By Benedict Jacka.
In Alex Verus and the Case of the Disappearing Apprentices, apprentices have been, er, disappearing without a trace. Using his time magic, Alex’s new mate, Sonder, can track them back to a certain point, but the rest is shrouded from him. The answers seem to be at Fountain Reach, where apprentices will be competing in the Triwizard Tournament, little knowing that this will enable Gríma Wormtongue to resurrect Dr Manhattan [Worst mixed metaphor evah. –ed.] No matter which way Verus turns, everything points to the Reach.
The house itself is heavily warded, which weakens Verus’ divination magic and makes him feel distinctly uneasy. It seems obvious that the current owner, Crystal, is up to something. All right, fairly obviously, she’s behind the disappearance of the apprentices.
Meanwhile, Verus has acquired two new sidekicks, Anne and Variam, who were originally apprenticed to a Dark wizard, but escaped from him and were taken under the wing of a rakshasa, Lord Jagadev, who instructs them to help Verus. Anne is a life mage, who can heal people as well as drain them of their lives, and Variam is, well, permanently bad tempered with more stones in his shoe than a pebble beach.
There’s also the mystery of that happened to the previous owner of the house, Vitus Aubuchon, and here the reason for the disappearance of the apprentices is revealed. Aubuchon was doing research on longevity and partly succeeded, but needs a supply of batteries. After using ordinary people (Everyready), Aubuchon has instructed Crystal to switch to apprentices (Duracell).
Alex and his sidekicks manage to enter the shadow mansion where Aubuchon exists in parallel to the real one. They rescue Anne, whose skills as a life mage, attract the monster’s particular attention, but are pursued by Onyx, Crystal and Vitus, escaping by the skin of their teeth.
Verus also works out Lord Jagadev’s role in Anne and Variam’s lives, they being the descendants of the British and Indian mages who killed his wife in the 19th century.
I think the problem with this volume was the split between who was abducting the apprentices with the reason why they were being abducted. There were more than enough hints for it to be obvious that Crystal was the villain (in fact, from the very opening scene), but the deeper mystery, that Vitus Aubuchon was the driving force behind the abductions, was a bit of a shrug because he was merely some raging, blood-sucking monster with no discernible personality. If Crystal had seemed to be an ally for far longer, maintaining the suspense, this might have worked a little better.
Similarly, the explanation of Lord Jagadev’s role in Anne and Variam’s lives was left till the end, and was no more than an explanation.
Verus behaves like a cheeky schoolboy at times as if Jacka still hasn’t quite got beyond writing characters that behave like adolescents. There’s some laughs-in-the-face-of-danger going on here, but Jacka is perhaps still playing around with Verus’ character. The apprentices certainly behave like clichéd teenagers with their various rivalries.
There were fewer translations into American, although the have-gottens abound once again, and there were quite a few “brings” that should be “takes”. This time, there are “arseholes”, but there were also some phrases that had me wondering whether Jacka had actually written them in an attempt to emulate some annoying mid Atlantic style of English, or whether his original phrases had been translated.
Taken probably needed to have a tighter focus. As I said, Crystal’s involvement in the abductions should’ve been less obvious, and although the subplots (Vitus Aubuchon and Lord Jagadev) may have been linked to the main one, the way in which it was done was not so satisfying.