Fated by Benedict Jacka

a review by Nalini Haynes

Fated centres on Alex Verus, who is a mage who runs a small magic shop in London between investigating magical objects and freelancing. Luna is a young woman with a curse that causes bad luck or even death to those who get close to her. Alex has befriended Luna, who now investigates and brings him magical items to investigate. A repository for a major magical relic currently resides in the British Museum, while factions within the mage community and on the Council of mages compete to retrieve the relic. As Alex’s magical forte is divination and all the other seers have hidden, a number of factions compete to gain Alex’s services; the consequence for Alex if they fail is his death.

Within the first few pages Jacka identifies with Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series by referring to Dresden in Chicago, who Alex believes to be an urban myth, however Alex Verus is largely based on Harry Dresden. Similarities in the characters and the back story include a similar attitude, tone and language used towards the description of their professions and their status in society: that is, a Columbo-esque description with strong similarities in descriptions of their status as ‘wizard’ and ‘mage’ or ‘magic’ and their fronts to ‘normal’ people. Both Dresden and Verus were apprenticed to evil men with other apprentice/s. There was a falling out between apprentice and master resulting in the death of their master and the believed death of the other apprentice/s, resulting in both falling foul of the Council. Both learn that a significant female apprentice survived and remained hidden for many years without their knowledge. Both aspire to be loners but collect a retinue. Both acquire young, attractive female apprentices.

Both Dresden and Verus engage the services of magical creatures. Dresden’s version started with short memories and unreliable characters who evolved into the Za Lord’s Guard over the course of many books, after Dresden built a relationship with them by giving them regular pizza. Verus’ character was Starbreeze, an elemental who acted as taxi driver and combat minion, who began as unreliable, lacking in intelligence with a short memory but evolved to be quite caring and reliable without justification for the change over the course of one novel. For the record, Starbreeze seemed based on World of Warcraft elementals but, knowing how Blizzard ‘acquires’ source material, WoW is unlikely to be the origin of this idea.

Another significant source for Fated was Bablyon 5. Alex Verus plucks the name ‘Morden’ out of thin air as a solution to a crisis within the plot without knowing how or why he acquired that name. Later Morden becomes a real character described exactly as Mr Morden is portrayed in Babylon 5, right down to the non-descript appearance and smiling mouth that is an upward curve but that doesn’t reach his eyes. Morden even asks, ‘What do you want?’ as does Richard Drakh, Verus’ first master, when Drakh sought out Verus to apprentice him to the dark side.

Sonder is a young man with glasses and a propensity for academia who appears to have stepped directly from the pages of Discworld where he appears as Ponder Stibbons. I’m all for intelligent literary references to characters or events in new novels, but I think wholesale acquisition of characters is going a bit far. I’d prefer a clever description that implied some similarity if Jacka wishes to honour Sir Terry Pratchett with references in his own work. In Degrees of Freedom, Morden’s initial description of the perpetual motion machine was brilliant; I thought he should have left it there rather than returning to it again a page or so later and adding to the description as if to say ‘Get it? Don’t miss this one.’ Even so, Morden’s references did not cross the line because he abided by the 30% rule: he acquired enough of the original to be recognised, but put enough of his own, original ideas in that the perpetual motion machine is recognisable as a reference to Doctor Who but will never be mistaken as an attempt to acquire the TARDIS.

Where are the lines drawn between literary and pop culture references and plagiarism? I don’t know, I’m trying to figure that out. The cover of the advanced reading copy of Fated has a recommendation from Jim Butcher, so I’m guessing he’s ok with Jacka’s version of the Dresden Files. Plus the same publishing house publishes both books. While I generally love to see pop and SFF references in urban fantasy books, I found the wholesale acquisition of Morden as a character to be going too far.

Jacka’s descriptions are, at times, lacking. For example, Verus is described as having a tall angular body, black spikey hair and dark eyes. With a description like that I tend to think of Dresden with a cut and colour and a bad night’s sleep. A horse was described as all white except the mussel and hooves, but the other colour wasn’t mentioned. I decided that a fluorescent green or even pink would suffice as the alternative colour, especially when, a few pages later, the horse was revealed to be a Pegasus. Jacka goes into some detail about epic mounts which again led me back to World of Warcraft as source material.

A primary plot point and essential ingredient of who Verus is, is a diviner or seer. He can look into the future to determine what will happen. For most of the book the use of this skill really annoyed me: there was no acknowledgement of the inverse Grandfather Paradox, where your actions and choices now impact the future. Verus made a habit of searching the possible futures instead of taking action. For example, he sat in a chair looking into the future to explore a room in which he was kept prisoner instead of getting off his backside and actually exploring the room. At any time he could trigger a trap in the future, see bad results, then not trigger the trap but go by an alternate route. It wasn’t until very late in the book that Verus suddenly said, ‘I can’t see beyond a choice that hasn’t been made’, which voided just about all of his previous investigations and attempts to predict his own future. Jacka seemed to present Verus with problems then used divination as a way out, for example, a way to sneek into a facility without being caught by the guards, a way to not set off lethal traps and so on.
The book design is excellent. The cover is slightly textured instead of slippery, it looks a little like aged parchment in how the image darkens towards the edges. I’m not sure if the background is supposed to be a map or something else, but the word ‘Fated’ is nicely done in black and red, showing iconic portions of London’s skyline. The text and layout is much better than a mass market paperback. Although the text does go a little too close to the central gutter, I didn’t crack the spine or crease the cover in my reading of this book. For those to whom the tactile experience of reading is important, this is a good book design.

I am a fan of Harry Dresden, and Fated’s strong similarities to The Dresden Files carries it through to the finish. I found this book to be enjoyable as long as I didn’t dwell on analysis while reading. The science fiction and fantasy references will delight some readers while others may not be pleased at acquisition of characters like Morden and Ponder. While not as good as The Dresden Files, Fated is an urban fantasy fix for those who are waiting for the next in Butcher’s series. Jim Butcher has recommended Fated to readers.