Above all else, I’d have to say that Felix Gilman’s The Half-Made World is a very weird book. It’s entertaining. It has a great story. It has very interesting characters. But, more than anything else, this is a weird book. We thankfully get to travel through this book’s world in the company of a character who has never been to the wild western reaches of a world that is quite literally still forming itself out of primordial chaos. While things are never completely explained, Liv Alverhyusen does help one keep one’s head in all the pell-mell action.
The book opens with Dr. Liv getting an invitation to work at a hospital at the far edge of the world treating the victims of noisebombs (which cause irreparable damage to the mind). She soon finds herself in the middle of a four hundred year old war between the Engines and the Gun. This war is terrifically fascinating and I loved the dribs and drabs of history that came out in the characters conversations. (I really hope that Gilman is writing more books set in this world, because I would love to know more about the Engines and the Gun’s Agents.) It would be easy to read this book as a fantastical metaphor for the settlement of the American West. There are even a group of characters that could be stand-ins for the Native American tribes. But I can’t help but feel that that interpretation would be a little too glib and a little too easy. This book is too original for that kind of reading.
Along with Liv’s thread of the narrative, we also get to drop in on the respective agents of the Engines and the Gun. First, there’s Creedmoor, an Agent of the Gun. Through a pact with a demon (that, yes, lives in his gun), Creedmoor becomes a larger than life outlaw: wily, anarchic, and hard to kill. Then there’s Lowry, a Sub-Invigliator for the Engine. He’s the complete opposite of Creedmoor. The only similarities they share are ruthlessness in doing their jobs. Gilman is brilliant at showing the flaws of both, making it hard to root for either side of the great war. Life in the Engines is like the worst sort of Dickensian nightmare, full of smoke and sickness and soul-crushing labor. They sweep all before them as they look for new resources to keep running. But the Gun, if they didn’t have the Engines to fight, would be mindlessly violent. It’s not safe to live in either world. I couldn’t help liking Creedmoor. In spite of his pact, Creedmoor has a mind of his own and thwarts the Gun’s demon at every opportunity.
As the book progresses, Liv travels further and further west, in the company of Creedmoor and a former General who may or may not have the secret to ending the war locked up in his noisebomb-shattered brain. And as they move west, they start to approach the edge of the world. Things start to get really, really weird. There are unknown and frightening creatures in the woods and the deserts and the swamps. The weather and the terrain change from day to day and hour to hour. It defies settlement. At times, it defies reality.
Perhaps the most intriguing character aren’t the humans, but the land itself. No doubt like many other readers, I thought the title was a metaphor. The descriptions in the book of the world still making itself are magical. Between those passages and Creedmoor, this is a hell of a story.