(This is part 12.5 of a 12-part series of author commentaries on the Alex Verus books. The master post with links to all the parts is here.)
In the final chapter of Risen, Alex finally takes on his old master and teacher, Richard. Readers had been waiting for this for a long time, and by this point I’d had hundreds of emails and questions about Richard, all wondering about how his and Alex’s story would end.
. . . Just kidding! I did get hundreds of emails and questions about Richard, but they weren’t about how his story would end, and not a single one of them expressed the slightest interest in how a confrontation between him and Alex would go. What everyone seemed to want instead was Richard’s entire life story. To begin with the most common question was “what’s Richard’s magic type?” (which I got so many times that I included it in the FAQ) but as the series progressed, the questions began to revolve more and more around Richard’s past, and what he’d been up to in those missing ten years. Note that none of the other villains, such as Levistus, Morden, or Vihaela, got this kind of interest – it was only Richard.
All of which presented me with a bit of a problem.
It wasn’t that I didn’t have an answer. I generally have at least a vague idea of the backstories and personal histories of all the major characters in my books, and Richard was no exception – I knew roughly what he’d been doing in those missing ten years, and why. The problem was that I’d really never designed the story to include it. The Alex Verus series is told in first-person, with only one chapter in the entire series that isn’t told exclusively from Alex’s point of view. Occasionally I’d work in ways for Alex to catch glimpses of the pasts of other characters (such as the flashbacks in Elsewhere that Alex witnesses in Chosen) but this required a fair bit of work, and couldn’t be done too often since it led to Alex to sitting around passively watching stuff, which would have slowed the story down if I’d done too much of it. For various reasons this wouldn’t have worked very well with Richard.
The other option for revealing Richard’s backstory would have been for Richard to just tell it to Alex, and I toyed with the idea of doing this at some point during the final half of the book. It didn’t really feel right, though. Richard’s particular character and set of attitudes just did not fit at all with him explaining his backstory to Alex as though he was dictating an autobiography. I think a lot of people were expecting for Alex’s old master to give some sort of justification for his actions or an explanation about the whole thing had all been something he’d been driven into because of some tragic past event or whatever, but when I sketched that out in my head, I didn’t really like the result. I felt that including that kind of thing would lessen Richard as a threat and cheapen the final confrontation.
At this point I’ll have to get into some details about Richard’s character. This isn’t included anywhere in the series, though some readers have already guessed the core of it. There’s a chance I might do a Richard story at some point in the future, though, in which case this does risk being a bit of a spoiler. So, consider yourself warned.
Still here? Okay.
Richard represented the dead-end of the pure, extreme Dark path, in the same way that Levistus represented the dead-end of the least attractive aspects of Light mages. Although they began their journeys in different places, they ended up similarly obsessed with power. While Levistus concentrated on political and institutional power, Richard was more focused on the kind of power that he could maintain direct control over with as few links in the chain as possible.
One of the themes of the Alex Verus series is the conflict between expediency and morals, and Richard is what you get when you go all the way towards the “expediency” end. When Richard started on the Dark path, he had principles and values. From time to time, these would come into conflict with the most efficient way to achieve his goals, and each time that this happened, he chose to prioritise efficiency and sacrifice everything else. Over time, these sacrifices became greater and greater, until eventually his goals started becoming eroded too. And by the time he meets Alex at the end of Risen, he’s become trapped on the path he’s on, no more able to leave it than a train can go off its rails. Every aspect of him has become optimised towards acquiring as much power over as many things and as many people as he can, and he can’t even hold a conversation without trying to use it to gain some sort of advantage. This is why it doesn’t make sense for him to tell Alex his backstory – doing so would give away information that could potentially make him vulnerable, and wouldn’t bring him any material gain, so why do it?
Unfortunately, the result of all this is that, by the time of his final confrontation with Alex, Richard isn’t really all that interesting a person. He’s a sphinx without a secret, doomed to endlessly chase an unattainable goal. Which was a bit of a problem, because a substantial fraction of my readers had built him up in their heads into some sort of deep, complex character with a compelling master plan. I’d come up with this rather simple and straightforward villain, and somehow or other ended up with an audience eagerly expecting a big reveal that didn’t actually exist.
I did briefly consider trying to deepen and expand Richard’s motivations and goals a bit, but the problem was that it didn’t really fit with the rest of the story. All of his actions so far had been perfectly consistent with him being a pure Dark mage, and I would have had to rework things to make him into something else. So in the end I decided to just leave things as they were. Alex finally gets to pull back the curtain on Richard, and finds nothing special. Sometimes people who were hugely influential on you turn out to be nowhere near as impressive as you once thought, and sometimes people have no particularly noble or complex goals. As with Rachel’s story, it’s not the most satisfying of morals, but it’s hard to argue that it’s unrealistic.
We’re getting close to the end here, so the second-to-last thing that I’m going to bring up is the subject of character deaths. Some characters – specifically, certain antagonists – were always going to bite it in Risen, but when it came to other characters and in particular the supporting cast, I didn’t make up my mind as to whether they’d live or die until quite late.
(Final warning for spoilers. If you haven’t read Risen, stop reading now.)
The Alex Verus series ends in a small-scale war, and the nature of wars is that they cause both good people and bad people to die. Alex’s maybe-death was set in stone, but I did feel that it would be a bit unrealistic to have everyone else survive. So I took a hard look at the cast to see who was the most disposable.
Anne and Luna I ruled out straightaway. (If you’re wondering why, take a second to imagine how it would make the epilogue feel.) I slightly preferred the idea of Variam dying (Anne causing his death would at least have had some foreshadowing), but I hated where it’d leave the series emotionally. My readers would have lynched me if I’d killed Hermes. Arachne was gone. Which, working my way down the list, brought me to . . . Sonder.
I didn’t really have a narrative arc for Sonder anymore. He’d been the Light mage in Alex’s group, and Alex’s increasingly awful relationship with the Council had pretty much torpedoed any chance of the two of them making up. I didn’t have anything planned for Sonder in Risen, apart from some vague ideas of him and Alex meeting up, realising that they’d never bridge the gap between them, and going their separate ways.
In short, Sonder had enough history with Alex to matter, while still being narratively disposable. So I started mentally sketching out ideas, and the scene I came up with for his and Alex’s final interaction – with Sonder refusing to put himself at risk to protect the security forces guarding the accumulator, and instead choosing to stay where he was specifically because it was as far away from the front lines as possible – had an irony to it that appealed to me. So I killed him off. Sonder by this point hadn’t been a popular character for a while, so I wasn’t expecting his death to make my readers particularly upset, but it was something that would realistically have an impact on Alex, as well as giving Anne’s actions some personal consequences for the group as a whole.
And that’s pretty much it. All that leaves is the ending!
As I think most people guessed, the lead-up to Risen’s epilogue is basically me having fun with the reader – I was going to tell them the end of the story, I was just teasing them a little first. I’d had that ending planned for a very long time, and now that I was finally there, I thought I’d relax and play around a bit.
The question of why I ended the series in the way I did, though, is actually something I have a bit more to say about. So now that we’ve finished going through all 12 Alex Verus books, I’m going to write a little bit about endings in general, and the possible endings for the Alex Verus series that I chose not to use. More next week.