BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In a Western frontier torn between agents of the Gun and of the Line, three people are drawn into a conflict over a secret weapon that may finally end the war.
PROS: Engrossing setting; engaging writing; interesting ideas; exciting action.
CONS: Long and occasionally feels it.
BOTTOM LINE: Fascinating “fantastic western” with strong writing; a book that can spark a debate or provide entertainment.
I mean this in the best possible way: Felix Gilman’s The Half-Made World made me want to play a roleplaying game based on it. Gilman’s third book is one of those rare examples of a genre mash-up that feels like something new with its mix of fantasy tropes, the Western setting, and an almost Lovecraftian bleakness. (Please tell me in the comments how wrong I am.) It’s an entertaining adventure novel that could also spark debates about American history and ethics — or provide the source material for an RPG.
My insistence on the RPG angle is not just a product of my misspent youth, but also a reaction to Gilman’s worldbuilding, which is one of the primary pleasures of this novel. In the setting, Gilman mixes the familiar with the strange, adding magic and weirdness to a recognizable Wild West-like setting. Or rather, Gilman makes the familiar into something strange, mostly by taking our metaphors of the West and making them concrete.
For instance, a typical Western might have the wild gunslinger as a metaphor for the untamed west/individualism and the railroad line as the symbol of the coming of civilization/order; but Gilman’s Western turns the Gun and the (railroad) Line into supernatural, almost cosmic beings, each intent on their own conflicting alien agendas. (The meta-physics of these unstoppable and inhuman forces pings my Lovecraft radar, but again: misspent youth.) The fight between the super-powered agents of the Gun and the technologically-advanced armies of the Line are exciting adventures — more exciting if you don’t mind terrible collateral damage as the little towns and average people are ground up by this war; but these fights are also an interesting examination of our Western mythology.
Which is not to say that everything in the setting breaks down so neatly into symbols of America’s mythic relationship with the West. For instance, though the natives of the west are pushed out of their ancestral lands and/or enslaved, Gilman’s native First Folk happen to be semi-immortal telepaths who return from the dead. (Now imagine Last of the Mohicans with those natives: “He’s the last of the Mohicans — until the others come back from the dead.”) And the Gun and Line are not the only spirits around.
So Gilman’s Western setting isn’t just made up of metaphors made concrete. And even when the metaphor undergirds the description — as when the far west is not merely unmapped, but is literally in flux and unmappable — Gilman has so much fun with the details that it is infectious. When the half-made deer-like animals of the far west are described as tasting like fish, I laughed out loud; and I recoiled when the almost-turkeys there were described as having human-like eyes. What more can you ask of a book than that it makes you laugh and disgusted?
Whereas many Westerns — both classic (e.g., The Virginian) and deconstructed (e.g., Dances with Wolves) — will lean to one side or the other in depicting this mythological fight between the wild in some form and the settled, Gilman’s somewhat bleak world offers no easy answer. That lack of solution sets this book apart from many of its generic ancestors in some ways. Like many an epic fantasy, we find ourselves in the middle of an almost cosmic war between Gun and Line, with a young initiate and an older, roguish warrior searching for the plans for the Death Star, I mean, the destruction of the One Ring, I mean…
Well, what I really mean is that Gilman takes many genre tropes — the Eastern greenhorn from Westerns, the war-ending magical weapon from fantasy, the pseudo-Victorian ornithopters from steampunk — and twists them: the Eastern greenhorn is a doctor on the forefront of the new science of psychology; the magical weapon may end the war, but which of these two terrible sides are we rooting for?; and the Line may have some steampunky toys like ornithopters and machine guns, but it also has sanity-devouring noise bombs that would make Cthulhu proud. Once again, Gilman makes me simultaneously want to write a paper on genre tropes and roll up a character.
Which brings us to the lesser part of The Half-Made World: the characters and the plot. The Half-Made World largely splits narrative focus between three main characters, each of whom give us their own unique view on the world as they rush towards their inevitable confrontation: John Creedmoor is the reluctant (and super-powered) Agent of the Gun, a man who would rather raise hell at a local town, but who is tasked with finding a crazy old man who may remember how to find the weapon that can end the war; Lowry is the Linesman, a technocrat who tries to balance his pride with his need to be a faceless cog in a smoke-belching machine, which becomes something of a problem for him when he is tasked with leading an expedition to find the crazy old man and stop Creedmoor; and Liv Alverhuysen is the Eastern psychologist who has her own traumas to deal with and who gets the opportunity to travel out to the West, to the sanitarium that happens to house the old man. These three characters — and the children’s history book that Liv picks up — give us our main views of this world; and while none elicit so much engagement that I’m rushing out to write fan-fiction about them, they are each interesting in their own ways, and cleanly drawn.
Given the conflict baked into those characters (and into the setting), the plot unfolds rather logically — if, at times, a little too slowly. Let me get that negative note out of the way first: there are times when you may want the plot to pick up the pace, whether it’s during some of the description of the characters’ long travels, or during the somewhat long, occasionally repetitive set-up. That aside, the writing is evocative; and with the straight-forward plot animating the characters — discover the secret weapon before the other side does or die (or kill) trying — I found the book going by more quickly than expected.
Despite any of its few shortcomings, The Half-Made World is a fascinating twist to a lot of old-seeming ideas; an entertaining book; and — I almost hate to give it this kiss of death — a thought-provoking book. Now if only I could find my d20, I’d be ready to face some of those thoughts it provokes.