My favorite thing about this book is the world, which is original and complex and imaginative, yet so thoroughly grounded in realism and sensory detail that it feels more like historical fantasy than Weird Fantasy. It’s as unique as something by, say, Mieville, but without having that weirdness-for-weirdness’s-sake feel that makes it so hard for a realist like me to really enjoy his work.
Half the fun of this book is not knowing where the plot is going and figuring out what’s going on in the world, so this review isn’t going to say much about that. In brief, most of the book takes place in a sort of alternate Wild West, in a world where uninhabited lands are still unformed. Dr. Liv Alverhuysen, a psychologist from the settled East, travels to the edge of the formed world to study patients at a mental institution. But the West is a dangerous place, dominated by two rival powers: the Line, a society based on collectivism and industrialization, and the Gun, a group of individualistic desperados with superhero-like powers. The other two main characters, Lowry and Creedmoor, represent the Line and the Gun respectively.
The characterization in this book is excellent; we can really see how the characters’ backstories have shaped them into the complicated people they are. And Gilman does a good job both creating them as individuals, and using them as symbols for the ideas they represent. There were times when, despite his mocking the romantic myth of the lone gunslinger with divided loyalties, Gilman seemed to get caught up in it--but the book is so thoughtful and thematically rich that I’m willing to forgive that.
My biggest gripe is one that other reviewers have mentioned: the ending. It’s not even the dangling plot threads, although they are certainly prominent, so much as the questions we’ve been wondering about the whole book and that aren’t answered. What is this McGuffin weapon everyone’s so intent on getting? And what do people mean when they say that people created the Gun and the Line out of their own hatred and fear? I’ll admit, I’m harsher about this when there’s no sequel in sight, and it is unclear whether there will ever be one, let alone when it will be released. And what is it with author websites that don’t include any information about the author’s next book? That’s the one thing I’m looking for when I visit them. I certainly don’t go there to read advertisements for books that are already published. Occasionally I might go for an especially interesting and regularly-updated blog, but Gilman hasn’t updated his since this book was released. But that, and the fact that I’m so over books with only one female character of any importance, are the only real problems I had.
Overall, this was a fascinating, well-written, original fantasy. I wonder if the sequel (if and when it’s released) will be able to do it justice, but I’ll be first in line to find out.