Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Half-Made World

    Okay, the rundown is as follows. Felix Gilman has written an amazing book here that is dragged down at the end of its length by characters that don't completely matter and a plotline that stops instead of ends. While a "no ending" ending can be pulled off well, this one isn't, and makes me question how many of the reviewers read the book to the end.

              However, it is brilliantly written (if disappointing in places), and if you can enjoy the journey more than the destination, I'd recommend this to anyone with a love of weird fiction and steampunk/dieselpunk narratives. Take it out from the library and give it a whirl, maybe you'll find more here that's cool than I did in the end. 

More, as always, below. 

  "The Spirit feeds on suffering. Let's see what happens when we choke it."
- John Creedmoor      

     I first looked into this book because I attempted to scoop Fantasy Book Critic. I'm gonna be honest about that. They had it up on their release slate with no review, and I thought "well, if I could get ahead of the Bigs, there's a chance I could get some more exposure". That, however, did not occur for several reasons, chief among them that I had a massive slate of books to get through and while it would have been cool to do a more current review, I was hamstrung by what I could get easily and The Half-Made World wasn't on that list*. Still, the premise intrigued me enough that I decided to pick it up when I found it on the shelves of good old Montclair Books one day and began to read, not remembering that I wouldn't have much time when I went back to school for my graduate degree.

             And so it languished on bookshelf after bookshelf, until one day I needed a book for a vacation. I don't usually take library books on vacation, so I remembered the book and remembered its author, Felix Gilman, was one who had written several other books I was in the process of reading. So, knowing now that I liked the author and I should like the book, I made another try at The Half-Made World

             And it was actually pretty good. The early chapters take a little to get going, and the last act tends to run out of steam pretty quickly, but overall, it's a book that's well worth the read, from a highly-inventive author who sees the line weird fantasy drew in the sand and decided to stand just on the other side of it, smiling politely.

        The Half-Made World is the story of what is possibly the final days of a war for the territory known as "The West" between The Line, a faction of engine-worshipping industrialists gone mad and spreading their railroads across the West; The Gun, a crazed faction of bandits, outlaws, and "Agents" who worship demons housed inside their guns and cause chaos and fear for their inhuman masters; and the neutral factions, who just want to survive the war and remain as they always have been-- free from influence and able to go about things as they please. The current war is a continuation of a past war, where a third faction known as the Red Valley Republic once held off the opposing sides of unchecked order and unchecked chaos, only to be destroyed and routed at a time when they might have been able to rally. The last remnant of the Republic is a man named The General, a man whose mind is completely destroyed by something The Line calls a "noisemaker".

             The story begins when Doctor Livset Alverhuysen is given an offer to examine The General at a hospital known as The House Dolorous, a small patch of neutral territory in the West. Liv has her own trauma, but she agrees to do work with the House and see if she can repair The General's mind for them. House Dolorous exists on neutral territory, so she won't have to worry about the war going on. And so Liv and her hulking man-child assistant Maggfrid head West, towards the House and the General, hoping they can repair his head and make progress with the patients damaged by the Line's noisemaker bombs. 

              At the same time, a former Gun agent named John Creedmoor is trying to live a life of leisure and complete ignorant bliss when his masters call him up to take up his demon-possessed weapon once more and retrieve The General for them so they can mine his head for whatever secrets he kept at the end of his republic. Creedmore tries to resist at first, but the power of the Gun is seductive, and soon he finds himself journeying towards the House Dolorous to retrieve the senile old man.

               And finally, Sub-invigliator (second-class) Lowry, who once saw The General at his final battle in the mountains, is tasked by the mysterious all-knowing Engines of The Line to go west and discover what shape their former enemy is in and what it was he was trying to reach in the final battle on the mountain where the forces of The Line took him down. 

And then things get weird.

               The Line rams its way across the country, using up anyone it can, Lowry getting promoted higher and higher (and going on monologues about his creepy industrialism fetish) while the Gun creates openings by way of massive fights that usually leave towns dead in its wake. Liv makes her way slowly across the landscape, caught between the two great Powers and many minor ones in between, and the two agents pursue her. But what exactly is the General's secret? And will it grant Creedmore freedom from the Gun? And what is the area beyond the West, the half-finished area just outside of the grasp of what they call Creation? To find the answers, Liv will be forced to face bandits, corrupt merchants, minor powers, and even The Line and The Gun themselves as she tries to unravel just what The General found, and why everyone is so interested in his tangled mind.

                  Okay, so I suppose the first thing I have to laud the book for is its density. It's got a rich, complex plotline on a grand scale. The summary up there doesn't even begin to do it justice. There are baronies, conflicts, histories...while The Half-Made World is mainly concerned with its protagonists, the sheer scope and bombast of the book encompasses a decades-old conflict and manages to work that in without ever engulfing its own plot. The West would actually make for a good campaign setting, or maybe a way to expand the universe with a little more setting work and detail. As it stands, it's a vibrant and dangerous world full of its own mythology and frightening ideas. It's a good way to draw the reader into the book and help flesh out the things around them. While a quick look at this blog would say otherwise, it's rather rare that an author lets his setting be a character as much as the actual characters, and in this case, it's a fantastic way of letting the audience know of the grander conflict without forcing it into every line.

                      Second, the pacing is great. Gilman is telling a very dark high-adventure story here, and the plotline never lets up for a second, creating a sense of dread or a trapdoor beneath the reader in the calmer portions, and ratcheting up the tension. The villains are never far away from Liv, and whenever Creedmoor shows up, there's only a few pages before something turns into a bloodbath either for the Gun or the Line. While the book's on the longish side, the relentless pace makes it move quicker, never getting bogged down in the details of the setting or what the characters are doing. It's nice when a book moves like this, and that it does it so well in an age where pacing in most books is taken for granted (I've seen a lot of books take the 'they read, so they're used to slower pacing approach and it pisses me off) is even better.

                       But there are two major flaws I have to address, and they're kind of big ones:

                       First, the characters aren't very well-detailed. We know a bit of their backstory, but out of all of them, the most fleshed-out of the three is Creedmoor. Most of the time, all three main characters are used as representations of what they are. Lowry in particular goes on long, manic monologues about the nature of industrialization, almost to the point of fetishism, and it gets hard to tell whether it's just good characterization, or whether it's just a long author fillibuster on the nature of what things are. In fact, out of the three, Creedmoor is the only one who even has the slightest doubt about what he's doing, making him the only conflicted character. Liv has flaws, yes, but she tends towards idealism for the most part, and even when her views are challenged, is never really shaken from her course. Her first priority is the same at the end of the book as it was in the beginning, with only minor adjustments. There should be some kind of character growth, and only one character shows any of it.

                    Second, and this is a big thing, the book doesn't end. The last chapter resolves absolutely nothing that was brought up in the early chapters, and while this ending can and has been done well, in this case it just means that the journeys, trials, and tribulations the characters have faced amount to nothing. While this could in fact be a subtle hint at the ending, The Half-Made World is not a book that does subtle hints well. It's best when it's big, bombastic, and running on all cylinders, a sort of more coherent version of Pynchon's History novels. It's not as good when it starts remembering that its underlying theme is the "winning" of the West and how eventually that idea engulfed a once wild and exciting area, making it tame and turning it into what John Ford called "a garden"**. But with no resolution, with no way of ending the book, any possibility of the premise or the characters having any significance in the overall story is lost. The book has literally no ending, and thus just sort of shrugs and comes to a stop. 

                  And in the end, it's for these two reasons that I can't recommend the book. Yes, it's an awesome book. Yes, there are some amazing fight scenes, descriptions, and a rich setting to explore. But in the end, after all's said and done, it's all setup and no payoff. We never find out any of the underlying mysteries, we never have a conclusion, and in the end, the book shrugs its shoulders and walks away. In fact, that makes it more disappointing. Gilman's clearly a good author with a command of his craft, and that he just stops is frustrating and makes no sense. If he intended to leave room for a sequel, he hasn't. If he intended to make a statement about how the status quo was preserved and all the characters ultimately meant nothing, why have us follow them for almost five hundred pages?

                     So get this book from the library if you get it at all. It's weak, and while Gilman is really good at delivering breathless action and high adventure, the lack of an ending and much character development ultimately means this is more of a miss than a hit.

Me? I'm gonna go dig out my Stephen Hunt books, or maybe try to grab a copy of Rise of the Iron Moon. All this New Weird done somewhat wrong is making me wish for some New Weird done right.

The Tetherballs of Bougainville by Mark Leyner

- Thunderer by Felix Gilman


* A note to aspiring book critics: You can do this with just your library and some rudimentary knowledge of web design. A steady source of income or people willing to give you review copies of books makes it even easier
** A line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which contains my favorite line about life ever: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend". 

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