One of these things is not like the other:
I’m just kidding. They’re all totally alike.
It isn’t long before you notice the first Dresden homage in Jacka’s first adult UF book. Of course, my edition gives it away with the cover, where a quote from Jim Butcher plays a prominent role on the jacket. I can only assume this was so someone wouldn’t sue Jacka for copyright violations on Butcher’s behalf. Once you start reading, the parallels appear quickly, beginning with his protagonist, Alex Verus, noting there’s a wizard in Chicago rumored to advertise in the phone book. I started to wonder, did this get its start as fan fiction? It clearly owes a great deal to Dresden, from the characters to the themes to various plot points. Don’t believe me? You really need to read Carly’s review which analyzes the similarities. Well, whatever–I can overlook it, right? I don’t hate Harry Dresden. I like the modern UF detective noir, despite being somewhat formulaic in plot, because I enjoy discovering what the author does with a magic system, characters, setting, and tension. Unfortunately in this case, Jacka needs to do a lot more, both to individuate himself and to create a stellar series.
I enjoy a well-plotted book, however, I don’t usually spend a great deal of time analyzing it, no matter what my review trolls say about ‘nitpicking.’ So believe me when I say that I noticed the prevalence of deus ex machina solutions, they’re notable. Almost every scrape he got into was solved by the appearance of some untold facet of his skill (cheap, but acceptable), a special magic device, or special magical friend.
The writing was in need of a beta-reader to smooth out the transition. World-building information tended given in info-dumps, which didn’t particularly trouble me, but seems to be a hallmark of a craft-young fantasy/sci-fi writer. So we’d run into a situation, Jacka would tell the reader all about Harry’s skill/history, and then Harry would use said skill to manipulate the situation. It was intrusive enough to be noticeable, but presumably will decrease in subsequent books as the investment in world-building pays off.
The underlying magical concept of a ‘diviner’ (not to be confused with that other awful book I just read) is an interesting one, and not one that I’ve yet encountered in UF. Harry is a type of mage who as the ability to read possible futures so I enjoyed learning how the author envisioned the skill working and its everyday implications. I do have the feeling that there is a fault line in the fundamentals of the magic system, but I’ll have to check in after I take a statistics class. For instance, at one point, Harry talks about how he isn’t able to predict the roll of a dice. Hm, okay, but he can predict whether or not someone arrives at his house on time? Yes, I know, it’s magic. But the rule of UF is that a magic system should have an underlying theory. So it seems a six-sided roll would have significantly less variables than someone arriving at a destination. I’m not entirely sure this one works, but I enjoyed trying to figure out the ramifications along with Jacka.
There is the requisite UF side-kick, a woman would would like to learn more about Harry’s world and who struggles with a curse of her own. Because of her curse, she is placed in the “unobtainable love interest” position. Both Harry and Jacka are conflicted about her role; in one section, she’s a depressed, nearly suicidal person; in another she’s full of determination and in yet another, she is frightened and helpless. It was hard to get a sense of her or her history perhaps because, as Harry eventually realizes, he doesn’t know that much about her. She plays useful plot functions of sidekick, potential love interest, and emotional cue for reader. As a female reader, I was hardly surprised, but it is disappointing that so few men write a woman I want to be. Readers will want to be Harry, not Luna. By the end, I did see some potential develop so I’m hopeful Jacka can manage an empowerment plot for her in the next book. Sometimes it’s that kind of lure that keeps me reading.
Ultimately, I think what kept me engaged was the magic system and the action. On the negative side, I was uncomfortable with the strong similarities with Butcher’s work; it made me feel a little like I was watching a pirated copy of a movie or reading fan fiction, causing troubling feelings of participating in author disenfranchisement. On positive, I think I enjoyed it more than the first couple Dresden books where his chauvinism annoyed me right out of the story. It’s likely I’ll catch the next one or two and see if Jacka can take this someplace more interesting.