BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Phil, the oldest member of a secret society of immortal personalities determined to improve the world, finds the recruiting of its latest member to be a fraught experience.
PROS: Strong dialogue; excellent use of theme and form; interesting ideas and execution of same.
CONS: Talky nature may turn off some readers; ironbound reliance on first person POV leads to some structural weaknesses.
BOTTOM LINE: An entertaining novel where the writers’ enthusiasm comes across on the page.
A conspiracy as old as time. A clash of ideas in modern Las Vegas. A new relationship between two people not looking for one but getting into it anyway. The rekindling of a long,drawn out, complicated relationship crucial to the secret history of the last five centuries. A communal Memory Palace with ideas, thoughts, reflections and the cultural heritage of the past three dozen millennia. The contemporary real world struggle for the future of a secret society, and humanity. The Incrementalists by Steven Brust and Skyler White is all of this, and more.
The novel is a study in opposites, caught in the synthesis of opposing ideas and philosophies clashing together messily. Like the Incrementalists itself, the novel jams over the friction between contradictory things that are nevertheless both true and important.
Told in a first-person point of view, we see the world of The Incrementalists from two very disparate points of view. Phil is the oldest of the Incrementalists by a wide margin. He’s the senior of the Salt, and we get the wide angle, deep time perspective from him. By contrast, Ren is to be the newest member of The Incrementalists, carefully recruited by Phil to take the personality of a recently-deceased member. However, Phil has ulterior motives in picking Ren, and Ren has some secrets of her own. As do the other Incrementalists drawn into the affair.
The Incrementalists is a dialogue-driven novel with conflicts that largely exist in the realm of conversation. When the story does resolve conflicts in other ways, it’s a sharp shock that is meant to jar the reader, and does. The sense I got from reading the novel is that the authors had fun writing the book together since there is a definite joy and enthusiasm that comes across in the writing. The book’s focus on debate and conversation, and the natural feel of it, makes it seem as if it was developed between the authors by roleplaying conversations together and transcribing the results.
The Incrementalists is a high wire act that mostly succeeds, although there are some places where I would have liked just a little more rigor, a little more detail, a little more development. Maybe even a break in its point-of-view technique to make things clearer for the reader. A talky book like this might also not appeal to everyone, but for me, it more than entertained — it transported me into its world.
(Readers of this review may also be interested in my interview with Skyler White and Steven Brust about the writing of the book.)