Felix Gilman leads us down an inspired and unconventional path in his sequel to 2010's acclaimed The Half-Made World. But while that path offers us a great character and world, we only get a pretty good story. The previous book ended with its protagonists having discovered the general whereabouts of a secret weapon that could end the ongoing war between the Line, a technological tyranny, and the rebellious Agents of the Gun, who fight them, if not exactly on behalf of the average person caught between the two. But here we do not, except briefly, accompany Liv Alverhuysen and John Creedmoor on their fateful quest. Instead, our hero is one "Professor" Harry Ransom, seen in the background of only one brief scene in The Half-Made World. His travels bring him briefly in contact with Liv and Creedmoor, and he ends up playing his own very significant role in the escalating war.
I think Gilman's storytelling choice here was a wise one. No writer wants to be predictable, after all. Harry Ransom, like so many literary rogues, is a highly charismatic fellow. He is what we'd think of as a snake-oil salesman, traveling the wild west in a gaudy wagon from which he peddles his wares to rubes and rustics. But he's not actually dealing in fraud, apart from his penchant for inflated self-regard and self-promotion. Yet even that is borne from a genuine, deeply held conviction that he is one of those men put on this world to change it. He does, though not quite in the way his utopian ideals have led him to believe. I suppose there's a bit of madness in dreamers like this. But wouldn't life be so much bleaker if we didn't have them?
Ransom, perhaps the Platonic ideal of the unreliable narrator, tells his own story in a delightful colloquial voice immediately evocative of Mark Twain. His unflagging sense of personal destiny only makes his narcissism charming. He's the sort of fellow whose first inclination, whenever he comes up with what he thinks is his latest great idea, is to name it after himself. He does this without a trace of self-consciousness or arrogance. The main product he is selling in his travels is the Ransom Process, a means of generating electricity without wires through a generator of his own devising. It's not a perfect process, as the generators themselves have an unpleasant habit of spiking or even blowing up completely. And we don't learn, for the longest time, exactly how he discovered the secret to this technology. We're led to a growing suspicion that his generators and their purpose aren't quite what he thinks they are.
Ransom, who dreams of founding a utopian city of parks and mechanical wonders, wants to reach the bustling metropolis of Jasper City, home of the world's most powerful industrialist, Mr. Alfred Baxter. He blithely assumes the two of them will partner up. But Baxter is already aware of Ransom and has begun a campaign to discredit him as a charlatan and mountebank. His considerable ego deeply bruised, Ransom, whose fortunes are erratic at best, finally reaches Jasper, falling in (fittingly) with a theater troupe as the war inches ever closer. While trying to wangle a meeting with Baxter, Ransom discovers his own legend is spreading following an incident involving one of his generators, during his brief time traveling with Liv and Creedmoor. He isn't entirely happy. A narcissist loves attention, until he realizes the kind of attention he's getting is something quite out of his control.
Gilman writes to the highest standards of craft he has yet exhibited in his career, giving us his most richly developed cast, especially in Ransom. But the story itself isn't always consistent in engaging the reader. Pursuing an often rambling course (as befits Ransom's own life), it moves in fits and starts, with peaks of high drama and plateaus of exposition. Also, it climaxes earlier than it should, causing the whole affair to run out of most of its steam long before the last page is turned. But its most memorable moments will make the journey altogether worth taking for readers who loved The Half-Made World. If "Professor" Harry Ransom is still capable of big dreams after all the story puts him through, then perhaps his long-sought utopia was in him all along.