Review by Clare Deming
The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman is an odd, but utterly fascinating book. I was initially drawn to it by the setting - a fantasy world with steampunk trappings, but also one in which humanity is constantly pushing against a western frontier. However, unlike the American frontier of our history, the wilds of this land are not yet made. The rules of weather, physics, and nature are in flux, and the further from civilization one goes, the worse this instability becomes. The frontier is also inhabited by the native Folk, who are not quite human, but are often hunted or enslaved by humans. Further west, the free Folk are numerous, with rumored spiritual powers and underground cities.
The narrative follows the story lines of three characters. Dr. Liv Alverhuysen answers the call of a letter from the House Dolorous, originally meant for her deceased husband. The House sits to the far west and is a hospital for those injured in body or mind. It is overwhelmed by patients in the wake of war and the fall of the Red Valley Republic that dared to stand for its ideals thirty years past. Liv is a psychiatrist, like her late husband, and decides to go in his place.
Creedmoor is an agent of the Gun - powered and directed by the demon housed in his weapon. He would prefer to go about his own business, but his Gun - Marmion - calls him back to its service. The Gun is perpetually at war with the Line, a collection of demon-possessed trains that is always expanding to new reaches of the west.
Sub-Invigilator (Third) Lowry serves the Line as one of many workers in an operation full of industrialism and a hive-like culture. Lowry does his job with obsessive perfection and hides his blooming ambition from his superiors. The Line is quick to sacrifice anyone who does not perform up to its standards, and there are always more men ready to fill any gaps.
Both Creedmoor and Lowry head toward the House Dolorous, for a famous General of the Red Valley Republic is rumored to be there under treatment. This General may hold the secret to a weapon which could finally turn the tide of war for either Line or Gun, but his mind has been shattered by the weapons of the Line.
Dr. Alverhuysen, Creedmoor, and Lowry all become involved around the search for the General, and this takes them through an amazing series of interactions with each other and the world around them. The Line uses steam-power, tracking devices, telegraphs, and mysterious bombs. Creedmoor uses his cunning and ruthlessness. The characterization for everyone was very strong, and I found myself rooting for each one of them at times, even if Dr. Alverhuysen was the only likeable character, trying to heal and find the humanity in everyone.
The writing was superb, and even during lulls in the action, the characters and the world itself were so intriguing that I never lost interest. I would have preferred a more conclusive ending as far as the plot, but this was a story that was more about the characters, and the end of the book certainly dealt with that.
A second book set in the Half-Made World is due to be released in November 2012.