Great fantastical fiction has a way of suggesting metaphorical connections without insisting on them. It’s possible to read The Lord Of The Rings as an allegory for World War II, although JRR Tolkien rejected this interpretation; 1984’s immediate social relevance has faded over time, yet the novel’s genius remains undated and powerful. It’s a matter of collecting potent, resonant ideas, then combining them with well-drawn characters and a smartly constructed plot. Felix Gilman’s new novel, The Half-Made World, does this with an exhilarating level of self-assurance. Using the brutality of Westerns alongside steampunk gadgetry, he constructs a story that could be about how civilization forces itself onto a new frontier, about how industry and anarchy are both necessary forces which inevitably become corrupted when allowed too much power, or possibly just about monsters and demons and guns that never need to be reloaded.
Half-Made World’s setting is complicated, full of a mythology that’s familiar while still being fresh, and the story starts with little interest in easing readers in gradually. In short succession, the two main characters are introduced: Dr. Liv Alverhuysen, a psychologist who decides to leave academics to do some good in the world, and John Creedmoor, a violent outlaw and Agent of the Gun, who doesn’t have any business with good in his work. Their connection isn’t immediately explained, but what is clear is the cohesive power of their world, a place where the farthest unexplored territory is still considered “un-made,” and where the forces of the Line devour whole towns in their war against chaos and the individual.
Eventually, that world is explored, although by the end, it still maintains enough mystery to allow for ambiguity. The story is breathlessly paced, coming within a hairsbreadth of being rushed, but still breathing sufficient life into its people and settings to be satisfying. Creedmoor in particular is a wonderfully complex bastard, and his struggles against the giddying embrace of carnage help give the book’s stream of destruction a gratifyingly moral component. There’s much to be said about Gilman’s thematic aims, and about the abrupt, curious ending, but the important point to take away is that reading this novel will make anyone who cares about dark adventure giddy.