up the fateweaver. It’s probably my favourite scene in the book, and it’s the last time in the series that you see the ‘old’ Alex. It’s just him, alone, with his choice. He can devote himself to defeating Richard and saving his friends, whatever it takes. Or he can draw the line and decide that he won’t go back to his old Dark mage ways, no matter what.
He picks option number one.
At which point the whole tone of the series changes, very fast.
Probably the single most frequent question I used to get about Alex prior to the release of Fallen was “is Alex ever going some sort of power-up”. Alex isn’t a lightweight by any means, but he does spend a lot of time going up against opponents who outmatch him, and I think that by this point in the series, a lot of readers had become a bit tired of Alex getting pushed around. They really wanted to see him turn the tables on the bad guys, instead of running and hiding all the time.
I’d known for a long time that the answer to the question would be “yes” – yes, Alex would get a power-up, and yes, you’d finally get to see him cut loose on his enemies. However, what I think a lot of readers didn’t realise was that the biggest change that this would involve wasn’t to do with Alex’s magic, it was to do with his mindset. Throughout books #1-#9 and the first part of book #10, Alex is holding himself back much the time: he can see the solutions that are maximally ruthless and efficient, he just makes a conscious choice not to take them. In Fallen, he stops holding himself back, and you get to see what Alex is like when he’s not trying to be a nice guy.
It’s not a coincidence that the first person Alex faces once he comes out of the bubble realm is Onyx. Onyx has been a thorn in Alex’s side ever since book 1 – he represents the brutish, crude aspects of Dark mages, and up until now, every time they’ve met, Alex has had to trick and outmanoeuvre him. This time things go very differently, and it foreshadows the way the new Alex is going to deal with his enemies (they get one warning, and that’s it). Alex has been learning and changing throughout the series, while Onyx hasn’t, and as a result, by this point, Alex has outgrown him. Despite the numbers on Onyx’s side, the fight isn’t close.
Fallen is also the point at which I made the final decision about Rachel. I’ll go into more detail about that in the commentary for book #11, but the key conversation here is the one Alex has with Shireen in chapter 8. When Alex points out to Shireen that redemption isn’t something that can be done to you, the writing was on the wall.
On the subject of characters having their stories end, Fallen is the beginning of the last act of the series, and as part of that, a lot of recurring characters start getting written out or having their storylines wrapped up. Most of these characters (Crystal, Onyx, Sal Sarque, Meredith) are ones that I suspect that the majority of readers didn’t miss very much. But there’s one character who leaves that I’m sure readers did miss, and that’s Arachne. Arachne doesn’t die, but she does disappear, and that disappearance takes away one of the main sources of support that Alex has tended to rely on, forcing him to make his most important decisions alone.
Finally, Fallen introduces a new character – Karyos, the hamadryad that Alex and his friends faced in Bound, now reborn. Unfortunately, at this point it’s a bit too late both in the series and in Alex’s journey for Karyos’s character to be thoroughly developed or for Alex to form a strong bond with her. In the last two books, Alex will stand or fall on his own.