The Half-Made World
by Felix Gilman
Edited by Eric Raab
Review by Benjamin Wald
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765325525
Date: 12 October 2010 List Price $25.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Felix Gilman is one of the most exciting new fantasy authors on the scene today, and with The Half-Made World he reminds us why. Both of his previous novels shared a common setting; the evocative and beautifully explored city of Ararat. With this book, he sets about constructing a new fantasy setting, a secondary world that resembles the American west, if the west had been split into dozens of warring states and confronted by two factions of vicious, immortal supernatural beings, gods or demons depending on one's perspective, that have engaged in a centuries long war orchestrated through human dupes and worshipers. This new setting is every bit as fascinating and powerful as Ararat, and when this is combined with a fast moving plot, beautiful writing, and some subtle characterization it makes this probably Gilman's best work yet, and a must-read for fantasy fans.
The story begins with Liv Alverhuysen, a researcher of mental illness in the calm and civilized east, who is plagued by tragedies in her past. For reasons even she can't quite comprehend, she accepts a request from a remote hospital to travel to the chaotic west to try to cure some of the victims of the ceaseless war that rages between the Gun and the Line. The men of the Line worship their supernatural Engines, immortal spirits that are incarnated within giant trains on whose behalf the Line fights a ceaseless war of expansion to extend the Line, or railroad tracks, across the west. Under the influence of the Engines the Line has developed terrifying weapons to fuel their expansion, ranging from machine guns and flying machines to gas shells and the terrifying noise bombs that shatter men's minds. The Line is ruled over with iron discipline, a complex hierarchy in which every man is subordinate, and obedient, to the needs of the Engines.
The agents of the Gun, on the other hand, are a more factitious lot. Where the men of the Line number in the tens of thousands, the agents of the Gun number in dozens. Each agent carries a weapon in which is incarnated one of the immortal spirits of the Gun, and this spirit feeds its agent superhuman strength, speed, healing, and allows incredible feats of marksmanship. The Guns, and the agents who carry them, are violent, angry, impulsive, and very dangerous. Through guerrilla raids, blackmail, poisoned wells, and dynamited bridges the agents of the Gun work to slow the progress of the Line and destroy the Engines whose order, collectivism, and cold malice is the antithesis of the Guns.
Liv soon finds herself pulled into the war between the Gun and the Line. Liv takes as a patient an aged man whose mind has been destroyed by the noise bombs of the Line. It turns out that this babbling madman is in fact a famous general of the Red Republic, a union of states that had opposed both Gun and Line, winning a series of victories before being destroyed 30 years ago. New information has been discovered by both the Gun and the Line that indicates that the General knew of some secret weapon that he hoped could destroy both the Gun and the Line forever. Both sides hope to use this weapon to destroy their adversaries and end the war once and for all, and so both sides seek to capture the General in the hopes that his shattered mind still retains the secret of the weapon. Liv is caught between the forces of the Gun and Line, both desperate to capture the General and avoid the other side learning his secret.
The narrative switches between Liv and two of her pursuers, John Creedmore, and agent of the Gun, and Lowry, a high ranking officer of the Line. This allows Gilman to show us what both factions look like from the inside. However, it is Creedmore who quickly comes to steal the show. At first glance, he seems like a stock fantasy character, a villain who we revile while envying. Who wouldn't want to be the grizzled gunfighter, stronger and faster than anyone else, able to live outside the law and society by his skill with a gun? This is mixed with a Faustian element, for this power comes only through a deal the spirit of the Gun, who can punish their agents with the Goad if they are disobeyed. It is this extra element that begins to add depth to the character. Creedmore’s apparent freedom, from law, society, conscience, and so on, relies on a deeper slavery to his relentlessly destructive master. As the story continues, we also get to see more of Creedmore's character and past, which begin to explain why he made the Faustian deal in the first place. This insight renders Creedmore a fascinating character, whose bluster and violence, while real, are built on a core of fundamental weakness that feels very real. He becomes more than a villain; not even really an anti-hero, just a human being in a very strange situation. The exploration of Creedmore's character is one of the real pleasures of this novel.
The other characters, although well done, don't quite reach this level of interest for me. The putative protagonist, Liv, is a bit of a cipher. While we learn a little about her through her flashback to a traumatic childhood event, she is a rather passive character, and never really held my attention. Her main function is to provide a newcomers perspective on the setting, and she succeeds in conveying to the reader the splendor and grotesquery of her surroundings, and to be a sounding board to Creedmore.
The third viewpoint character, Lowry, functions well as an antagonist and provides us with some excellent insight into the Line, but he is less multi-faceted than Creedmore. He never rebels against the situation he finds himself in, and so remains just a villain, if an occasionally sympathetic one.
This book hooked me from start to finish. The main conflict, both physical and thematic, between the Gun and the Line, order and chaos, individuality and collectivity, is a venerable trope in fantasy, but Gilman puts many fascinating new twists on this theme, never falling into cliché. This is a book filled with action and excitement, beautiful writing, and some real insight into what makes human beings tick. The ending cries out for a sequel, and already I can't wait to read it.