Book Review: The Half-Made World – Felix Gilman
About the Book
The world is only half made. What exists has been carved out amidst a war between two rival factions: the Line, paving the world with industry and claiming its residents as slaves; and the Gun, a cult of terror and violence that cripples the population with fear. The only hope at stopping them has seemingly disappeared—the Red Republic that once battled the Gun and the Line, and almost won. Now they’re just a myth, a bedtime story parents tell their children, of hope.
To the west lies a vast, uncharted world, inhabited only by the legends of the immortal and powerful Hill People, who live at one with the earth and its elements. Liv Alverhyusen, a doctor of the new science of psychology, travels to the edge of the made world to a spiritually protected mental institution in order to study the minds of those broken by the Gun and the Line. In its rooms lies an old general of the Red Republic, a man whose shattered mind just may hold the secret to stopping the Gun and the Line. And either side will do anything to understand how.
I can promise you one thing. You’ve never read a book like this before. Fantasy met the Wild West and this incredible book was borne from that unique union.
This book works on a number of levels. On the surface it’s fun to read; the story is nicely paced and the characters which fill the pages are – well, very interesting. However, this book can be taken deeper. The world is being made, and two different lifestyles are warring for dominance (and warring in general), heedless of the fact that the everyman basically just wants to be left alone. On one hand you have the outlaws, controlled by demon-possessed guns. On the other you have the slaves of the engines, men and women who basically worship productivity. Gilman uses these two fantastically different cultures marvelously and in such a way where I couldn’t help but apply some of what he was portraying to our own world.
While it is easy for the reader to, at first, love or hate certain characters, it quickly becomes apparent that Gilman is keeping much of his story in that blessedly gray area I love so much. Not every character is what you’d expect them to be. Gilman does a great job of subtly breaking down the readers first impressions to show the man (or woman) underneath what our first impressions lead us to believe. While a demon-enhanced gun and a society with technology initially seem somewhat polarizing, Gilman does a great job at humanizing the two main characters in either of these societies. They may seem to be part of an all-encompassing war and each a slave to their own ideals, but it quickly becomes clear that that is just not the case. These are two men being used, and when that becomes clear, the playing field evens out somewhat. The characters become human and enter a more equally balanced personal playing field.
Gilman keeps his perspectives limited. There are three main points of view, the two I mentioned above and then a woman, Liv, who is a psychiatrist from the stable, and already formed East. This was a smart decision for Gilman to make. Three perspectives allow the reader to become comfortable with each of the three cultures he is exposing the reader to, as well as the three cultural perspectives regarding this war and the formation of the West in general. With a world as unique as the half-formed one Gilman created, this limitation of perspectives really serves to help the reader grasp the ideas and concepts in The Half-Made World more.
It was the period spent at the hospital where I had the hardest time with. This is a point where a lot of supernatural events and beliefs take place in the form of a spirit which is believed to protect the hospital. This part seemed to grow, swell and then climax incredibly quickly for me. In fact, the whole thing passed at such a breathless pace that it didn’t quite seem as believable as the rest of the book. The mystery of the spirit is solved in an amazing period of time. The speed of it all, warring with the long history Gilman is giving the spirit through the tales of the First Folk he shares, don’t quite line up in my mind. I found it hard to believe that the mystery of the spirit was solved in such a quick amount of time by a stranger while the hospital staff, who had worked there for years, never questioned the being’s purpose, just accepted it.
Gilman leaves this book with an uncertainty I’m not used to in the conclusion of a book. The ending will probably make the reader fairly certain about what the next steps in this adventure are going to be, but not entirely certain. There is a huge ambiguous quality to the end of this book. It’s not quite a cliffhanger, but rather a hint of something more. He kind of leaves you with hints of questions you might not even know you have. I sincerely hope that the First Folk, which seem to have a large, yet hugely subtle role in this book, play a larger role in the next. If there was one hitch in world development overall, it would have to be the overly mysterious, yet hinted-to-be-epically-important First Folk.
When I think about this book, I can’t decide if it is the world or the characters that I liked more. The concept of the world is breathtakingly unique. The characters within it are amazing. As Gilman unwraps the mystery and shocking depth of his still-forming world, his characters gain the same depth. The world and the characters nicely parallel each other. It’s quite amazing how he managed that, and something that I, quite honestly, can’t stop thinking about.
There were some problems with development that I had, like the spirit at the hospital and the maddeningly obscure First Folk, but overall the quickly moving plot and the (I hate to say it again) marvelous world really overshadow those small hiccups. This book is unlike anything I’ve ever read before. Ever. It’s not just the Wild West aspect of it, but the world on the whole and the characters (like Liv) who I could just see prancing around the West in the 1800’s. The paranormal aspects are not frivolously done; in fact if this book is anything, it’s very well measured. Gilman obviously used a heavy hand with his plot. The pacing is controlled. The characters are well done, and the supernatural is interesting but important to the story and rather surprisingly un-super. In fact, in a world so unpredictable, so dangerous and forbidding, it’s perhaps the incredible control Gilman uses as he creates this tale that seems almost out of place. Regardless, I’m waiting with breathless anticipation for the second, and concluding volume to be released.
This is one hell of a book.
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