(This is part 5 of an 8-part series on the ending of the Alex Verus novels. The master post with links to all the other parts is here.)
Because it was terrible.
That’s the short answer. Keep reading if you want the long answer, but let’s be clear: I never seriously considered ending the series this way.
The only selling point of this ending is catharsis. Readers had been watching Alex get trodden on for a long time, and by this point, a lot of them really wanted to see him win. This ending would have made those readers happy . . . in the short term. But it’s still terrible, and here’s why.
The first problem with this ending is that it doesn’t fit.
The world of the Alex Verus series is one of limits. Alex can see into the future, but he can’t throw fire. He can use magic items, but their effects are relatively weak. And while as a recognised mage Alex has a certain amount of power and autonomy, it’s very clear right from the start that he can’t just do whatever he wants. The Light Council will bring down the hammer if he gets caught breaking their laws, and if he says the wrong thing to a Dark mage, he risks being killed on the spot. Even when Alex rises in power, as he does over the course of the series, this draws the attention of stronger enemies and rivals, which brings new problems in turn. The limitations and restrictions that Alex is under change, but they never go away.
The world of the Alex Verus series is also one where consequences matter. Alex’s history as a Dark apprentice causes the Council to mistrust him. His actions as Richard’s apprentice cause the Nightstalkers to come after him in book #4. The way he deals with the Nightstalkers causes a rift between him and Anne in book #5. His covering up for Anne is what gets him outlawed in book #10. The books feature good consequences as well as bad ones, but generally speaking, whenever Alex breaks the rules in some major way, it eventually comes back to bite him.
So why does all this suddenly change? Why can Alex suddenly forget about limits and consequences, and do whatever he wants?
In a consistent world, if Alex tried to take over the country in this way, people would come out of the woodwork to oppose him, since they’d (correctly) see him as a Dark mage who was trying to become a dictator. The most likely consequence of this would be that the country would be plunged right back into war . . . a war that Alex would lose, since while Alex at the end of Risen is enormously powerful, he’s still not powerful enough to take on the entire country at once. To take over the Council he’d have to persuade a plurality of people that it was in their best interests to accept him as their ruler. This would take a vast amount of time and political manoeuvring, at which point we’re basically not writing an ending at all so much as transitioning into a new and much more politics-focused storyline.
But big as all these problems are, they’re nowhere near as bad as the mess this ending would make of the theme.
In this alternate ending, the entire series becomes the story of Alex’s rise to supreme ruler. Alex gets everything that he personally wants and makes the country into a better place, and he does so via raw power, forcibly removing anyone who tries to stop him.
So what does this mean for the theme? What message is the series now sending?
Well, basically the message is that the Dark mages were right all along. Power really is the only thing that matters, and the best solution to problems really is to just crush whoever’s in your way. Looked at from this point of view, Alex’s big mistake wasn’t joining Richard, it was leaving him. He should have listened to Richard from the start.
This ending also casts Alex’s effort to avoid the Dark path in a very different light. Alex spends a lot of the series trying not to take the ruthless, cold-hearted approach to solving problems. It doesn’t always work, and in the last three books he comes close to giving up, but much of the series is the story of Alex trying to hold onto his principles even when it would be really, really convenient not to. This ending undermines those efforts: by having the Dark path be the optimal one, it devalues all of Alex’s past choices and struggles. It turns out that all of his efforts to do the right thing were pretty much a waste of time and we could have just as easily skipped about six books with no particular impact on the story.
And while this is a “victory” ending, it’s not at all clear that it’s a good ending. Alex might be the viewpoint character of the series, but by the end of book 12 he’s pretty damn violent and ruthless. Would having him as dictator actually be a good thing? Would Alex be able to resist the temptation to abuse his new power, just as the Council did before him? And even if he was able to avoid being corrupted, what sort of legacy would he leave behind? The next generation of mages and adepts would grow up with Alex’s success as a model to follow. What would happen when they started disagreeing about what to do?
Ultimately, with this ending, the Alex Verus series becomes little more than a power fantasy. “If only I had some unfair advantage that made me invincible, everything would turn out great.” Readers would probably still enjoy it, but when they looked back on the series as a whole with their new knowledge of where it was going, they’d be much more inclined to judge it negatively. They’d be right.