I’m no stranger to Ferrett Steinmetz’s writing. He is my favorite short story author, which you can tell by looking at my Best Podcast Fiction of All Time list posted in 2014–from thousands of stories over more than a dozen podcast’s backlogs, I picked my 50 favorites, and 6 of them were written by Ferrett. More than any other author. He has developed a talent for writing stories with speculative elements that feel original, tight writing and plotting that is always comprehensible but never too slow, and characters that I care about. So, needless to say, I was very excited when I first heard that Ferrett had sold his two book urban fantasy series. This is Ferrett’s premier novel, titled Flex, and published by Angry Robot Books.
If you believe in something strongly enough, the power of your belief will twist the universe to match your vision. This kind of belief is how ‘mancers are born. The rules are different for each ‘mancer, because the rules are defined by the ‘mancer’s beliefs. ‘Mancers are a force of chaos in the world, because the ‘mancers twist the world to their views, but also because with the use of magic always comes the flux, the blowback of fortune the universe uses to balance the changes made by the magic.
Each ‘mancer is different but the one thing they all have in common is that they can brew Flex, a drug that is magic distilled in crystal form. Anyone can use Flex, and while its effects last, you can twist chance to your favor, but you’ll still get hit by the Flux.
Paul Tsabo works for Samaritan Mutual insurance company, where his job is to counteract the adverse effects of ‘mancers and Flex on insurance predictions. The general public is afraid of ‘mancy, ever since Europe became a magic-fried wasteland in WWII, but no one hates ‘mancy as much as insurance companies because the chaotic effects defy prediction. Paul’s job is to investigate insurance claims to find evidence of ‘mancy to invalidate insurance claims. Paul loves his job, wrangling paperwork. The world only makes sense to him through paperwork.
What Samaritan Mutual doesn’t know is that Paul has recently discovered is that he is a ‘mancer himself. A bureaucromancer. Anything that’s logged in paperwork anywhere in the world, he can find. He is just learning how to use his abilities when the Flux blowback from a Flex user in his own building ruptures a gasline and sets his apartment building ablaze, separating from his daughter. He uses his ‘mancy in a desperate attempt to save her from the flames, but she is still badly scarred by the accident. Naturally, Samaritan Mutual refuses to cover the reconstructive surgery. If Paul wants his daughter to have any chance at a normal life he has to find a way to use his ‘mancy to help her, without the Flux blowback just making things worse. The only idea he has to find this trainer is to track down Anathema, the very ‘mancer that caused his daughter injury, and once he has learned enough, to turn his ‘mancy against her.
The magical system of the Flex universe offers the potential for endless variety because the rules for each ‘mancer are mostly self-defined, based on whatever personal belief system they apply to the world–with the strengths come particular limitations, which will be entirely different from the strengths and limitations of another ‘mancer. Bureaucromancy is a really interesting usage of magic–at first blush it just sounds dull, but as he explores the different ways he can use it, it has a particular sort of power that feels different from any other kind of magic I’ve seen. My favorite, though, has to be videogamemancy, which is used by one of the other characters in the book–as an avid gamer, it’s very appealing to me to be able to make the world operate by the rules of a video game in some fashion or another.
Another reason I like the magical system is that it makes the plot very unpredictable. Every time I thought I was getting into groove of how the next section of the novel was going to flow, some new wrinkle is added by a new application of ‘mancy, or some unpredictable effect of the Flux. This kept me on my toes, in a good way.
I hoped that Paul’s daughter wouldn’t end up being just motivational set-dressing, but I thought he portrayed her well in the story–she is her own person with her own motivations and feelings.
I enjoyed this novel through and through. Whenever I put the book down, it was with reluctance, and I’d be thinking about the book constantly until I could read it again. The book will especially appeal to you if you’re like me and you love video games, especially since most of the videogamemancer’s referenced tropes that exist in real video games, as well as characters and games that your average gamer will be familiar with.
The book stands alone well by itself, but has a clear hook for the second book (which, as you might expect, is titled Flux). I’m looking forward to getting my hands on the second book. I highly recommend it. This is an easy Hugo nomination pick for next year. I hope that Ferrett has all the success he could ever hope for with this book, so that he will write many more.