The Rise of Ransom City is a sequel of sorts, following Felix Gilman’s The Half-Made World—a wonderful, genre-bending novel released some two years ago. That book concluded with a satisfying ending, but the story definitely didn’t end there. In The Rise of Ransom City, Gilman returns to the half-made world from a completely new perspective. In a stroke of mad-genius brilliance, Gilman has created a story that far surpasses its predecessor in writing and scope, and that is in nearly every way a standalone novel while still wrapping up the events of The Half-Made World.
Harry Ransom is an inventor with an unhealthy drive for adventure, a self-conceit that brings him way too much trouble, and a naive worldview. When his father dies, he decides to venture out in pursuit of fame and glory. Throughout his adventures, he writes pieces of his autobiography and sends them randomly out into the world. Years later, a journalist collects all the pieces, and together, those comprise The Rise of Ransom City.
This autobiographic narration from an utterly flawed yet extremely likeable character works extremely well. The story jumps all over the place as Harry Ransom relates his new adventures—the ones he is having while writing—and his old adventures, while constantly interrupting himself to portray a picture of the world he walked in and the people he met. Due to the nature of this story, it is easy to compare it with that other autobiographic fantasy series, Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle—and indeed, there are many similarities. Like The Name of the Wind, The Rise of Ransom City is a chaotic character study that conveys the story of an extraordinary life. Mundane elements, like struggling with poverty and trying to find true love, are captivatingly conveyed. Gilman may lack Rothfuss’s knack for beautiful, near-poetic prose, but in return, he has significantly more story-telling skills. Where The Name of the Wind really doesn’t have much substance in the way of story, the autobiography of Harry Ransom is brimful of action and suspense.
Scope in perspective
What sets this story apart from other novels, including The Half-Made World, is its scope. In The Rise of Ransom City, Gilman expands this uniquely flavored world with a rich history. More importantly, while reading, there is this sense of looking in while the history is being written. From the get-go, Ransom addresses his audience as a people who know their recent history. When he mentions that things were different before “the battle of Jasper City,” he clearly assumes you know what this battle was. Obviously, his audience is fictional, and we don’t know what that battle was, but we know immediately that it was something big and that we’ll simply have to continue reading to find out. This method of storytelling creates a significant amount of the suspense of The Rise of Ransom City, and the execution on Gilman’s part is utterly brilliant.
The American Dream
The world in which Ransom’s autobiography takes place further deepens the scope of The Rise of Ransom City. It is a rural wild west, still largely unmade. When man brought technology to the unmade lands, the spirits of the land seized the opportunity. A steam locomotive, for example, suddenly became the vessel of an old god, and its creators became the god’s slaves. Through man-made technology, the old gods battle each other, and the creators of said technology are the unending war’s greatest victims. Yet, the wild west is also a place of opportunity where dreams can still come true and a poor man can become rich through hard work and dedication. This world paints a picture of The American Dream in which actions clearly have consequences and the modernization of the world leads to its destruction. It’s an endless cycle that, in Gilman’s voice, can only be perceived as deeply ironic.
After The Half-Made World—which had some serious pacing problems—The Rise of Ransom City is a fresh breath of wonderful story telling. It is a genre-bending story of a mundane man trying to seize any opportunity to make a name for himself. This is the study of a flawed character whose tendency to boast leads to trouble and tragedy. There are still some parts in which the pacing doesn’t work quite as well as Gilman intended, but the narration solves this problem adequately. The Rise of Random City never grows dull.
Why should you read this book?
Whether or not you’ve read The Half-Made World, you should give its sequel a chance. The Rise of Ransom City is a unique story from a fresh perspective. This book is for anyone who enjoys the American pioneering history, westerns, steampunk novels, or contemporary fantasy. The epic wars and wonderful world building will even appeal to fans of high fantasy. This is an unparalleled and deep example of what happens when the lines between fantasy and literature start blurring, and, in writing it, Felix Gilman has established his literary craftsmanship once and for all.
Stephan received a review copy of The Rise of Ransom City courtesy of Tor Books.