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INTRODUCTION: With only two novels so far - the duology Thunderer and Gears of the City, both in my top novels of 2008 and 2009 respectively, at the time and now also - Felix Gilman has become one of the top-notch authors of interesting and unusual fantasies that mix the traditional and the strange. So despite knowing little about "The Half Made World" at the time, the book was a highly anticipated novel of 2010 and when the blurb below surfaced, my interest only grew:
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.
FORMAT/CLASSIFICATION: "The Half-Made World" stands at 480 pages divided into five parts and 52 chapters, all named and with an epilogue that sets up the concluding volume of the series. The novel follows the POV's of its three main characters, Dr. Liv Alverhuysen, Agent of the Gun Credmoor and Sub-invigilator Grade 3 Lowry, with occasional flashback snippets that illuminate the larger picture.
The first part of an intended duology, "The Half-Made World" is a fantasy set within a wild-west kind of mythology; with elements of both steampunk and magic "The Half-Made World" sits at the boundary between the more traditional adventure fantasy and the new weird. "The Half-Made World" stops at a very good point and offers a complete reading experience, though of course I really want to see where the story goes next.
OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS:"The Half-Made World" is quite a strange book. It is dark and dense, but a page turner nonetheless that would not let go once I entered its flow. The known-world is divided between the settled East and the expanding into uncreation West. Some centuries ago the seemingly impassable mountains that formed the border of the settled world opened and people started settling the lands beyond and in the process fixing them into reality. However un-natural or supernatural things sprung out here and there, most notably spirits, demons and "magical" engines, while the local people of the "uncreation" who may be immortal and have magic are pushed farther and farther away, with the remnants enslaved.
The settled parts of the West consist of many independent lands but all live under the ever expanding shadow of the Line, a highly regimented industrial and well armed civilization of millions, led by the magical engines of above, currently 38 in number, that span tens of thousands of miles of tracks; opposing them are the Demon Guns and their agents, who are few - some tens, maybe a hundred - in number, but who have extreme powers of endurance and who foment uprisings, rebellions and generally wreak havoc wherever they think the Line is vulnerable.
Some decades ago a "free republic" has risen, led by a General who was rumored to have had a pact with one of the original natives and knew how to use their magic; nevertheless after 40 years of flourishing, the Republic was finally crushed by the Line and after 10 more years of underground resistance, the General was rendered mad by a Line "noise bomb" in his last stand and he was presumed dead.
However it is rumored that he is now a patient at an asylum on the farthest borders of the West with the uncreation, asylum that is neutral and under the protection of a powerful spirit; a letter surfaces hinting of an "ultimate" weapon the General may have been given by his native allies and both the Line and the Gun want it. Effective but unruly Gun Agent Credmoor is sent to infiltrate the asylum, while a thousands strong - with flying machines, poison gas, bombs, machine guns and the like - Line force is also dispatched to deal with the Asylum and their Spirit, with sub-invigilator, grade 3 Lowry as one of their officers.
Liv Alverhuysen, a psychiatrist from the far away settled cities of the East and with a traumatic past of her own, receives an invitation to join the Asylum staff - invitation actually addressed to her much older and recently deceased husband, but she figures out she would be gladly received too. She engages on the long and harrowing journey with her servant/protege, who is a relatively young man of her age, very strong physically but mentally challenged so to speak. And so it starts, with the three main characters above converging on the Asylum and then of course lots and lots of things happen.
What are the strengths of "The Half-Made World"? In the above overview I mentioned two - most notably its exquisite and quite original world-building which makes reading the book worthwhile on its own. And of course, the energy of the narrative flow that does not let go of the reader. The combination of story, action and descriptions are balanced perfectly and the continual switching between the three main threads is smooth.
There is also an interesting dynamic represented by the characters: Lowry is a devoted Line official, one in literally millions who has really never known life outside his mechanistic and grimy civilization, though he has participated as operative on Gun Agent hunts. So he is less of an individual and more of a cog in the machine.
Credmoor is the supreme individualist bonded with a Demon Gun whom he more or less has to obey in return for the immense physical benefits, but the Guns are quite anarchic too with essentially one purpose - wreak havoc to avoid the Line crushing them for ever... So Credmoor is both the "lone gunman" of the Wild West mythology, but also its outlaw.
Liv represents settled civilization and culture; sure she has her own traumas and the decision to go into the unknown shows she wants to "escape" the confines of her society, but overall she is the one clearly humane character of the novel. So we have the machine, the rebel and the explorer , though they are all quite memorable characters on their own too.
While "The Half-Made World" immerses the reader into its world, the author's superb writing style exerts its magic and the novel offers quite a lot, the big picture remains a bit murky to the end. There are tantalizing hints sure, the storyline and the fate of the main characters are more than enough reasons to strongly enjoy the book, but I was left wondering about the series' destination and even if there is such.
All in all "The Half-Made World" (A++ and currently my #8 fantasy and #13 novel of 2010 in a very strong year) is a powerful novel that confirms Felix Gilman as a master of the new weird fantastic.