All of the stuff I saw about Half-Made World indicated it was Steampunk. Given my lack of luck with that genre recently, I had my reservations.
Half-Made World has Steampunk elements, sure. But that’s probably the least influential genre in this book. Weird West, Magical Realism, military fantasy and lots of action, there’s so much in Half-Made World to enjoy. It stops just short of the kitchen sink.
A fragile-minded but adventurous doctor leaves a cushy posting at an old-world hospital on the invitation of a lifetime: come out West, and find a cure for the deadliest weapon ever invented. With her simple-minded but physically strong old friend, she boards an Engine of the Line, heading for the edge of the world.
Meantime, the forces of chaotic freewill and crushing order, incarnate in the forces of Gun and Line, continue their incessant war. Gun Agent Creedmoor and Line peon Lowry are compelled by their superiors to chase the same target: a general who may have the knowledge of a weapon that can change the course of the war. And the good Doctor Lysvet Alverhuysen has put herself directly between the agents of two very different hells.
Their path leads them past the edge of the world, into the Unformed. What they find there will be far more dangerous than the Gun or the Line.
The story is complex and nuanced. Romance plays no part in it, which is a nice change. The main characters are unique: each driven by their own desires and demons. Lysvet is, rightfully, the centerpiece. All her fears, all her history come to a head at the edge of the world, when she has to make a hard choice.
I thoroughly enjoyed Half-Made World. At times, the story dragged a little. At nearly 500 pages, that’s not too surprising, but it was the exception, rather than the rule. Gilman takes time to carefully build the world, leading the reader through it a bit at a time. The setting itself is partly based on reality, and half on imagination. The world is by turns so familiar I can see it, and so strange it leaves me in awe. At times, the familiarity is jarring, the mind trying to fit it into the mold of what is already known, but it is a fabulously strange place, populated with the weird and nasty and lovely.
However, while Gun and Line are truly unique, interesting forces, the Hill Folk are a little troublesome. Too clearly Noble Savages, they are painted in only the broadest of strokes, and very clearly Other. But there’s no real depth to them, and in a setting already teetering on Weird West, they are uncomfortably close to thinly-drawn, penny-western Indians. That is something I would like to see addressed and strengthened in the second book, because for now, they are a sour note in an otherwise wonderful world.
This is a worthy addition to a library, and certainly worth a second read. I think there are layers to the story that I have not explored fully. Certainly the religious and social messages are worth closer examination. I look forward to more stories of Gun and Line.