Cursed, by Benedict Jacka (An Alex Verus Novel)

  • TITLE: Cursed (An Alex Verus Novel)
  • AUTHOR: Benedict Jacka
  • PUBLISHER: Orbit
  • PUBLICATION DATE: 7th June 2012

This is a difficult one to review. Partly, because I loved Fated and gave it five stars, but mostly because, whilst I enjoyed the story and enjoyed spending more time with the characters from the first Alex Verus novel, there were many issues in this book that I couldn’t ignore.

I’m not sure whether to start with the good or the bad, or vice versa, since I’m not sure which one there is more of. Hoping they’ll wind up equal parts both, I’ll start with the bad.

This is a little petty, but it’s something I didn’t particularly notice from Fated, but did notice in Cursed, though maybe this was because I wasn’t as engrossed in the story as with Fated, so I was paying more attention. Why are mages/wizards/sorcerers in first person urban fantasy always so damned tall? Jim Butcher makes such a point of Harry’s height in the Dresden Files, in that at first I’m sure he’s described as being “better than six feet”, but by the end it’s “better than six and a half feet”. I might be misremembering, but the point is there. And, Verus is very tall, too. Why? Not everyone is tall. Oh, and of course, the “sidekick” characters are always much shorter, like Sonder and Dresden’s Butters. This is a small grievance, but I find if a reader has the time to find small issues that irk, then that says something for the level of immersion during the read.

The magic of Fated just wasn’t there—literally. Cursed, at times, reads more like an action movie turned book, with some urban fantasy elements thrown in there. Alex spends a great proportion of the book with a goddamned gun in his hand. Shoot, shoot, shoot. That’s what I remember a great percentage of the book to be. And boom. Shoot, boom, shoot, boom. Fated wasn’t like that, and I found myself frustrated about halfway through as I began to realise that this book wasn’t going to live up to Fated.

Luna is an irritation, and this irked me no end. She is treated as a ditzy little girl who is batting her eyelids at the first male to show up and show interest in her. Yes, the guy in question wants to help her with her curse—but not at first. At first, before anything takes place in Verus’ shop, Luna’s boyfriend is merely “there”. Luna has spent her life avoiding physical contact with people lest they be seriously hurt or killed by her curse. She categorically would not swoon like a damsel at this guy’s feet, simply because he shows interest in magic. Martin is not the enchanter in the story, so he would not have power over her, and frankly, Luna isn’t a wilting flower willing to fall for the first guy.

Alex himself feels somewhat wishy-washy in Cursed, and not at all the charismatic character from the first book. He’s jealous of Luna’s budding relationship, distracted by the charms of an enchantress, and up to his neck in trouble, and yet he still manages to make the narrative feel as dull as dishwater. I hated this. I adored Alex as a narrator and character in Fated and I haven’t the foggiest clue what happened to him in Cursed. He plods along doing what needs to be done, with very little personality. It’s as though the Alex Verus of Fated was not the same Alex Verus in Cursed.

The plot was convenient and the final end was very typical, cliché, even. A huge point is made about how favours matter to mages, and that’s fine, but it seems Verus’ entire escape from mortal danger was reliant on a favour being called in at just the right time—which is fine too, had it not been for the rest of the plot structure. The pacing swings from full throttle, to a dead stop, repeat ad nauseam. We start with action, then there’s a lull, then action, then lull, then… There’s no tension, no mystery and nothing gripping about the book. It doesn’t feet tightly plotted enough and well-structured enough that you’re waiting with bated breath to see the story reach its end. There’s nothing that’s not spoon fed to the reader (being reminded of enemies made in Fated who might be pulling strings, etc) or that’s not blindingly obvious. There’s no twist; just a straightforward plot that plods lazily on.

That’s a whole lot of bad. There is some good, however…

The story is good. Or, at least the bones of the story are. An imbued item that can grant wishes (the monkey’s paw), a magical creature killed in mysterious circumstances, Cinder and Deleo hovering around again. All good components, all elements that when woven together correctly could have made for a damned exciting follow up to Fated.

In Cursed, Arachne is in danger, Luna is becoming Alex’s apprentice, and Sonder is solidly on the scene. This all sets the stage for a good sequel where the plot thickens, new strands are brought in, and new conflicts are explored. It was a good set up. But it never had a chance to gel or shine or mesh together in the same way the individual elements of Fated did.

It’s not Jacka’s writing; that’s fine. Note, I said “fine”. There’s something lacking, something in the writing that was there in Fated, that isn’t there now. I hope it’s a one-off. I hope Taken (due September 2012) is better. I’m still eager to read it, regardless of my experiences with Cursed. There was a part of Cursed that jarred so strongly for me that when I think back, I’m not sure the sense of magic and immersion ever recovered from it. Jacka’s writing and choice of scene let it down. Not too far in, Alex has had a bad day at work, and he recites a script of different conversations with customers. This takes up four and a half pages. Four and a half pages of funny-at-first-but-not-so-funny-after references to Hogwarts, sparkly vampires and general “this isn’t real magic oh wait it is you’re for real” humour. It was cheap and it wasn’t funny. The reference in Fated to a wizard in Chicago in the phonebook was classy. This was tacky. It was irrelevant and made me stop and think “why is this here”?

Overall, I still gave Cursed a three-star rating. Why? Because if we forget about the bad—yes there’s a lot of it—and just focus on the fact that it’s a three-hundred page urban fantasy book, it is still fun to read; quick and easy afternoon read kind of fun. The setting needs work. Jacka needs to really, really figure out how to get across the inner workings of the mage world—Light and Dark—so that it doesn’t become a tacky, clichéd battle between good and evil, where Light mages scheme and treat apprenticeship like school, and Dark mages teach through pain and torture in their grand castles with torture chambers and dungeons, like Richard Drakh’s mansion in Fated. (Yes, a Light mage has a castle with cells in Cursed, but his methods are different from those of Alex’s former mentor, thus highlighting the divide between Light and Dark. Well, what about grey? Where’s the in-between?)

Cursed is certainly no Fated in terms of quality or reading-pleasure, but it was fun enough whilst being read, and the picking apart only comes afterwards, not helped by the really tacky ending.

This series could go either way: it began with an excellent book with brilliantly written characters, good pacing, and a strong plot, whilst Cursed has threatened to bring down the good quality of the series so far. Taken is make or break at this point… and I’m hoping it’s “make”, because I would miss Verus if the series were to dwindle in quality.

An awkward at times, fun at times read with issues aplenty, but a good sense of action and fun at its heart.



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