(This is part 11 of a 12-part series of author commentaries on the Alex Verus books. The master post with links to all the parts is here.)
The last three Alex Verus novels – Fallen, Forged, and Risen – are my personal favourites. Unlike many of the earlier books, by the time I got to these last three, I knew exactly what I was doing. It felt to me by this point as though I’d ‘solved’ the problem of how to write an Alex Verus novel: I knew what I needed to put into the story, and I knew how to do it well. In the past, I’d often been unsure of how much readers would like a book. That wasn’t the case for Fallen/Risen/Forged – I was certain that anyone who’d read this far was going to like all three of them.
Forged is the middle book out of the final trilogy, and out of the three, it’s the most straightforward. By this point, Alex’s path is clear. He’s made his choices, he knows what he has to do, and now it’s just a matter of whether he can accomplish it. With all the big decisions out of the way, I was free to focus on playing out their consequences, and so a lot of Forged is taken up with big set-piece confrontations such as the fight around Heron Tower and the assault on Levistus’s mansion.
In books #1-#9 and for part of book #10, Alex had been a relatively passive character. That all changes in Fallen, and by the start of Forged, the old passive, hesitant Alex is gone. He has a clear set of goals, and you can think of Forged as the story of Alex working through his ‘to-do’ list. In the process, you get to see exactly what Alex is like when he’s focused on an objective and doesn’t care about being a nice guy anymore.
The biggest item on Alex’s list for Forged is the Council – specifically, Levistus. One of the more common questions that I used to get about the Alex Verus series was “why doesn’t Alex just kill off his enemies?”, the assumption being that Alex could solve his problems by lying in wait and shooting Levistus with a rifle or something. I’d usually try to explain to the questioner that things were more complicated than that, but they never seemed all that satisfied with the answer.
In Forged Alex finally makes his move against Levistus, and you get to see what ‘just killing’ a Council member actually involves. Unsurprisingly, it’s neither easy nor clean, and by the end of the battle, it should be obvious why Alex didn’t do it before. Firstly, he couldn’t. Secondly, there’s collateral damage – lots of collateral damage. The assault on Levistus’s mansion leaves many, many people dead, including quite a few who were basically innocent bystanders who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The old Alex wouldn’t have been willing to accept that. The new Alex is. Whether this is an improvement is a question left to the reader.
With Levistus’s departure, Forged is also the point at which we say goodbye to Levistus’s long-running rival, Morden. I’d come to find Morden a rather interesting character by this point – out of all Alex’s adversaries, Morden is probably the most intelligent, and as such he’s the only one to decide that his best course of action is to simply walk away. Since by this point everyone else is far too busy fighting each other to go after him, Morden is able to disappear in safety.
Morden’s method of departure was not an option for Rachel. Forged ends Rachel’s part in the Alex Verus story, in a way that I’m pretty sure that few if any readers were expecting. I know a lot of readers were shocked or unhappy with the way it turned out, so I thought I’d use this commentary to talk about it a little more.
From a writer’s point of view, there are two main ways to tell a story. The first is the ‘architect’ way, where you plan everything out. The second is the ‘gardener’ way, where you let things develop naturally, and what happens, happens. Most stories are a mix of both – there are some parts to the story that are decided right from the beginning, while there are others that develop on their own. I think a lot of people find the ‘gardener’ concept confusing, but it’s the best metaphor that I’ve found – you can choose what kind of seed to plant and you can choose where to plant it, but ultimately it’ll grow in its own way.
Rachel’s story was a ‘gardener’ one. Back when I had Shireen ask Alex to redeem Rachel in Alex Verus #1, I had no idea what was going to happen when he tried. I didn’t know what the story’s end would be, and so, as the series progressed and Rachel appeared in book after book, I watched Alex’s attempts to redeem her, to see how they would go.
The short answer was ‘badly’. Alex’s attempts at building a rapport with Rachel were all complete failures – in fact, they were counterproductive if anything. As book #4 turned into book #7 which turned into book #10, I was left with the question: how do you resolve a redemption storyline which isn’t going anywhere?
The classic way to end a redemption storyline is for it to succeed – the character resists a bit, but eventually sees the light, decides to be a better person, etc etc (often with some sort of romantic subplot as well). The more that Rachel interacted with Alex, though, the more I came to realise that this didn’t make any sense. While Rachel was a tragic figure, she was also unprincipled, self-centred, and vicious. She didn’t care about being redeemed.
The second option was for Rachel to stay evil, but for her to come to some sort of understanding with Alex, possibly becoming an ‘evil ally’ on his team. This is something a lot of TV shows do when they have a villain who’s too popular to get rid of – they come up with some more- or less-plausible explanation for why the villain and the protagonist don’t have to fight each other any more, and the villain’s crimes and their enmity with the protagonist get shelved. I didn’t really like this resolution either, because, quite honestly, I didn’t WANT to keep Rachel around as an ally. The more that I wrote her, the more I realised that I just didn’t like her very much, and I don’t think many of my readers did either. Many of the Alex Verus villains had become quite popular by this point – Richard, Morden, and even Vihaela all had their fans due to their ‘evil virtues’. Rachel didn’t have any fans. Almost no-one liked her, in-universe or out.
Morden’s method of departure wasn’t an option either. Rachel hated Alex too much and was too committed to her place as Richard’s Chosen. She wasn’t willing to walk away.
So that only really left one realistic resolution. Eventually Rachel was going to push Alex too far, or she’d finally piss off the wrong person, and they’d kill her. So that was exactly what happened.
Rachel’s story showcased both the pluses and the minuses of the ‘gardener’ approach. ‘Gardener’ stories tend to be more unpredictable, and often feel more real as a result. On the downside, they can also end in a way that’s anticlimactic or disappointing. They also often end up with morals that are somewhat harsher and less idealistic than is the norm. In the case of Rachel’s story, the moral ended up being: “some people are just a lost cause”. Not the most family-friendly of morals, but a fairly realistic one.
Moving on to a more cheerful subject, Forged also introduces November, the last significant recurring character to join the series. I liked November, and found his interactions with Alex pretty amusing, and if the series had run much longer, I think November would have become a series regular. As it turned out, there wasn’t much space for him, but he still gets a fair bit of time on-page (and it’s probably no surprise that he reappears in Risen).
The same is not true for Cinder, who in Forged walks out of the Alex Verus series for the last time. I enjoyed writing Cinder, and he had a good dynamic with Alex during the Heron Tower fight, but when I tried thinking of ways in which he could join the cast in Risen I found myself struggling. In the end I realised that it just didn’t make sense for Cinder to come back. His link to Alex was Rachel, and with Rachel gone, there’s no reason for him to stick around – not to mention the little detail that Alex was the reason Rachel was gone. It seemed to me that Cinder needed to go off and rethink his life, and so that’s exactly what he does. Cinder’s story isn’t at an end, but his part in Alex’s story is.
And finally, there’s Luna, whose part in Forged is relatively small, but important. When Anne comes to the Arcana Emporium and invites Luna to join her, the Luna from books #1-#2 would have said yes. The Luna from book #11, on the other hand, has learned a few things over the years, and she’s now wise enough to ask (a) what the jinn is getting out of this deal, and (b) what Anne’s endgame is. Anne doesn’t have answers to either question, which foreshadows that Dark Anne’s rampage isn’t going to end well for her. Dark Anne might be more decisive and better at defending herself than Light Anne, but she’s also terminally short-sighted and considers long-term consequences to be somebody else’s problem. Book #12 will show how well that attitude works out.