In The Half-Made World, the first book in a planned duology, Felix Gilman spins a tale unlike any other. It is a tale with unexpected turns at every junction, a tale set in a perfectly conceived world that is both relatable and yet alien to our own. This is a world that is only half-made, where spirits manifest themselves in man-made technology and, in turn, use men as tools in their battles for dominance of the West—thereby stalling further technological advancement in the process. The concept of The Half-Made World is a well-written, amazingly-conceived circle of irony.
A lost weapon
In this world ripped apart by centuries of war between demonic spirits of The Line and of The Gun, one general strives to bring peace and destroy the spirits using a weapon given to him by the First Folk, the old inhabitants of the world before it was made. Before he can retrieve the weapon, however, he is struck by a noise bomb, which wipes clean his mind.
Eleven years later, a young psychiatrist travels to the West to bring aid and knowledge to the House Dolores, where victims of the everlasting war are tended. The general’s final letter is recovered by agents of The Line—and the general is located in that same house, near the edge of the made world. Agents from both The Line and The Gun are dispatched to retrieve the general and claim the secrets buried in his mind.
The Half-Made World offers a story that bends the lines between several speculative subgenres. While this is most definitely a steampunk novel, it carries elements of science fiction western, with some epic fantasy, and a hint of contemporary fantasy. These genre-bending attributes of The Half-Made World make reading it a truly engaging experience.
Focus on characters
Another engaging element of The Half-Made World is the narration from three very different—and often opposing—viewpoints. The first and most obvious is that of Dr. Liv Alverhuysen, a naïve woman traveling from the peaceful East to the roaring lands of The Line. The others are Lowry, a military commander for The Line, and Creedmore, an agent of The Gun. These two operate against each other, and they do not shy away from using Liv to attempt to destroy one another. Throughout The Half-Made World, Gilman succeeds in creating three dynamic and ambiguous characters that believe in their respective causes. Their convictions are written in with such skill that it soon becomes impossible to differentiate right from wrong. Having these three characters to root for—of which only one can seemingly come out victorious—creates a wildly unpredictable story.
While the focus on characters is the greatest strength of Gilman’s writing, it is also the novel’s greatest weakness. Still enthralling in its own way, this focus on the stories of three completely different characters becomes quite tedious toward the middle of the novel. This part has a significant focus on the characters’ experiences and lacks noteworthy progress in the story-at-large. One might argue that this is necessary to develop the characters and that it pays off in the conclusion of The Half-Made World; I would rather have seen the characters being developed alongside the story itself. Fortunately, the pay-off is enough to almost redeem the less interesting parts.
Why should you read this book?
With this warning in mind, I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys steampunk, science-fiction or fantasy. If the book does become a bit dull, keep going and the ending will blow your mind. While far from perfect, The Half-Made World is still a true jewel that screams for a sequel.