But, honestly, I’ve been bitterly disappointed before by more than a few much heralded releases. I began reading Fated with a healthy dose of skepticism…
My thoughts after finishing? Believe the hype.
Set in a vividly described modern day London, the storyline follows Verus – a probability mage who can see potential futures – as he gets caught between rival mage factions that are desperately trying to unlock and possess an unfathomably powerful magical artifact stored within a statue currently residing in the British Museum. The relic, which resembles an ivory wand, is known as a fateweaver and “has the ability to alter chance and outcomes.” Ruthless Dark and Light mages alike will do absolutely anything to acquire the object – but first they have to maneuver their way through a series of deadly magical locks – and that’s where Verus comes in. Literally forced into doing the job, he knows that once he has unlocked the fateweaver, he is as good as dead. Can he – with the help of a misfit group of allies – figure a way out of an impossible situation?
Yes, Verus is an intriguing and complex character – as are his supporting cast members (Luna, Arachne, Starbreeze, etc.) – but Jacka’s high energy, richly descriptive, and undeniably lyrical writing style is what really powers this narrative. Here is just one example:
“London is amazing by night. Instead of the grid pattern of most cities, its streets twist and turn, and from above every one of them is outlined by streetlights. The parks are patches of shadow, the main roads glowing rivers. The Thames is a dark snake winding through the centre, its banks lit up with the waterfront buildings, boats and bridges leaving dots and slashes of light across its dark waters…”
The last line of Fated is fitting: “Seeing is believing...” The hype behind this release is more than justified – an exceptionally entertaining read and an impressive start to what should be a wildly successful series. (The second volume, Cursed will be released in June.)
And if that’s not enough, here is a BarnesandNoble.com EXCLUSIVE – you can’t find this anywhere else – a one-on-one conversation between Jim Butcher and Benedict Jacka!
Benedict Jacka: Hi Jim, guess I'll start things off! Thanks again for the email you sent back in June – it meant a lot to me.
Jim Butcher: Hey Benedict! Just giving credit where it is due. You wrote a good book. Seriously.
Benedict Jacka: The setting of the Dresden Files is really varied with a “fantasy kitchen sink” feel – there are wizards, werewolves, demons, faeries, angels, fallen angels, dragons, at least three kinds of vampires, and a whole lot more creatures that are only hinted at. Did you decide on that from the beginning or did it evolve that way as the books went on?
Jim Butcher: Initially, when setting up the story world for the Dresden Files, I did a lot of angsting over what kind of vampire I was going to present in the story world. I had them broken out into three general types: the monstrous blood-drinkers, the megasexy fiends, and the folklore-traditional Nosferatu-type vampire. Every one of them offered me different strengths and foibles for storytelling. All of them were fairly familiar figures, and I was sort of unhappy that I hadn’t come up with a style of vampire all my own that would play a stronger role than the public domain vamps.
And then I thought to myself, “Wait, this is my world. Why not have ALL of them?"
From that point, I set out to design an inclusive story world that would have a place for every kind of legend, nightmare, and storybook beasty. The supernatural ecosystem of the Dresden Files is built to be vast and teeming with every weird and scary thing imaginable. There's plenty of room for everyone.
What can you tell me about the process of creating Alex Verus? Why did you build him as you did, and what kinds of things inspired the creation of his world?
Benedict Jacka: The setting of the Alex Verus novels is one I've been working on for a long time – Fated is actually the fifth book that's set in more-or-less the same universe – and so a lot of the background was already worked out.
When I sat down to start work on Fated, though, I had trouble deciding what type of magic the protagonist would use. In the previous books my mage characters had always used elemental magic like ice or air, but the problem I kept running into was how to make conflicts involving their magic interesting. When your protagonist's main power is "hit it until it breaks" it's tricky to run a magic vs. magic fight that doesn't turn into a slugging match.
So I came up with the idea of someone whose magic could only give information. Since Alex's divination can't affect the physical world he can't brute-force his way through problems, which pushes me to think of some more interesting way to solve them.
How do you deal with this sort of thing when you're planning out your stories? You've described Harry as a “magical thug” with more power than finesse, but he acts a lot craftier than that (especially in the later books). How do you keep the conflicts fresh and interesting?
Jim Butcher: Well. Mainly I just stick to the plan I always had for Dresden: I never wanted him to be the big fish in the pond. I always wanted him to be the crafty medium-sized fish, somebody who could rely on brute power for some problems, but not nearly all of them. Then, as I kept on creating the world I needed, I realized that Dresden wasn't even really a medium-sized fish. He was smaller than that. Granted, he has a lot of muscle for most of the world he runs around in, but when times get hard he starts finding himself going up against all kinds of guys who are really just out of his weight class.
For those who haven't gotten to read Fated yet, Alex Verus is a diviner. Some people would call him a probability mage. He knows things. No, wait, that completely understates it. Alex Knows Things. He has a tremendous capacity to find people and objects, to predict the course of the future, and to act at key points to alter the outcome of events. That is a very cool power to have. Harry would be really jealous of that guy! And nervous. Really nervous.
It seems, to me, that someone in Alex's position would have both the inclination and the very high capability for avoiding conflict entirely. As writers, we both know that can really be death on writing interesting plots. So how do you balance that sort of tendency in your protagonist with the absolute need, as a storyteller, to make sure your wizard gets his meddle on? What kinds of plot tend to become problematic when you're writing a character like that?
Benedict Jacka: It's a good question! The main type of plot that doesn't work is where the protagonist is just wandering around minding his own business when a random person or creature appears out of nowhere and tries to attack/kill/capture/eat/marry/sell insurance to him. Good authors usually don't do this anyway without a reason, but Alex can usually see these sorts of encounters coming no matter the reason, so they aren't generally going to happen unless he wants them to.
If you think about it though, this isn't all that different from most reasonably powerful protagonists. Harry Dresden can't see the future but he can take Ways through the Nevernever. If he really put his mind to it, it wouldn't be difficult for him to put himself on the other side of the planet from whatever's trying to do something horrible to him this week. But he doesn't.
In Alex's case it isn't something that's spelled out, but one of the themes of Fated is that Alex is moving away from the "avoid conflicts" mindset that he might have followed in the past. Because the trouble with that attitude is that once you start avoiding conflicts, where do you stop? Avoiding someone in the street is one thing, but what if they track down where you live? How about once they start going after your friends? If you keep following that path you end up with the paranoid-hermit type of wizard, who lives alone and never gets involved with anyone. And Alex does meet another diviner in Fated who lives like that – he just decides in the end that it's too high a price to pay.
In Harry's case it's always seemed to me that the main thing that keeps him fighting rather than hiding is his morals… If he's given a choice between abandoning a friend or an innocent and going up against something that's way more powerful than him he'll take the fight, even though absolutely anyone in that position would be thinking "oh god there's no way I can win this." Has that changed as the Dresden Files has gone on? The brutal war with the Red Court especially has made Harry do some things that he would once never have considered – how has that affected him?
I never wanted Harry to be a particularly heroic figure. I wanted him to be a human one. He does his best, but he makes mistakes, and when he does he has to face the consequences of those decisions. I mean, we all do, but Harry's choices have now left him in a really precarious position, and one that is extremely dangerous for him. His... relationship... with Mab is going to put him in even more positions where even more really bad choices are going to come his way. That's going to force him to fight, not just to succeed in whatever the challenge of the day happens to be, but to hold on to who and what he is – to keep his soul…
Though I must confess, personally: I frequently find myself wondering how to get to the next point of my story, and quite often I work it out by following the advice of old pulp writers, and have someone kick down the door and start shooting. Sometimes they're literally shooting, and sometimes they're shooting magic, and sometimes they're laying out ethical or spiritual automatic fire rather than delivering physical danger… What about you? How do you handle it when you reach a point in the book and just aren't sure what comes next? Do you work from an outline or spend more time relying on your instincts to guide you while writing?
Benedict Jacka: Hmm, work from an outline or rely on instincts… I think I do a mixture of both. Usually I'll have one sketchy idea for a storyline, and out of that I'll get the idea of one or two scenes, and then I start building on those, adding more scenes and the links between them, sort of like connect-the-dots. Sometimes the one or two scenes that I have in mind end up being towards the beginning of the book, but just as often they get used very, very late...
Though the feeling once it clicks and everything does start to work again makes it all worthwhile.
That bit of pulp advice of kick-in-the-door-and-shoot actually makes a lot of sense when you think about it. In the short term it gives you some action, and in the long term dealing with the consequences and figuring out how it links in with the rest of the plot can give you ideas for how to fit everything together, kind of like shaking up a kaleidoscope. Maybe I'll try that next time I get stuck again!
We're getting to the end of this email exchange, so before I get to the last question I'd like to say thanks for taking the time to do all this. I've been reading your books for over five years now and I've hugely enjoyed getting this chance to chat with you. Good luck with the rest of the Dresden Files, and I'll be reading them as they come out!
So far we've mostly talked about the protagonists of our series (it's natural when you write in the first person), but in the long run the secondary characters do just as much to shape the story. In the Dresden Files as the series has gone on Harry's accumulated a kind of extended family – not just his blood relatives like Thomas but also Molly and Michael and Murphy and everyone else that he's worked and fought with. When you're sitting down to write a new book, how do you decide which of those characters to include? If readers seem to respond particularly strongly to a character, do you use them more, or do you stick to your own judgment?
Jim Butcher: Arranging the secondary characters is almost always a challenge. Generally speaking, before the story gets started, I'll pick one character who gets to be Robin to Harry's Batman whenever he's doing stuff that isn't critical Lone Hero action. Sometimes picking Harry's wingman is a really easy and obvious choice, and I just cackle and gleefully plop them down into the soup next to Dresden. Other times, though, there are multiple characters who could do the job and all of them would be viable storytelling choices. When that happens, I guess I could just write the names down and throw a dart at the page – but the past few years I've been too lazy for dart-throwing, so instead I've gone to the readers on my website's forums, on Twitter, and at signings and conventions, and I ask them who they'd like to see more of.
Weird, right? Asking the readers? Clearly a little success has driven me mad with power. J But when I'm not dead certain about when someone absolutely must fill a certain role (I mostly am, but sometimes not), it seems reasonable to me to check in with the readers and see who is resonating strongly already. It makes my job easier and seems to be working out so far...
Benedict, it's been a real pleasure talking with you, and I hope we can bump into each other at a convention sometime! I was very impressed with Fated, I'm glad that there are other writers who are making things up as they go like I am. I'm very much looking forward to reading more of your work.
Benedict Jacka: Likewise. Looking forward to getting the chance to meet you in person one of these days!
Paul Goat Allen has been a full-time book reviewer specializing in genre fiction for the last two decades and has written thousands of reviews for companies like Publishers Weekly, The Chicago Tribune, Kirkus Reviews, and BarnesandNoble.com. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
Keep up with all of my blogs – as well as all of Barnes & Noble’s exclusive reviews, authors interviews, videos, promotions, and more – by following @BNBuzz on Twitter!
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