Friday, November 5, 2010

The Half-made World, by Felix Gilman

You have to stop and take notice of a book endorsed not just by Eric Van Lustbader, but the queen –Ursula Le Guinn- herself. You stop, notice and, if you are in any way like me, you worry – about overkill, disappointment, and,if the book is indeed a winner, about that interminably long wait, accompanied by much teeth-gnashing, for Part Two to reach your grasping little hands.

A few lags in pace – and a rather lackluster heroine - apart, here’s one for the gnashers amongst us.

Steampunk meets the supernatural in this sweeping tale of a wild, untamed world and the powers that battle for its control. Felix Gilman’s ‘The Half Made World’, part one of a duology, is an inventive rewrite of the settling of America, teeming with complex characters, fantastic devices and a dystopian landscape as compelling as it is unsettling.

To the East of this World are ancient lands that have long since been civilized by the calming hands of science and the arts; the West, however, is young and unbridled, and the object of a long standing war between two rival factions - the Line, a civilization marked by industrialization, a subdued population of slaves, and formidable weaponry; and the cult of the Gun, a loose mob of assassins – each more colourful than the next - dedicated to little beyond destroying the Line and keeping the flag of anarchy flying high. Marking the tenuous zone between the Line’s territory and the uncharted terrain beyond it is the House Dolorous, a sanatorium tending to the wounded of both sides.

This is a world at the mercy of unearthly powers. The servants of the Gun and the Line, with their incessant conflict seem human enough; yet they are controlled by strange forces, invisible God-like beings that a character calls .. ”..not so much political entities as religious enthusiasms, not so much religion as forms of shared mania”. Even the House thrives under the aegis of a mysterious subterranean Spirit that lives in a symbiosis of sorts with its patients, healing them and, in turn, feeding off of their energy. A third faction that had reared its head in a short-lived bid for democracy - the Red Republic – has been vanquished by the Line, and its leader now lies in the House, his mind scrambled by a noise bomb ( arguably the most inventive of the generous array of gadgets Gilman offers us in this book).

Into this unstable world strides Dr. Liv Alverhuysen, former denizen of the genteel East and practitioner of a radical new science called psychology, to try and heal the General. But the General’s mind holds other secrets, and Liv is caught in the crossfire as the Line and the Gun both battle to gain control of him. Kidnapped along with her near- catatonic patient by Creedmoor, a swashbuckling Agent of the Gun, she soon finds herself trekking across the great uncharted lands with her unlikely companions, and a regiment of the Line on her heels.

Gilman crafts great characters, and his World boasts a remarkable ensemble cast. Creedmoor, for instance, is a charismatic anti hero - flamboyant as they come, flawed in all the right places, alternating between glee and shame at his affiliations. . He gets all the best lines in this book, usually in his dialogues with his spirit mentor Marmion, and their relationship – rather like that of a rebellious teenager and a father at the end of his tether – is one of the highlights of this book for me. Chemistry crackles between him and Liv as well, something I expect the sequel to the World will gleefully explore. Then there is Lowry, recruited into the service of the Line as a ten year old, and seemingly well suited to his role as a dispensable cog in its great and terrible machinery. He is Javert to Creedmoor’s garrulous Valjean, doggedly following in the Agent’s trail for a master he fears and resents in equal measure. “Hardly the perfect model, “he thinks, disparagingly describing himself ”.., but effective and cheap enough for mass production. Incapable of disloyalty; he lacked the parts.” Here's a character, intriguing for all his supposed facelessness - heading either for a grand subversion, or utter annihilation, and I can't wait to find out which.

But the most mesmerizing character here is the uncharted world itself, teeming with powerful spirits that no one can really comprehend, save its indigenous people, the First Folk . This vast, yet claustrophobic world, where the lines between the vegetable and animal, the living and non living, real and hallucinatory, seem blurred, and where the very rocks seem malevolently alive, is truly a feat of world building.

By contrast, Liv is a disappointment; insubstantial when standing up besides robust characters like these. In many ways, she seems a half made world herself, spending a large part of the book meekly acquiescing to the experiences that claim her – a loveless marriage, a convenient widowhood, runaway/ kidnap victim- still unsure of what it is she wishes to become. It is only towards the end of the book that she steps out of Creedmoor’s considerable shadow, with a sudden vigour that promises much excitement in Part Two of the book.

Read ‘The Half -Made World’ to discover speculative fiction at its best – capturing the excitement and menace of a world at once threatened and empowered by technology, and examining issues as diverse as faith, national identity and individuality .

Thanks to Tolly Moseley for sending me a copy of the book to review.

And, dear reader, to pique your interest, here’s a short story by the author, set in the same world as this book.

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