Beyond the mighty Opal mountains and the civilized worlds of the kingdoms of Koenigswald and Juddua, lies the Half-Made World, where reality is still fluid, and in the uttermost west, turns toward formlessness and lack of definition. Here, two arcane powers, the technological remorseless of The Line, and the chaotic nature of The Gun, compete and collide over the fates of those who would settle The Half-Made World. As a Doctor of Psychology makes her way to a hospital at the edge of the world, the revelation of a possible weapon capable of defeating the Engines of The Line or the powers of The Gun send agents of both in the same direction. The fate of the Half-Made World, or its future, is seemingly at stake, if the holder of the secret could only remember it.
The Half-Made World is an extremely difficult novel to classify in terms of subgenre. It’s certainly a fantasy of some stripe. The demons of The Gun and the powers behind The Line. Magical weaponry. Strange First Folk. A secondary world that is inspired by America, and feels a lot like the American West, but isn’t. It’s as if Gilman decided to write a hybrid fusion of Epic Fantasy, Steampunk and a Western, and put his own distinctive take on reality to it.
The story revolves around Dr. Liv Alverhuysen. Living in the solid East, a clear analogue of Europe, she is persuaded by a letter from a sanitarium, The House Dolorous, to head West to employ her skills at psychology amongst the wounded and sick there. Her journey is paralleled by an agent of The Line and an agent of The Gun, seeking that dread secret, seemingly held by one of the residents of The House Dolorous.
The agent of The Line is Lowry. Outwardly, he presents himself as a cog in the machine of the technocratic dictatorship of The Line, the power behind massive railroad-engine-like machines and their infrastructure. Internally, he burns with an ambition he does not always admit to. His struggle between trying to be a good soldier, and his own personal desires is a fascinating one that unfolds in the course of the book. The dehumanizing, irresistible, faceless nature of The Line is described in vivid and terrifying terms.
Creedmoor is the Agent of The Gun, a reluctant and often balky servant of the demons of The Gun, who is bound to the Demon/gun Marmion. He fights, argues and is often in conflict with the very power that gives him extraordinary healing skills. He seems modeled on a gunslinger out of the American West, who had a hardscrabble childhood and early life marked by war, conflict and eventually his pact with The Gun. Creedmoor’s casual brutality, capacity for violence, and the inevitability that chaos will swirl in his wake is wonderfully rendered.
The novel subverts and submerges expectations at every turn, often leaving the reader without a net. The prose is vivid and filled with tropes, ideas, plot and characterization. This comes through especially well in the audiobook. Gilman’s writing is evocative, full of invention, and exquisitely carries the listener along. All of the different points of view, even when they meet each other, feel different, as if the author braided three books together into one.
The narration of the audiobook by Tamara Marston, is bright and clear, and the three point of view characters, Creedmoor, Dr. Alverhuysen, and Lowry, come across distinctly and well. I particularly liked the voice given to Creedmoor’s Gun, Marmion.
Having now read the book, and heard it again in this audiobook, I’ve thought a lot about The Half Made World. Its ambitious, complex, daring, but I am not certain that the author’s reach doesn’t exceed his grasp. The question of what the First Folk really are and why they exist isn’t entirely clear. Are they meant to be magical analogs of Native Americans? That seems such a shallow idea for such an inventive writer otherwise. I have a pet theory, and perhaps The Rise of Ransom City (See Cathy Russell’s review here at The Functional Nerds) has more to say about it.
Given how the author uses language, technique, style and willingness to defy expectations (sometimes to frustration!), I am going to make a guess that the mystery of The First Folk remains as such. Is it all right for a novel to be riddled with such unsolved mysteries and shattered expectations? The Half-Made World certainly gives that high wire act a try. The novel is not for everyone, but for those readers willing to immerse themselves into The Half-Made World are invariably rewarded. Felix Gilman’s imagination is breathtaking, unexpected, and often very subversive.