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Fantasy Review: ‘The Rise of Ransom City’ by Felix Gilman

Though I will try to avoid it, this review may contain minor spoilers from ‘The Half-Made World.’

‘The Half-Made World’ was one of the best books I read last year.  Almost impossible to put in a category, it mixed the fantasy and western genres almost perfectly, with a touch of steampunk.  Gilman did so many things right in that novel, but ended it almost abruptly, leaving fans like me desperately hoping for a sequel.  Obviously we got one, but perhaps not the one we hoped for.  Rather than follow the main characters from ‘Half-Made World’, Liv and Creedmoor, the ‘Rise of Ransom City’ is the story of one man, the Professor Harry Ransom.  Do we get a resolution from ‘Half-Made World’?  Kind of, but perhaps not the one readers were looking for.  It didn’t end up mattering to me though, as ‘The Rise of Ransom City’ is another great book, and fans should not be disappointed.

 ‘The Half-Made World’ was about a pseudo American West that was still fuzzy around the edges, almost as if an artist was drawing it from the inside out.  It followed Liv out west as she searched for a man who held the secret of a great weapon in his head(though an injury left him without memory of anything at all).  The weapon was thought to be able to finally take down the two supernatural entities that are warring over the new lands.  One is The Line, intelligent train engines who run an almost hive mind society, the ultimate of an industrial dystopia(hasn’t this term been around long enough for a spellchecker to recognize it?).  The Second is The Gun, larger than life outlaw figures under a pseudo-control of individual daemons.  The book ended without the characters ever really finding out if the weapon was workable or not.
While it’s predecessor followed three main characters, ‘The Rise of Ransom City’ is an edited memoir written by Harry Ransom himself.  This is a man who several times changed the history of the land, at least according to himself.  The ‘creator’ of the Ransom Process, his memoirs show his rise and fall while he tries to bring his process to the world.  Along the way he runs into Liv and Creedmoor(an agent of The Gun in the first outing), tying the book nicely to HMW without actually following the same characters.
The voice of Harry Ransom is a treat.  A completely unreliable narrator, he also isn’t much of a writer.  Often times details are given out of order, he talks about things he is sure he has pointed out before, and has to backtrack to give details.  Gilman had to have had a blast writing this, I can picture him giggling madly as he tosses in a double negative, because it would be completely natural for his character.  Because the entire story is coming from Ransom, some scenes have sketchier details than others, and some are nothing more than assumptions that Ransom makes.  Though he tries to point out when he is only guessing at conversations, it gives the reader knowledge that nothing he says can ever be taken purely at face value.  Readers will also never know what kind of details they are going to get.  Some very important events will be glossed over quickly, some minor characters will get pages written about them.  This would have driven me crazy if written from the third person, but feels natural coming from a memoir. 
Ransom’s story is quite an interesting one.  From his early childhood that influences his feelings on The Line, to his traveling days, to his ascension to one of the best known men in the West, his life is never boring.  Like all larger than life figures, sometimes he is in the middle of important events, even in control of them.  Other times he is a bit player in them who gets too much credit(or blame).  And sometimes, he is nowhere near the events he has attributed to him.  It all feels very authentic, as many larger than life personalities of the Old West were a product of dime novels more than their actual deeds. 
Plotting is harder to rate in this one.  Much of it reads as a travel memoir, as Ransom describes places and people he meets along the way(even two horses get part of a chapter).  Ransom and his assistant Mr. Caver try to sell  this new process(and I am being intentionally vague about what the process is, because the author keeps it that way).  Eventually a major event comes along, in which Ransom learns a little more about what his Process is capable of, but even that doesn’t escalate the tension.  Instead the pacing stays slow and steady.  I don’t want to imply that nothing happens, because there are some exciting confrontations with various enemies from The Line and The Gun.  But Ransom’s writing style is such that they are sometimes highlighted and sometimes dealt with briefly.  I personally felt the pace of the plot fit the writing style perfectly, but if someone hears ‘western’ and goes looking for a shoot-em-up, they will be disappointed.
Being the story of Ransom, who was a great character, there is less to say about secondary characters in this one.  His assistant Mr Carver is present for much of the book, but never really picks up a personality (other than strong and silent).  Liv and Creedmoor show up from the first book, and while events in this one give some closure to the first outing, nothing really new is learned about them.  Rival/Possible love interest Adela could be interesting, but we learn what Ransom knows about her is as unreliable as what we learn about him.  It all worked for me though, showing that to Ransom, his story is the one that needs to be told.
The story ends in many ways like the first, with most of the plot lines tied up, but with one major thread left completely open.  And like the first, it is open in a way that could show up in a future book, or could leave the reader forever unaware of how things really end.  
Another great book from Gilman, and I do hope for another book in this world.
4.5 stars
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