Jan 18, 2013

The Rise of Ransom City by Felix Gilman

William Blake once wrote these lines on the power of imagination to perceive the world: "The Sun's Light when he unfolds it / Depends on the Organ that beholds it." Felix Gilman told me that Blake's poetic vision figured into the genesis of The Half-Made World, so I feel it apt to begin talking about the sequel, The Rise of Ransom City here at the beginning of this post. Not simply because it's Blake, but more importantly, because it conveys Gilman's approach to this sequel. Unlike the first novel, written in third-person limited perspective, chronicling the three-fold adventures of a woman traveling into an unknown frontier, a demonically driven gunslinger, and a human automaton enslaved by a technocracy, The Rise of Ransom City is the first-person memoir of an average man thrust into extraordinary circumstances. 

This makes for a very different novel from Half-Made World, which involves gunplay, explosions, and chase scenes. That isn't to imply it's a mindless, action-packed B-novel -- far from it. Gilman's steampunk/weird West series takes place in a well-defined secondary world built on the mythos of the American Old West, hyperbolizing the American icons of the Gunfighter and the Steam Engine as enemies in a centuries-old war. At the close of Half-Made World (HMW), our heroes had found something that would turn the tide of this war against both sides, promising hope for a future without the dominance of Gun and the Line.

Readers hoping The Rise of Ransom City (RRC) would continue where HMW left off are likely to be disappointed by how long it takes for Gilman to connect the dots between his stories. While the introduction to the story, a brief framing device meant to situate the "found document" of inventor Harry Ransom's exploits, promises that Ransom's account will eventually intersect with the stories of Agent of the Gun John Creedmoor and Dr. Liv Alverhuysen, the reader must first make their peace with this being Harry Ransom's story. Creedmoor and Alverhuysen are just passing through.

While I'm aware of readers who found this an unforgivable stylistic choice on Gilman's part, I found the change of perspective a brilliant move. Normally, a fantasy or science fiction author introduces their secondary or alternate world in their first novel, and then spends subsequent books expanding on the geography of that world. In RRC, Gilman avoids having to imagine new narrative spaces by having same or similar fictional locations from HMW be mediated to the reader through a new character's perspective. Harry Ransom sees the "Sun" of Gilman's fictional world through very different eyes than those in HMW. Harry Ransom is not a hero: he is an idealistic inventor who believes that his invention, the Ransom Process, can change the world. This is a drastically different viewpoint from the jaded cynicism of John Creedmore, or the weary determinism of Liv Alverhuysen, or the submissive adherence of the agent of the Line in HMW.

Consequently, this is one of the most stylistically literary works of steampunk I've read yet. The framing device is reminiscent of Cervantes' Don Quixote, defending its verisimilitude by purporting to be a document the editor has worked hard to assemble. What you are about to read is not fiction: these are real documents, underscored by the odd editorial footnote. Gilman's style mimics the nineteenth century memoir very well, without losing the twenty-first century reader with anachronistic syntax. The text is often self-reflective, with the unreliable narrator of Harry Ransom openly admitting his unreliability. We know that the great events described occurred - whether they occurred exactly as Ransom has related them is less certain.

Nevertheless, the events remain as thrilling as those in HMW, though for different reasons. When an agent of the Gun tracks down Ransom to kill him, we have no hope that the inventor has any chance of surviving. He is not John Creedmoor - Ransom is man of intellect, not action, and Gilman consistently portrays him as such. Even the slightly whimsical voice Gilman affects for his narrator conveys the "everyman in a mad world" theme of the book. Ransom is a very human protagonist, who makes bad choices due to personality flaws. He achieves notoriety almost by accident, though he spends most of the book hoping to build a name for himself. Ransom is a snake-oil salesman whose snake-oil really works: he just doesn't know why it works, and by the end of the book, neither do we. The big mysteries of Gilman's steampunk Old West remain intact. There is a sense of closure, just as there was at the end of HMW, but questions remain.

Some people can't stand that sort of ambiguity. I love it. I love that Gilman has increased my view of his secondary world through the eyes of an unreliable narrator. It allowed me to enjoy the story of Harry Ransom, while constantly reminding me that I can't know the truth about this fictional world. At least, not yet. And ultimately, I'm comfortable with that. It feels far more like the world I live in than some "realistic" fiction told by an omniscient third-person narrator who knows everything there is to know about academics who act like James Bond tracking down artifacts to bring down the Church. As an academic, I know the truth - we're more like Harry Ransom, bumbling his way through big events, than we are like Robert Langdon, confidently asserting conspiracy theories about our own half-made world.

The folks at Tor are being super awesome by giving away a copy of Felix Gilman's Rise of Ransom City. Here's the contest. Be the first person to post in the comments, the names all the ladies I'm standing with in my January top bar:

Jan 4, 2013

Innocent Darkness by Suzanne Lazear

Innocent Darkness was a difficult book for me to review, because the cover lead me to expect solid steampunk, not the three narrative threads the book contains: the book's first three chapters are steampunk, while chapters 4-11 are neo-Victorian, with the remaining chapters a paranormal romance set amidst a Faerie Court. However, this is less a narrative problem than it is a marketing one.

The first three chapters are set in a steampunk San Francisco, which is lovely given the abundance of steampunk culture in the real-world Bay area. I love Lazear's use of hot-rod culture in the steampunk chapters, with the protagonist Noli modifying an "old Hestin-Dervish Pixy" which belonged to her father, a section which I read in tandem with an article on Rat-Rods, a trend in hot-rodding that shares some kinship with the steampunk aesthetic. As a girl working on hot-rods,Noli belongs to the ever-growing steampunk New Woman's club, joining the likes of Alexia Tarabotti and most of Cherie Priest's protagonists. However, Noli's rebel-thrill-seeking ways do not follow her throughout the book, and she loses all semblance to the New Woman when she is shipped off to a strict reform school for girls at the end of chapter three.

While this is to be expected, given the soul-crushing atmosphere of Findlay House, a hybrid of an insane asylum and the bedroom from Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper," I was nevertheless disappointed by how entirely cowed Noli becomes in the face of behavior modifying punishments. I was further saddened that Noli's penchant for working with machines is likewise forgotten during her sojourn at Findlay House, so that by the time she escapes, all steampunk aspects have been left behind, save in passing. Despite these quibbles, this section of the book is Lazear's strongest, and taken on its own is a brilliant bit of writing. I stayed up late, needing to know if Noli survived the ordeal, and how she did so.

The third narrative thread, and the one that takes up the lion's share of the narrative space, is a paranormal romance set in Faerie, intertwined with the intricate machinations of a faerie court. I read a lot of fairy-tale fantasy when I was writing my M.A. thesis, and can say that Lazear has written a fine fantasy romance/adventure at the tail end of Innocent Darkness. Readers who enjoy Holly Black's Modern Faerie Tale series will also enjoy this portion of Innocent Darkness. I was nonplussed by it, simply because the strong steampunk New Woman who I met at the beginning of the book was lost for a time, recovering from her harrowing reform experience, and laboring under a Faerie enchantment. I made the mistake of having too many expectations, believing the book to be steampunk from start-to-finish. I expected the Hot-Rod-modding Noli to break out of the Findlay House on her own steam, using steampunk tech to do so. This did not happen. I expected her to get up in an airship at some point and kick some ass, and that didn't happen. My horizon of expectation was thwarted by the shifts from steampunk to neo-Victorian to Faerie spaces.  

Such shifts in aesthetic or genre are not the problem with Innocent Darkness though. As an academic reader, I'm used to shifting my expectations, and by the twelfth chapter, when I realized that the steampunk world of San Francisco had been left behind for the world of Faerie, I reoriented my view to compensate,  to continue enjoying my reading. However, most readers are neither so accommodating nor forgiving, and if the Goodreads reviews are any indication, there were a number of readers expecting a thoroughly steampunk story who were disappointed with the lack of steampunk.

This is not Lazear's fault. The cover and marketing of a book are rarely in the hands of a newly published writer who isn't self-publishing. The cover of Innocent Darkness is misleading in a number of ways, from how conventionally attractive Noli is on the cover to the focus on steampunk to the exclusion of Faerie elements. Aside from sparkles in here hair, there's nothing on the cover to imply this book will contain elements of magic. The cover seems to be capitalizing on the popularity of steampunk, and Flux books should know better. To try and package what is predominantly a period-urban-fantasy/paranormal romance as a purely steampunk book is a bad move, and one that many steampunk readers may not be in any hurry to forgive.

Thankfully, Lazear is an active member of the online steampunk community, and I hope readers who can't forgive Flux for shoddy, inaccurate marketing will forgive Lazear, and continue with The Aether Chronicles further adventures. I'm suspicious that the steampunk elements came late to the drafting process, but knowing Lazear's love for steampunk, am certain that the next book in the series, Charmed Vengeance, will contain more brass and gears, and from the online summary at the Innocent Darkness website, Noli in an airship kicking ass. Despite its shortcomings, I enjoyed my read of Innocent Darkness as an entertaining promise of things to come, and look forward to exploring more of the steampunk/Faerie world Lazear is crafting.
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