Mages like me aren’t common, but we aren’t as rare as you might think either. We look the same as anyone else, and if you passed one of us on the street, odds are you’d never know it. Only if you were very observant would you notice something a little off, a little strange, and by the time you took another look, we’d be gone.
It’s another world, hidden within your own, and most of those who live in it don’t like visitors. Those of us who do like visitors have to advertise, and it’s tricky to find a way of doing it that doesn’t make you sound crazy. The majority rely on word of mouth, though younger mages use the Internet. I’ve even heard of one guy in Chicago who advertises in the phone book under “Wizard,” though that’s probably an urban legend. (loc 78)
For the record, that “guy in Chicago” is Harry Dresden, my very favorite wizard (yes, he nudges Hermione Granger out of first by a hair’s breadth), and Jacka earned major points with me for that reference.
The man knows his audience, and I happen to think that’s a crucial part of a writer’s job. I used to get into huge, rambling discussions about this with one of my roommates in college. He was a screenwriter and just masochistic enough to allow me to critique his first drafts. (I always have to warn people who ask for my honest opinion when it comes to this sort of thing that as nice as I may seem, I’m vicious when it comes to the red pen. I’m a big fan of the up-down-up method of critique, but the down can be…prolonged.)
We went to a school that was best known for two (out of only six) majors – film and radio. The students from the radio department were some of the nicest, most hard-working people I’ve ever met, and they produced damn fine shows every week. The film students…well, I was mostly friends with film students, so I was privy to a lot of the drama that’s inevitable when so many big fish are removed from their small ponds and dumped into an ocean of talent. (Spoiler alert: it can get ugly.) I was lucky to fall in with a more down-to-earth crowd, and one of the elements that truly set them apart from their classmates was the ability to take criticism and actually create something better the next time around.
This roommate, in particular, thrived on pulling his work apart completely with me and rebuilding it into a story worth telling. One of the ideas we came around to again and again in this process was that the phrase “But I get what I was trying to say” should never be uttered in response to “This isn’t really making sense to me.” We both agreed that such an answer was where the creative process went to die. It was defensive and short-sighted, and the end result was never as good as it could have been.
He and I were exceptionally tough on each other when it came to that idea. We spent countless hours defining our respective audiences for every project, and then we considered who else we would want to reach if we could. It was the kind of exercise I didn’t fully appreciate in the moment, but when I think about the projects I choose now, I realize how critical those evaluations were. Benedict Jacka clearly knows his audience for the Alex Verus novels and some of the sharpest moments in this first book of the series are when he gives a nod to the writers who have come before him.
Jacka seems to realize he’s picking up new readers based, not on name recognition or white-hot fame, but on the cache of the insider. He makes it work for him, and although at times, I found myself wishing he would challenge himself to dig a little deeper, he certainly knows the urban fantasy trope inside and out. His characters are likable and fun, plagued though they may be by an overly sharp delineation between good and evil. While I’m planning to pick up the next book, I have to admit I’m hoping for more shading, for a subtly in character that the author is clearly capable of, if his plot is anything to go by.
He’s a solid writer, but I got the impression at times that he was so excited to get the story on the page he sacrificed some of the moments where we could have lingered meaningfully with the characters. I have that problem in movies and television all the time, but in a book, I feel like character development should never be squeezed by time constraints. I’ll be curious to see how he does in the next few installments; now that he’s set the scene, he has the opportunity to make this series better than the wink wink nudge nudge he does so well.
For more about Benedict Jacka, head over here.