Book Review: The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman

Hi all!

Though I’ve reviewed a few books that didn’t pan out like I hoped, one of the things I enjoy about writing reviews is getting a chance to read things I might not have picked up for myself initially. I tend to wear blinders sometimes, focusing on those writers and genres I would normally pick up or consider picking up for myself. In the second half of 2011, my friends at Tor Books threw me a curve ball that I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy. Turns out I actually did!

The Half-Made World from Felix Gilman merges many genres to define its world, yet does so effortlessly. Sure, there’s a little steampunk, a bit of a Western vibe, a pinch of fantasy, and a smidge of alternate history, but it’s not like Gilman put them all in the blender and set it to puree. Each element is gradually introduced, from the psychologist Liv Alverhysen to John Creedmoor, an agent of the Gun and to Linesman Lowry, an agent of the Line – each of the three is seamlessly woven together around a single mysterious character, Liv’s patient – The General – and whatever secrets his addled mind may be hiding…

Quite honestly I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book. Like many adventures, it begins with the three main characters starting out their journeys and ends in an explosive way when those three paths meet. And yet the way world elements are introduced, through flashbacks of the main characters, exposition in characters we meet along the way, and then through children’s books read along the way and snippets of conversation, it all seems so natural and organic that it gently tugs you along towards the conclusion.

The larger organizations of the Line and the Gun were quite intriguing to me and I only caught glimpses of their philosophies as the story progressed. The Line was easiest to figure out as the embodiment of progress. In this case, it was the railroad line and the Engines that drove things forward. The Gun was a bit more difficult. I believe the Gun falls on the side of rugged individualism and the Western spirit.

Beyond that, each side had an intriguing “spiritual” aspect that spoke to its agents in various ways. The Line almost seemed a bit like George Orwell‘s dystopian 1984, with the individual suppressed in favor of the larger machine. And the Gun, though I’m not a big fan of Westerns, hit me something like the lone gunman approach of many Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s.

The characters’ relationships with these disembodied leaders also varies a bit. A Linesman doesn’t dare question orders, just plowing forward at any cost. And Agents of the Gun seem to have a back and forth conversation with the “demons” inhabiting their namesake weapons. It was almost like the “devil on your shoulder” approach talking you into doing things you don’t believe you should.

The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman is a tough book to pin to any one genre, but I think it should be enjoyable to anybody who likes their fantasy and science fiction with a bit of a philosophical bent. Now I’m going to have to see what else Gilman has written!

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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Book Review: Awakenings by Edward Lazellari

Hey there!

Urban fantasy is one of my guilty pleasures these days. In a time where the modern world is full of fear, uncertainty, and doubt, it’s nice to believe, even just for a brief moment, that there’s a little more magic in the world and anything is truly possible. It doesn’t hurt that there have been some great new urban fantasy stories to read lately, such as Alex Bledsoe’s The Hum and the Shiver.

In Awakenings, author Edward Lazellari introduces us to an unlikely group of heroes in a multiverse where a little magic still exists here on Earth. Cal MacDonnell, Seth Ramcrest, and Daniel Hauer live lives very different from one another. One is a cop. One is a photographer/pornographer. And one is a 14-year-old student. But one thing connects them all. Thirteen years ago they seemed to just wink into existence. None of them remembers anything before that night that haunts their dreams.

Now, thirteen years later, events are conspiring against them. Cal finds himself on patrol with his partner when they encounter a giant with a sword. Seth meets an unusual lady who leads him away from his apartment shortly before it explodes in a fireball. And Daniel can’t seem to get through a single day without incurring the wrath of his principal, his step-father, or bullies at his school.

Awakenings is the first book in a series and Lazellari’s fantasy debut. It mixes actual multidimensional theory (M-theory, an outgrowth of string theory in physics) and the idea of multiple universes separated by thin membranes with a story that interlinks the lives of people in two separate worlds for quite an intriguing setting. Obviously not all the secrets of the series are revealed in the first book, but I’m curious to see where Lazellari is taking things.

My only beef with the book is the fact that the ending defies fantasy series convention a bit. Usually each book in a series will take a few of the overall story threads and keep a few going from book to book but resolve a few in each book. This leaves you wanting to know more but satisfied that least a few things have been wrapped up. Lazellari ends Awakenings more like the season finale to a TV show where you’re left hanging until the next season starts back up. Regardless of whether it was intentional or accidental, I’m now on the hook to read the next book in the series.

That said, the writing itself is excellent. Early in the book he describes the lack of sensation as a character gets her head chopped off:

“She heard a creak behind her. Before she could turn, there was a swish, like the sound of a switch whipped through the air. Then silence. Not a drop of rain, not a squeak; someone had pulled the plug on the whole world…”

I’m definitely intrigued by the idea of a multiverse based on String theory where on the other side of one of the membranes from Earth is a world of magic locked in a medieval struggle. And the Odd Couple-vibe of Cal and Seth working together just adds to the intrigue.

Check out Awakenings on bookstore shelves today!

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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Book Review: Ganymede by Cherie Priest

Hi all!

In the decades I’ve been reading (nearly 40) and the nearly five years I’ve been reviewing books, I would never in a million years have predicted that these words would go together: Steampunk, Civil War, submarines, and zombies. And yet, Cherie Priest‘s novel Ganymede manages to pull them all together in a coherent and lively tale.

Andan Cly is an airship captain with a past. He’s smuggled guns, goods, and sap – a substance with some seriously undesirable long-term effects even if it does get you high. It’s worth a ton of money, but Cly wants to put it far behind him and try to stay on the straight and narrow. He’s working to change his ways, all for the love of a woman in the Seattle Underground. As such, he takes a job for a man who’s done some good for Seattle despite his shady sideline activities so he can afford to stay put for a while.

Josephine Early on the other hand isn’t planning on going anywhere. She just wants the Texans and the war out of her city of New Orleans. And as a Union spy, she’s well positioned as a brothel owner to hear things and pass them along to her allies among the pirates and the Union army. It just so happens that one of those secrets was about a submerged vessel at the bottom of Lake Pontchartrain that could change the course of the war and give the North a fighting chance. The only problem is finding a pilot skilled enough, talented enough, or crazy enough to get it out of the lake, down the Mississippi, and into the Gulf under the noses of the Texans.

Turns out Early and Cly had a bit of history together from a decade before and Miss Josephine is desperate enough to send a telegraph to the pirate with an enticing offer and not much detail. When Cly gets the message, he figures he might as well do two jobs while in New Orleans… And when they get together, the sparks fly again. From the time Cly gets the telegraph to the end of the book, the heat between them and memories each has of the other provides some great romantic tension to the story. But that’s only part of the story. Priest manages to work in pirates, airship battles, zombies, and voodoo into the tapestry of her alternate history of the Civil War.

I was intrigued from the first few pages of Ganymede and it held my interest throughout. For some reason I’ve avoided the whole Steampunk movement in literature so far, but after getting a taste of Priest’s world, I’m going to have to start reading her Clockwork Century series to see what I’ve been missing. Ganymede follows the two earlier books in the series – Boneshaker and Dreadnought – but is a standalone novel in that setting. Boneshaker won the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction and was also nominated for both a Hugo and a Nebula.

Ganymede is on bookstore shelves now and I’d encourage you to give it a read. Whether you’ve been on the fence about the whole Steampunk movement or have known about it a while, Priest’s writing style makes it easy to slip into the clockwork world Early & Cly inhabit. For more about Cherie Priest, you can also check out her website at CheriePriest.com.

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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