Nodding toward Stephen King’s The Dark Tower and China Miéville’s Bas-Lag series, Felix Gilman’s 2010 novel, The Half-Made World, utterly fictionalizes the American West of the 1800s as a vast territory where supernatural, pseudo-scientific forces battle for the soul and the reality of a nascent nation. It’s a breathtaking book made all the more so by a superb ending that elevates the gritty, post-steampunk yarn to the level of metaphysics. It’s a hard act to follow—but Gilman’s sequel, The Rise Of Ransom City, comes enticingly close to matching it.
Ransom City picks up not long after The Half-Made World leaves off. The opposing armies of the fascistic Line and the rebellious Gun—both of which are backed by sentient spirits personified in the forms of locomotives and firearms—still vie for dominance. The world itself is still “unmade” along its remotest frontier, where the laws of physics and nature operate in erratic ways. Amid this instability is Harry Ransom, an inventor and huckster who’s stumbled across a method of producing light without all the mess and cost of the recently harnessed electricity. After falling in with some of the characters from The Half-Made World, Ransom gets caught in the epicenter of history as it’s discovered that his light-bringing Apparatus has an unexpected secondary use as a weapon of mass destruction.
Told in first person, Ransom City is suffused with Ransom’s wry, wondrous, charismatic voice, full of witticisms and philosophical asides. But the book also employs a nested structure—the novel is a manuscript of an autobiography pieced together by a famous journalist and contemporary of Ransom’s—that winds up serving no purpose other than setting up a potential that’s never fully exploited. Likewise, the book’s shift from its predecessor’s rural setting to a striking urban backdrop isn’t used as well as it could be; when Ransom relocates to Jasper City, which bears a strong resemblance to the Chicago of the 1890s, much of his milieu’s magic is lost. And even the real-world historical and cultural references that Gilman implies or names outright—from Thomas Edison and Horatio Alger to Herman Melville and James Fenimore Cooper—begin to feel gratuitous, more of a hodgepodge than a distillation.
Luckily, Ransom’s charming, winning character carries the day. As his quest for wealth and fame becomes sidelined by politics and peril, so do his theories; the rudiments of relativity and quantum theory begin to intrude into his worldview, and Gilman integrates them into a dizzying balance of action and ideas. The zeitgeist of America at the advent of the 20th century—in all its turmoil, utopianism, and paranoia—is captured and re-imagined with stunning scope. The largest letdown is the book’s final third, in which the limitations of Gilman’s first-person narrative become painfully restrictive; a huge chunk of the climax and resolution is rushed or summarized. That said Ransom’s intimate idiosyncrasies make him Gilman’s most compelling protagonist to date. The Rise Of Ransom City isn’t the equal of The Half-Made World, but it expands the series while leaving plenty of questions about his sprawling, mystical quasi-America tantalizingly unanswered—and hopefully ripe for a third installment.