Steampunk was a genre that was already well and truly overexposed by 2010. But Felix Gilman demonstrated most ably that there was life in those old pistons yet with his third novel, The Half-Made World. Gilman's story is set in a curious world that is still undergoing its own creation in its westernmost boundaries, while war rages among human and non-human factions in the pioneer civilization pushing against those boundaries. It's an intriguing premise around which Gilman builds great mystique simply by explaining little to none of it. We understand as much about his world as its inhabitants do.
There is a way, I suppose, to interpret much of what goes on here as a kind of parable about American expansionism and manifest destiny, though it's arguable that was Gilman's aim. His is a world overrun with dueling ideologies. The Red Valley Republic, rooted in an rigidly idealized set of notions about political virtue, has been vanquished by the Line, a horrendously fascistic technological hegemony ruled by sentient engines. The Line is now fighting the Agents of the Gun, comprised largely of lone-warrior guerilla types armed with special sidearms possessed by intelligent magical entities. The origins of either Line or Gun, and the enmity between them, get little backstory explication apart from an intriguing hint here and there.
Dr. Liv Alverhuysen is a specialist in the fledgling field of psychology, who decides somewhat impulsively to give up a promising academic career and travel far to the west, to a hospital called House Dolorous. This curious institution, neutral in the ongoing war, accepts casualties, both physical and mental, from either side. It is itself protected by a spirit being that both draws the suffering out of the hospital's patients, and deals swift death to anyone attempting to attack the hospital or commit any violence on its grounds. Liv, who has a bit of an inflated self-regard, believes she can put her therapeutic ideas to good practice among the patients, one of whom is an old man they call the General, whose noggin has been well scrambled by the Line's horrific mind-bombs.
In point of fact, the General really was a general of the late Red Valley Republic. And it has come to the attention of both Line and Gun that when he was struck down, the General was seeking some kind of artifact — presumably a weapon — secreted away by the aboriginal First Folk. Now both sides are looking for a way into the protected grounds of the hospital to snatch the General and extract, somehow, this secret from the old man's broken brain.
It takes a few chapters to warm to Gilman's storytelling. He combines magic and technology, fantasy and western motifs to sometimes very odd effect. But before long, his world becomes a richly evocative, densely textured setting that really conveys a sense of place. Everything becomes suitably macabre and engrossing the further west we travel, as the story evolves into an often surreal odyssey that takes us into lands where the weather, the flora and fauna, don't always make sense. Where many SFF writers might feel the need to burden us with explanation and exposition, Gilman just runs with his imagination and trusts our suspension of disbelief to keep us all afloat, and it does. There were a couple of details I was curious about (such as why the Line had not already sought to overrun the highly civilized east, where Liv is from, with its cities and universities and high culture). But as the story is hurtling towards an action-packed, bravura finish, such nitpicks fade into the background.
Liv, I must confess, isn't the most likable heroine I've ever encountered. She's compulsive, sometimes casually insensitive even to those she cares most about. But I was charmed by the rakish Agent, John Creedmoor, dispatched by the Gun to beat the Line to the Hospital and retrieve the General. Liv sees into Creedmoor's internal contradictions better than he can. While his Gun, inhabited by a rather petulant spirit named Marmion, can exercise powerful control over him, Creedmoor still pushes its limits, knowing that, as it needs him to do its bidding, it cannot really do him the serious damage it threatens. Lowry, the Line commander, is one-dimensional because he has to be, given his upbringing. His emotional range vascillates between fanatical dedication to his orders (which is expected of him by the Engines), and fear that said fanaticism will be punished as self-aggrandizement. The Line demands unquestioning obedience, but does not reward success or individual accomplishment. I don't see that ending well for it.
An inventive and refreshing entry in all that is steaming and punky these days, The Half-Made World — a little like Leone's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly by way of Terry Gilliam's Brazil — heralds Felix Gilman as a talent to watch.