This week I’m recommending `Fated’ by Benedict Jacka, a novel I seem to have been fated to read. If I’d seen it in a bookshop I would probably have been put off by the spider in the otherwise attractive British cover-design (the American cover has an innocuous photograph of the Houses of Parliament instead). The dark corners of Fantasy fiction are full of monstrous spiders, which doesn’t do my severe arachnophobia any good.  I have to take an eye-mask to the cinema for films like `The Return of the King’  and `Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’ to pop on during the spidery bits.  Since I ordered `Fated’ on my Kindle, I missed the spider-alert and found myself enjoying an Urban Fantasy with many of the qualities of a good thriller.  It is fast-paced, violent, sometimes scary and often exciting.

`Fated’ is the first book in a series of novels (three so far) about Alex Verus, an action hero in the noble tradition of Philip Marlowe.  In Jacka’s version of modern London, a small proportion of the population are born with magical abilities. The strongest of them can be trained to be mages, if they survive a gruelling apprenticeship.  Alex is a diviner or `probability mage’, one of the very few people who can see many possible futures. The magic users are divided into Dark and Light Mages who now co-exist in an uneasy truce. Don’t expect profound reflections on the nature of good and evil  but there are moral ambiguities in `Fated’. After a disastrous apprenticeship to a Dark Mage, Alex has renounced the ruthless ways of the individualist Dark Mages but he doesn’t like or trust the Council who govern the Light Mages either. Loner Alex opens a shop selling supplies for real magicians, does a few odd jobs as diviner, and keeps his head down. Except that he’s the kind of man who can’t resist helping people.

One of the people who need his help the most is a young woman named Luna. She has latent magical abilities but she’s also cursed with a protective spell that inflicts very bad luck on anyone who touches her. When Luna finds and accidentally activates a magical cube, she puts her own life in danger. Alex has agreed to help a team of Light Mages investigate an ancient relic in the British Museum but finds himself facing  Dark Mages with killer powers and a  twelve-foot high Fire Elemental. (Don’t let this put you off visiting. Contrary to what you read in novels or see in horror movies, the British Museum is rarely trashed by magical creatures, at least during opening hours). Alex suspects that Luna’s cube is the key to the relic everyone is after and he is soon on the run from old and new enemies. The maverick mage has to come to terms with his own dark past and exploit all his knowledge of the future to keep himself and Luna alive.

Some readers haven’t liked the rather flat mid-Atlantic style in which Alex tells his own story and I agree with complaints that the London settings don’t come across very vividly. However, I felt that the narrative voice was appropriate for a hero who is supposed to be emotionally repressed and there is plenty of dry humour. Alex Verus isn’t the most original of characters but his powers of divination are very convincingly worked out and cleverly used to add to the suspense as he searches the future for ways out of deadly situations.  For me though it is Alex’s understated feelings for the girl he can’t  even touch  and his affectionate relationships with supernatural creatures that make this story worth reading.

When he needs to get somewhere in a hurry Alex can summon a delightfully ditzy Air Elemental called Starbreeze. Beautiful innocent Starbreeze is `ancient and timeless’ but `dumb as a sack of rocks’. Then there is Arachne, the giant spider who lives  in a cave under Hampstead Heath. As Alex says, `even people who aren’t scared of spiders are likely to scream the house down the first time they meet a tarantula bigger than their car’. So, is Arachne a monster to rival Shelob or Aragog? No. She’s a loyal friend and warm personality who loves making beautiful clothes out of her spider-silk. There’s a charming scene in which Arachne designs and fits the perfect ball-gown for Luna, complete with anti-curse accessories. A book that can make me like a giant spider has to have more than a touch of magic about it. Until next week.