Sunday, January 2, 2011

Book Review: The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman

The world is only half made. What exists has been carved out amidst a war between two rival factions: the Line, paving the world with industry and claiming its residents as slaves; and the Gun, a cult of terror and violence that cripples the population with fear. The only hope at stopping them has seemingly disappeared—the Red Republic that once battled the Gun and the Line, and almost won. Now they’re just a myth, a bedtime story parents tell their children, of hope.
To the west lies a vast, uncharted world, inhabited only by the legends of the immortal and powerful Hill People, who live at one with the earth and its elements. Liv Alverhyusen, a doctor of the new science of psychology, travels to the edge of the made world to a spiritually protected mental institution in order to study the minds of those broken by the Gun and the Line. In its rooms lies an old general of the Red Republic, a man whose shattered mind just may hold the secret to stopping the Gun and the Line. And either side will do anything to understand how.

PLEASE NOTE: This is the final review for 2010 as I started the book in 2010, so it does not go on my list for reviews of 2011 even though the review went up today.

If my few forays into the sub-category of fantasy deemed “New Weird” are any indication, I am not the biggest fan of said sub-genre. That’s not to say I don’t think it is good, merely that I personally can’t seem to get as into it as easily as others seem to. That said, this novel (3rd book from fairly new author Felix Gilman, and the first in a new duology) kind of straddles the line between steampunk-infused western and new weird fantastical, so I can’t pigeonhole it into that category entirely.

I will say this, echoed by a few other bloggers who have read it, this book is probably one of the most unique I’ve ever read. I can’t recall a recent reading experience that has divided my thoughts so entirely. I was going to review this book this morning when I finished it, but I decided I needed a few hours to ruminate. Doing so has kind of settled me onto the middling-to-negative review though, so be forewarned.

Gilman has created a very interesting world, one which echoes both the American West and the Industrial Age, and at the same time is quite foreign and fantastical as well. We have a world where two factions of otherworldy-infused might. There is the Line, with their industry, huge Engine housing Stations, telegraphing machines, machine guns, squat, cranky Linesmen dressed in drab grays and their overlords who are the seemingly-sentient Engines. Then there are the lawless criminals who work for the Gun, a number of demonic presences who seek out this lower class element of society and “ride/possess" their guns, controlling them and spreading terror, death and blood sacrifice. The Gun and The Line have been at war for 400 years, and somewhere in the realm of 40 years before the novel takes place, a sect of people decided enough was enough and assembled a bunch of lawless states into the Red Republic in an attempt for peace. That’s where our General (the man with the shattered mind from the description above) is from, and his war-addled mind is sought after by both sides because only he holds the truth, whether that truth is a weapon or a source of peace is unkown.

There are three main characters, Liv (a Doctor who is sent to the Spirit-protected hospital in the West to help the General), Creedmore (Agent Of The Gun, an old criminal with a grudge against his demonic masters), and Lowry (Linesman who rises through the ranks of the Line to become a Conductor and leads the hunt for the General and Creedmore) and all three are well fleshed out and at least at a base level, quite interesting. That said, I can’t identify with protagonists who are too gray. I want to be able to at least like my main character, and in this book I couldn’t really LIKE any of the three. Creedmore is nasty, aloof and unrepentant. He comes off a lot as a big bully and gets away with it and that kind of left a bad taste in my mouth. Liv is too weak-minded for my liking. For almost the entire book (until she has the choices laid in her lap later in the book) she just gets pulled along and doesn’t really stand up for herself, let alone her charge and supposed friend, a simpleton called Maggfrid. She never does much in the way of noteworthy achievements, and is rather blind to the completely obvious plot point about the Spirit that resides and protects the hospital. Something I saw coming a mile away. Third character, Linesman Lowry spends a lot of his time travelling, bitching and complaining that he can’t get his hands properly on his quarry and falling ass backwards into promotion after promotion within the Line. He is, at beast, tolerable and his internal mind is more interesting than the other two, but he failed to hold all my attention either. I should also make note of the two other major "characters". The demons of the Gun, more specifically the one that rides Creedmore’s Gun named Marmion. The voice of the demon in his head was at first interesting, but as this trick went on in the book, the novelty wore off. The constant bickering between Creedmore and his demon got grating for me and began to make me wish that Creedmore would destroy his gun or that the demon would kill him VIA the Goad (a form of torture the demons use), cause enough was enough. Then there is the Engines of the Line, sentient machinery of which it keeps getting noted that there are 38....which kind of start off mysterious and then get less so as they are explained, but it is clear that they are, like their demon enemies do with the Gun, running the show for the Line in the same manner, by controlling humans.

The mystery at the beginning of the book was enthralling. What was an Engine? They make it sound so ominous! Well, they kind of get explained in a few different paragraphs over the course of the book and it turns out it’s not as ominous as you’d think and is pretty much what you assume it to be, albeit bigger and like I said before...sentient. The Gun are explained fairly early and more completely and I understood and liked them. Demon-possessed guns give you super powers? what's not to like?! When using the Gun's in conjuctuin with the demon influence the Agents enter something like a Gun trance where everything went gray and slowed down so they could avoid bullets and run really fast ect..basically be Neo from the Matrix. A great plot device and one I couldn’t wait to see used with the other Agents Of The Gun who were also introduced in that same explanatory chapter. Sadly this was not to be. For every time you hear about other Agents, they are either speaking to (AKA bitching at each other or) Creedmore VIA fire and the Gun demon’s “lodge” or Creedmore was being told they got killed in battle. Even their deaths at the hands of Lowry and the Line only take up a sentence or two. I think the book would have benefited from more of their involvement, as it would have given more weight to the Gun side. Sadly, instead they basically seem to exist to die and show us how ruthless the Line are in their hunt.

The middle section of the book concerns the hospital House Dolorous in the West, the General of the Red Republic housed therin and the Hill Folk Spirit/God that protects them from violence. I had a tough time with this section. Everything slowed down, the mysteries that interested me in the first half of the book ground to a halt and took a back seat to life in the hospital with Liv, Creedmore and Co. The revelation of the Spirit’s purpose (the key point of this whole section) is very easy to guess and not all that interesting. I just found that the pace of the novel didn’t pick up again till after they leave the hospital. At which point, we go further west and into the un-made part of the world....supposedly described earlier on as chaos, storms and the land just stops.

Whoa! That's interesting!

Not...really. I wanted it to be much more than it ended up being. It ends up for the most part, not to spoil anything, just being more of the same. The last half of the book is good, better than the middle section, but by no means amazing. I kept reading hoping that some mysteries would get solved and that they would be solved in a more interesting way than the House Spirit/God. That the Hill Folk would get more fleshed out and we would finally get to see what the “weapon” inside the Generals head was and why both sides wanted it. Sadly this book has a kind of non-ending ending. It leaves a lot of threads hanging and didn’t really impress me aside from Liv finally taking the reigns which I was pleased to see happen after her whole book of non-action.

Is it well written? Why yes it is. The First 100 pages are greatly enthralling and very cleverly executed. The prose is easy and flows nicely. Aside from a number of really, really run-on sentences that lacked proper punctuation and a bunch of spelling errors, I found it to be a very nice read. Gilman can weave a story quite well, but I just can’t be sure what story he was trying to tell me and why it needed two volumes. I suppose we’ll find out in the second book. To get down with this book you really have to be okay with gray protagonists though, so be aware of that. Whether they are “being used” or not, I need them to be a little more likable either at their base level or in a redemption or realization. Creedmore himself leaves a LOT to be desired and is at BEST tolerable, as does Lowry though I found Lowry to be the more interesting of the pair...which says something I suppose. Liv is okay, but she annoyed me at the best of times with her lack of gumption (<--oooooh, a western word!), and to be honest I only really LIKED Maggfrid, who kind of gets forgotten in the middle, which bugged me.

If you like New Weird and you like a little western-style steampunk then this book should be right up your alley. It’s written in a very odd way, but one that I found quite clever. It could have easily come across as pretentious and thankfully doesn’t.

Enough of the banter Scott....did you like it or not?

I think it succeeds on a number of levels, the most clear being the design of the world, and the mysterious Hill Folk (a First people who seem to have an inkling of what is going on with the world, if only they weren’t feared and reviled). Then I think it fails miserably on other levels, like characterization and lack of use of secondary characters except to drive the plot forward. There is, I tease you not, a character named Kid, who exists solely to execute a manoeuvre that will allow Creedmore to do something he needs to for the story to go forward, and then is promptly and callously forgotten. The character’s name could have been Kid Ex Machina.

So, what can I wish for in the second book (which I will be reading)? We need to sort out some of these messy plot threads post-haste, don’t wait the whole book to do so. Get them out of the way early and open the book up to far more epic things. Give us a lot more insight into the Hill Folk. Redeem Creedmore because for the love of the gods the man is unlikeable. Lastly, USE your secondary characters man! Seriously, I want to see an army of Agents of the Gun going up against the Line and their gunships and Engines. That would be not only be spectacular but suitably EPIC sir. That’s the only other bother I have. The actions scenes are kind of ho-hum. They present at a disconnected level that I found distracting, when they could have been much better with the ideas and creativity that abound here.

So this may be a book that people like and it may not. I myself found it unique and cleverly told, but the story and characters left me flat overall. Here’s hoping the concluding volume serves me better.

1 comment:

  1. Very thorough review! I'm more old-school S&S than "new weird" I think, but it does sound interesting. :)



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