Sick of predictable books that fill your subgenre bingo card with the same subgenre elements over and over? With The Half-Made World, Felix Gilman has blended elements from alternate history, Steampunk, Westerns, and epic fantasy to create something truly original.
The jacket description of The Half-Made World is cryptic, to say the least. There's mention of an old General locked in an asylum and the Doctor of Psychology come to cure him. That would be Dr. Liv Alverhuysen, lately come from the civilized East. She's a widow and a doctor of psychology and she's tired of sitting through these interminable faculty meetings. Upon receiving an offer to join the staff of the House Dolorous, an insane asylum far to the West, she promptly packs her bags and sets out.
What she doesn't know is the House is home to a forgotten hero: General Enver, once the leader of the democratic Red Republic and now a madman unable to remember anything but the snatches of nursery rhymes. Years ago, he believed he had the power to stop the relentless, destructive war between the Line and the Gun, the two great powers trying to shape the West in their own image. The soulless, mechanistic Line wants to bring the land to heel, while the Gun seems to relish anarchy. And each have dispatched men to capture the General. The Guns send one of their Agents, the disreputable and dangerous John Creedmoor, while Sub-Invigilator (Third) Lowery represents the will of the Engines. Liv knows nothing of the General's past, but she wants to cure him; Creedmoor and Lowery want to capture him. And so the novel's three point-of-view characters are set at cross-purposes.
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Liv steals the novel right out from under the other characters. She's a spiritual sister to Eula Goodnight, the magnificently self-assured spinster missionary played by Katherine Hepburn in Rooster Cogburn. At first glance, she looks like the vanguard of civilization, come to institute Sunday school and good manners. But spend more time with the character and you realize she's just not docile enough to live anywhere but the wild, wild west. It's simply the only place big enough for her. At the end of the novel, she's harder and maybe just a bit dangerous, but finally her own woman. It's an emotional journey often associated with chick lit, but here it's worked in blood and cordite, rather than appletinis and stilettos.
Felix Gilman has produced a great Western, with the dark core of a classic like Shane or The Searchers. Forget the heroic sheriff in the white cowboy hat—these main characters are deeply flawed. The respectable Liv is addicted to laudanum and strangely anxious, while Creedmoor is a liar and a killer and a coward who can't break away from his masters. As he tells Liv: "Some of us are not suited to domesticity. Some of us, fight it though we may, are not suited for reason; we must make our peace with madness." They're just not cut out for safe, settled places, and when set loose on a lawless place, they make for compelling, violent storytelling.
But the speculative elements make Gilman's West more turbulent and unsettling than the backdrop of the most fevered nineteenth-century dime novel. The steampunk elements are lightly handled, used largely to establish the culture of the Line and establish that the rest of the world is no match for these unstoppable machines. Linesmen feel no need to romanticize wide-open spaces; anywhere fit for habitation is made of iron and filled with deafening engine noise. They want to bring order to the world, and they're aided by an array of anachronisms, like film and radio transmitters and flying machines.
Then, not content to leave this a simple story about industry overpowering environment, Gilman takes his world-building even a step further. In this raw, ontologically unstable land, our darkest impulses aren't just given free reign. They become literal monsters, active in the world. The Colt revolver and the train, two hallmarks of the genre, have become more than props—they're animate creatures, each with their own agenda that takes no account of humans.
Any one of these genre strains would have made a half-decent novel. But the pieces fit so well, and they're combined so skillfully that it create something new and and exciting — and well worth reading.