(This is part 12 of a 12-part series of author commentaries on the Alex Verus books. The master post with links to all the parts is here.)
Ending a series, especially a long-running series, comes with a certain amount of pressure. First impressions count for a lot, but when it comes to a long story, last impressions count more. The ending is the end, which means that when the reader closes the book for the last time and walks away, it’s the part that’s going to be freshest in their mind, which makes it stand out in their memory.
Endings also affect the rest of a story in a way that beginnings and middles don’t. If the first 10% of a story is totally disconnected from the rest of it, readers are often willing to give it a pass – no-one’s going to judge the whole story on that first 10%. (They might give up and never read the rest of the story, but that’s a different issue.) Likewise, you can get away with having big chunks of filler somewhere in a book’s middle – some authors do this quite regularly. But if it’s the last 10% that’s disconnected, then you’ve got a problem. People think of story endings as like the conclusion to an essay – they’re supposed to follow on from the middle, and if the ending’s bad, people are more likely to decide that the middle is bad, too.
All of this means that an ending has a disproportionate impact on reader feelings. The more that readers like a story’s ending, the more forgiving they usually are to its flaws. (“Sure, it starts slow, and the middle drags a bit, but it’s totally worth it once you get to the end!”) On the other hand, a bad ending can easily sour a reader completely – it’s not unusual for fans of a book or TV series to do a 180 and become anti-fans if it ends badly enough. Game of Thrones is probably the most famous example – the final season managed to not only destroy all of the fanbase’s goodwill towards the current season, it retroactively tainted their memories of all the previous ones, as well.
This meant that Risen was a really important book. Not only was it going to have a huge impact on how readers felt towards the series as a whole, it would have a knock-on effect on my future books, too. If I messed this up badly enough, it could tank my whole career. So when I finally sat down in the spring of 2020 to start work on the book, you might have reasonably guessed that I was feeling somewhat stressed.
Oddly enough, you’d be wrong. I found writing Risen to be quite easy, for three reasons.
First and most important was that writing Risen involved very few decisions. I made about half of the big decisions about where the series was going to go back in book #5, had made the other half by around books #8 to #9, and nailed down the shape of the final arc in book #10. By the time I got to book #12, all the lines had been drawn and it was just a matter of colouring them in. There were details to fill in and battles to choreograph and conversations to write, but all the big decisions were done, and making big decisions is far and away the hardest part. Writing Risen was less work than an average Alex Verus book, and much less work than one of the real ‘decision point’ books like Hidden.
Second, I was pretty sure the book was going to be good. I get these feelings sometimes with my books – not every time, not even most of the time, but every time that I have them, my readers seem to feel the same way. I had that feeling with Chosen (book #4), with Burned (book #7), and with Fallen (book #10), and I had it again with Risen. There were lots of big events that I’d set up and which were now ready to be triggered, and I was pretty sure my readers would enjoy seeing the payoffs.
And thirdly and finally, I was just an old hand at this by now. By 2020, I really did feel that I knew exactly how to write an Alex Verus novel, and that gave me a confidence that I hadn’t had back when I was starting out.
Happily enough, my readers agreed. It’s now been over six months since the release of Risen, and looking at Goodreads (which is my usual go-to for reader reactions to my books, due to the sheer volume of ratings that books get there), Risen’s my highest-rated book by a long way. At the time of writing, it’s got a Goodreads rating of over 4.5, higher than anything else I’ve ever written (the runner-up is Fallen, on around 4.4). As a result, the Alex Verus series has joined the list of fantasy series that are (a) successful, (b) finished, and (c) finished in a way that its readers are generally happy with, which is a nice accomplishment to have. No matter how things go with my future books, I think at this point it’s a safe bet that for the rest of my life, I’ll be able to look back on the Alex Verus series and be pleased with my work.
Well, so much for the series. On to the actual events of the book!
Risen starts off with an action sequence in Sagash’s shadow realm. Although both the events and the location are important, the chapter’s main purpose is to showcase just how much Alex has changed. Back in Fated, Alex was a shopkeeper who whiled away his time selling novelties to tourists. He was snarky, somewhat lonely, moderately powerful, and generally content with his quiet life and his small handful of friends. Hardly anyone paid attention to him, and on the whole, he liked it that way. Fast-forward to Risen and Alex is one of the most notorious and feared mages in Britain: a cold, ruthless, and driven battle-mage who cuts through a small army of jinn without slowing down. Alex’s interactions with Ji-yeong also demonstrate how far he’s come from his old passive, conflict-averse self. While Alex is calm and fair towards Ji-yeong, if she’d attacked him there on that rooftop, he would have killed her instantly. Ji-yeong senses this, and acts accordingly. As a Dark apprentice, she’s quick to pick up on power disparities: she realises that she’s a predator facing an apex predator, and is careful not to provoke him.
While the first chapter of Risen shows the growth in Alex’s personal power, the second chapter shows the growth in his political power. In Fated, hardly anyone even knew Alex’s name; now, when a Light Council delegation meet with Richard’s cabal, Alex has a seat at the table. He might be the least powerful of the factions at the meeting, but when he talks, people listen.
But all this powering-up has consequences. Back in Fated or Cursed, a single man with a gun was a threat to Alex, and a mage or a group of adepts was a lethal danger that usually sent him running. By Risen, this is no longer true. Between his divination mastery, the fateweaver, and his arsenal of imbued items, Alex has become so enormously powerful that he can go through situations that would kill other mages without even breaking a sweat. While this can be satisfying for a reader, it also means that the street-level adventures that Alex used to spend his time on in the earlier books just don’t really work anymore. It’s not until halfway through the book that Alex comes up against any enemies that seriously threaten him, and when he does, it’s only because they’re ridiculously powerful (jinn-possessed mages with the combat power of a small army). This works for Risen because all the storylines are converging and, as it turns out, ridiculously powerful enemies are exactly what he’s going to have to go up against. But it’s also a sign that, one way or another, the story’s drawing to an end. Alex’s enemies in Risen are the kind of things that can threaten entire nations, and it just doesn’t make sense to have him going up against those all the time.
The two major threats to Alex in Risen are Richard, and the jinn-possessed Anne, and most of the book is spent on either building up to his confrontations with them, or dealing with them and their forces. Since both of them have a lot of forces, this makes the latter half of the book very action-heavy, but I tried to include enough breaks to give Alex and the readers some time to react to what was happening and reflect a bit on the changes. These parts ended up being some of my favourite bits, especially Alex’s conversations with Luna.
Of the two threats, Anne and the jinn end up being the more straightforward. The jinn sultan is a creature out of its time – for all its power, it’s not a match for the combined strength of humanity, and the only reason it causes as much trouble as it does is because the Council and Drakh’s cabal are spending most of their energies on trying to backstab one another. As soon as the Council forces are free to focus on the jinn, they overrun them quickly. There’s a reason that mages, rather than jinn or magical creatures, rule the world in the Alex Verus setting.
Of course, for Alex, it’s more difficult than just ‘defeat the jinn’ – he wants to do so while also protecting Anne, which in turn requires dealing with her mental problems. Alex eventually solves this in a way which again highlights how much he’s changed. The old Alex would have tried to talk Dark Anne and Light Anne around and come to some kind of diplomatic solution, as he did in book #9, Marked. Unfortunately, the solution at the end of Marked didn’t work – if anything, it made things worse. The new Alex no longer cares about playing nice, and uses his new powers to solve the problem with brute force. Although the book doesn’t make it clear, this ‘solution’ was essentially a desperation move that carried a high risk of leaving Anne mentally crippled or catatonic, and Alex only does it because by this point he’s completely out of other ideas. Luckily for him, Anne has two things going for her: her own mental resilience, and some outside help in the form of Arachne’s last gift.
The final threat is Richard, but this commentary is already long enough for one post, so I think we’ll split it into two. The second part will come next week!