“The Rise of Ransom City” by Felix Gilman

The Rise of Ransom CityThe Rise of Ransom City is the sequel to The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman, but also works very well as a stand alone book. It’s one of the best second books I’ve read; it manages to avoid the sophomore slump by shifting focus to a new character, “Professor” Harry Ransom, who we saw briefly in The Half-Made World. Liv and Creedmoor are still in the story, but they are just minor (but important) characters whose adventures Harry occasionally hears about – Heroes of Another Story. (I apologise for the TV Tropes link… see you in a few hours).

I love a good framing story, and this certainly has one. The Rise of Ransom City is presented as the autobiography of Harry Ransom, inventor extraordinaire (according to himself, anyway). It is introduced and edited somewhat by a journalist of Ransom’s acquaintance, Elmer Carson, who has had his own adventure tracking down the full manuscript. It covers Ransom’s childhood and his journey from a relatively unknown traveling showman looking for investors for his Apparatus, to his rise to widespread infamy.

Ransom makes a very unreliable narrator – sometimes he’s self-satisfied, other times he’s full of despair and hopelessness, and he’s often evasive. He dedicates his life to his Apparatus, with which he hopes to provide free energy to the world – the one problem is that he doesn’t fully understand how it works, and it doesn’t reliably work yet. He would probably be insufferable in person, but his flaws make him all too recognisable, and his genuine idealism and earnestness make him ultimately pretty darn lovable. You can’t help but root for him, even as he makes some questionable decisions and ends up in some pretty awful situations (not all of them are his fault), and learns that achieving your dreams can sometimes be the worst experiences of your life.

The rest of the characters are pretty wonderful too – there’s the mysterious and profanity-ridden mechanic Mr. Carver, who is Ransom’s constant companion. There’s the Amazing Amaryllis, a brassy woman trying to make it as a female magician against all odds. There’s the wry Elmer Carson, who is also the editor of the book (usually books with “editor’s footnotes” are very overdone – this was not; I actually wished there were more footnotes). And of course, there’s Adela, the passionate inventor of the player piano, and Ransom’s intellectual match.

I also loved the setting – this book didn’t have the quest-type plot that the previous one did, so there was much less breakneck travel into unexplored territory, and more regular travel around the settled West. I especially enjoyed the portion of the book set in Jasper City – vibrant and cultured, but still quite new – probably inspired by late 1800s Chicago, or something like that. It was also nice to hear about the great events of the day, but from someone that (mostly) wasn’t involved in them.

There were some pretty sad events – most of the book is set during a war, and war has many casualties and some of them are very unexpected. One in particular was devastating. The Gun and the Line are both pretty horrible (this book shows that in even more detail than the last), and it was nice to see the beginning of the end of their Great War.

I still have a lot of questions about the people and the events in this book (for instance, I really want to know more about the Folk and their motivations), so I’m eagerly awaiting Gilman’s next foray into this world.

I highly recommend this book, whether or not you’ve read anything else by Gilman. If you’ve read The Half-Made World, you will be satisfied – we find out about what Liv and Creedmoor did and the consequences thereof, but with a fresh and exciting voice. If you haven’t, this is a great introduction to both the world and Gilman’s style.

The Rise of Ransom City by Felix Gilman (The Half-Made World, #2)
Tor Books, 2012 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.

“The Half-Made World” by Felix Gilman

The Half-Made WorldThe Half-Made World is a Western-inspired fantasy (is the fantasy/Western mashup a new trend now? I’ve read quite a few recently – Brandon Sanderson’s The Alloy of Law, and my last review, The Six-Gun Tarot.)

Dr. Liv Alverhuysen, a psychologist, has received a letter from a veteran’s hospital at the very edge of the tamed world, offering an opportunity for her to study mental ailments that are unknown outside the industrialised and war-torn West. She has never really thought about adventure, but ignoring her colleagues’ ridicule, she sets off to lands she barely knows anything about. Unfortunately, her peaceful research opportunity doesn’t exactly turn out as she envisioned – one of the patients at the hospital knows a secret that could shake the foundations of the New World, and the two dominant Powers of the West, the Gun and the Line have sent their forces to retrieve him. As you can imagine, hijinks ensue.

Felix Gilman takes the romance and promise of the American exploration of the West – the engines of industry, the famous outlaws, the unexplored territories, the mistreated original inhabitants of the land, and creates a whole new world where metaphor becomes reality. The Engines are immortal demons that control armies of Linesmen intent on spreading industry and homogeny wherever they go. The Guns are their arch rivals, spreading their influence through superhuman outlaw Agents of the Gun, who go by monikers like Hang-‘em-High Washburn and rob banks and blow up train tracks. Unsettled land is malleable by nature – the landscape is not fixed, thoughts can create independent entities and words have much power. Human settlement solidifies the land but does not entirely drive out the magic – the settlers instead controls it by enslaving the original population, the First Folk.

The characters are also terrific. Liv starts out very wide-eyed, but slowly gains her footing and learns to take herself less seriously as the novel progresses. She’s also pretty amusing sometimes – she constantly psychoanalyses herself, but manages to completely ignore her dependence on her “nerve tonic” (laudanum). She ended up being one of the more memorable characters I’ve read about recently – she’s not especially brave or confident or even nice, but she comes through in the end.

The Agent of the Gun Creedmoor was the ultimate anti-hero (I’m not actually sure he qualifies to be a hero at all). He’s not very nice either, and he’s terrified in some ways. He makes a perfect foil to both Liv and his direct antagonist Sub Invigilator (Third) Lowry of the Line (who’s an upper-level bureaucrat who tries his hardest to be self-effacing but cannot quite succeed). It was great to get points of view fron the Gun, the Line and an uninvolved party (Liv) – it made for a very compelling method of storytelling. The side characters were also pretty compelling – the loyal giant Maggfrid, the outwardly gruff businessman Mr. Bond, the lonely but sane Director of House Dolorous, and of course, the object of everyone’s search – the General.

Gilman’s writing is top-notch; I especially love his sense of humour. The story never really drags, and Gilman does a great job of telling you just enough to keep you satisfied, but still intrigued.

Here’s the point where I usually say I can’t wait for the sequel (The Rise of Ransom City, review coming soon), but I actually read the sequel instead of writing this review. So, yeah, it’s that good, and I can’t wait for whatever book Gilman releases next! I’ll also be checking out his back catalogue.

The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman (The Half-Made World, #1)
Tor Books, 2010 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.

“The Six-Gun Tarot” by R.S. Belcher

Six Gun TarotThe Six-Gun Tarot is a pretty mind-blowing book. It incorporates a million different ideas and tropes (for instance, the Christian creation myth, Native American myth, Chinese myth, horror, ghosts, angels, an order of assassins, the American Civil War, early Mormonism, the plight of women and gay people in the 1800s, romances), all within a small Nevada town (with all the trappings of a proper Western). It chronicles the inception and rise of ancient evil and the forces arrayed against it. It also introduces a ragtag band of heroes, each with their own complex backstories – even minor characters are three dimensional. And it does all this in under 400 pages, and it works!

Golgotha is a town in the middle of the Nevada desert, next to an abandoned silver mine. Somehow, Jim Negrey, a fifteen year old boy who’s running from his past with his father’s fake eye in his pocket, ends up here. He soon discovers that Golgotha is no ordinary town – things that are normal in Golgotha would be exceptionally strange anywhere else. And then there are the people –  the seemingly immortal sheriff Jon Highfather, his half-Indian, half-coyote deputy Mutt, the banker’s wife Maude, who seems like a proper lady, but isn’t, the upstanding Mormon mayor who has more than his fair share of secrets, the local inventor Clay, who has a strange obsession with death… the list goes on.

The depth of the characters is astounding. Belcher can flesh out a character and make you sympathise with them in just a few sentences – I’m not sure how he does it. He also manages to write both good women and good gay characters. Each person has their own secrets, their own motivations and dreams and internal conflicts, and their own growth and character arc and it all flows completely naturally. It’s not just individuals, either – the interactions between the people of Golgotha show genuine chemistry, especially the romances. I especially loved the relationships between Harry Pratt and his wife Holly, Maude and Mutt, and the sheriff Highfather and the notorious salon owner Bick (it reminded me a lot of the amazing chemistry between Sheriff Bullock and Al Swearengen on the HBO show Deadwood.)

The story takes place via many different viewpoints, but also alternates between time periods. One would think that this would be very confusing, but it works very well. As the threat in Golgotha unfolds, we learn more about how the threat came to exist. I really enjoyed the in-universe creation mythos, especially the portrayal of the Christian God. However, the “everything is true” mindset did get a little frustrating at times, since I didn’t really know what the “rules” were, and stories where absolutely anything is possible grate on me a little.

The Six-Gun Tarot definitely has some problems – some very cheesy rituals of the Dark Side, a few too many characters, so even with Belcher’s magic character depth powers, some still come off as bland. The magic system was confusing to me – I would have liked some explanation there. However, my biggest problem was that I can’t imagine where the story goes from here. The mythos established here is so vast and complex – I would love to see more novels set in Golgotha, but this book tackled such a huge story that anything that comes after it runs a huge risk of being insignificant (or making the events of this book seem unimportant). Some Golgotha short stories would be awesome, though.

All in all, a great genre-bending book! Read it!

The Six-Gun Tarot by R.S. Belcher (The Six-Gun Tarot, #1)
Tor Books, 2013 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.