Alex Verus #11 – Forged

(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. 

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14 Responses to Alex Verus #11 – Forged

  1. GregorV says:

    Thanks for the last commentary before the final book comes out!
    It gives a lot of inside view of how storyrighting works.
    Too bad that this magnificent story has such a downer ending, but, as you said, not family friendly but realistic.

  2. Is says:

    Thank you for explaining Rachel’s arc, shame Cinder won’t be in the final book but understandable.

    I look forward to Risen AC in January.

    Have a great Christmas and New year.

  3. Nicola says:

    “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.”

    Not very.

  4. Jim Sackman says:

    This was interesting commentary for me on several fronts. I have said (to much displeasure on the Reddit) that Alex was passive. I go further than you do in Forged and explain what might have happened if Alex had gone all Bond villain, like say kill everyone in London (nuclear, biological, or chemical agents). It gets Levistus, but others as well. I recognized it was a bad story premise, but I like ab absurdum arguments to clarify things.

    Secondly, I appreciate your commentary on Rachel. I saw no path forward for Alex a long time ago but it did go forth the way it did. I think it might have been interesting to have her killed in Risen as all sides just eliminate her because she is annoying at the coming confrontation with Anne.

    I did like both Cinder and Morden because they seemed true to what they were in completely different ways. They seemed to be the clearest and most direct characters that you made.

    One character that you did not talk about in this (and through the evolutions shown in Favours) was Sonder. I posted after Favours in a thread attacking him and his actions. I pointed out that people may prefer Alex, but they would more likely be Sonder in their life. I mean how many mass murdering readers do you have?

  5. Benedict says:

    Sonder’s story is more significant in book #12 – once you read that, you’ll probably see the events of Favours in a different light.

  6. Celia says:

    “Cinder’s story isn’t at an end…” Goodness, I like the sound of that. Sounds rather like a short story. 😉

    I do love me some great bad guys, like Richard and Morden, but I confess I struggle to see what appeal Vihaela might have. I even feel kind of sorry for Rachel, as she was manipulated by Richard into harvesting Shireen, which drove her crazy. However I utterly despise Vihaela – she abuses children in probably every way possible. 🙁

  7. GregorV says:

    @Jim Sackman
    It’s not easy for the author to totally conceal their attitude towards a character, especially in a short story, and my impression is that Mr. Jacka has not a thread of sympathy towards Sonder.
    He stressed that Sonder’s a Light mage through and through, and is perfectly fine with murder, as long as he’s not the one getting his hands dirty. He is like Lyle, a cowardly little beraucratic weasel with a healthy side dish of attack drone operator.
    I expect him to get the Symmaris treatment at best.

  8. Celia says:

    The ironic thing is Sonder flippped out on Alex for murdering people. But if a politically powerful light mage does it, it’s all good…?. My already low opinion of Sonder dropped even further in Favours – though it is an excellent story! Frankly it would probably make me laugh if someone took out Sonder in Risen. 😉

  9. Josh says:

    I can’t say that I ever liked Rachel much; I noticed a trend of people being pretty unfair to Alex – like, demanding he not kill people trying to kill him but acting like answering the question “ok, how do you propose I do that?” was irrelevant, like he could just wish his way to a fluffy bunny solution – and only Caldera’s Lawful Stupid uber alles shtick comes close to being as ridiculous as Rachel was.

    She pointed out that he thinks he’s better than her despite having killed more people than most Dark mages do in their entire lives…ignoring, like Sonder before her, that pretty much all of those people were trying to kill him or his friends first. He really did try to be a “good guy” as long as he could (and probably a little longer than that considering what it cost him), only turning all ruthless when the other choices are “lay down and die,” “surrender to a more powerful faction’s will” or “let the woman you love die.” Like, there’s a lot to criticize about Alex, but so far no one’s really done it fairly. Probably the closest was Morden, albeit from his fucked-up “I’m more powerful than you so it’s your fault if you I fuck you up when you don’t do what I want” attitude. That at least is a consistent ethos.

    Wow, digression much, self? This got away from me – I just meant to say that while I never liked Rachel, I felt bad for her, and I get while Alex tried a ludicrous number of times to get her to see the light. But yeah, some people really are hopeless. I wonder what in the world Cinder saw in her.

  10. Jim Sackman says:

    My commentary about Sonder may be misinterpreted. The TL:DR is that I see most people choosing the way Sonder does and to move away from Alex. It seems like a safe decision with career growth. Going with Alex puts him at direct conflict with the Light Council, so I just thought it was a normal thing for a low level bureaucrat to do as he is beginning to understand what it takes to rise in a bureaucracy.

    I want to add here that I have another series that I read in a different genre that has many overlapping characteristics with this set of novels. This might color my judgement on Sonder. In that series, it is a spy on the run from the CIA. The CIA would be the equivalent of the Light Council here. The spy has to protect himself from the CIA and fight a number of bad actors (aka Dark Mages). The action and choices available are very different, but at the highest level there is a lot of parallels.

    So in this case, I see Sonder as the equivalent of a CIA employee who runs into our prime mover and likes a lot of things that he stands for. However, fighting both the good guys and the bad guys is tough. So, here is this low level bureaucrat who has to place a bet – CIA or rogue spy. He like most of us chose CIA.

    Just as an aside, I wrote a long time ago that I suspect that Lyle is a mole of Richard’s. Wonder if that will come to be. I will know soon enough.

  11. Adam says:

    At first I was sorry to hear that we wouldn’t be seeing Cinder again but upon reflection, I’m glad. One thing I love about this series is that it never feels like fan service!

  12. Deborah says:

    Fascinating commentary. I personally am glad that both Morten and cinder have survived. Keeping my fingers crossed for Richard.
    I won’t analyze what this says about me – only that they are complex and addictive personalities

  13. Kurt Von Bosse says:

    It started to become obvious several books ago that there wasn’t a realistic redemption arc possible for Rachel. In fact, I started doubting it was possible after reading Chosen. Knowing that, what happened to her made perfect sense.

    Probably the only thing I would have liked to have seen; but didn’t because the way the story worked out, was see Rachel’s reaction when she found out that Richard is a diviner. I thought Alex was going to hit her with that piece of information and Rachel would go positively insane. (I mean, even more insane than she already was.)

    I’m not sure how that scenario would have played out, but it might have been interesting. Perhaps Rachel would have turned on Richard, but that wouldn’t have redeemed her; and I suspect Rachel would have still wanted to kill Alex.

  14. Luke the Large says:

    Vihaela has fans? Who knew? 🙂 she is a great bad character, but not in the same way as Morden or Richard, Who you can at least imagine wanting to root for. Other than wanting to see a showdown between her and Anne, I really won’t miss her when she goes. She kind of seemed to me to be the “sane” Version of Rachel, or what Rachel could have been if she hadn’t become two people (or was it three?) Fighting a constant mental battle. A more sane version of Rachel, with an overt masochistic sex drive.

    Personally I found the way Rachel left the story to be quite satisfying. It’s still a bit of a mystery what exactly was killing her— I happen to believe it was an aspect of her own personality, her self-loathing— but regardless of exactly what it was, her ending dovetailed with Alex’s New beginning, and at no point in the series did I ever expect her to get out alive. It was only a question of when and who.

    I also really enjoyed November, and I am pleased that he is going to show up in Risen, although I did wonder what was powering him (or at the very least his communications components) during that whole crazy run through the trains and off the building and in the helicopter and so on. Those computers don’t just juice themselves…

    Something else I really don’t understand, is why Alex doesn’t think more about the dragon prophecy. It is clearly coming true with regards to him being a short burning candle, so why is he not contemplating more what the dragon told him about who he would lose and who he wouldn’t?

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