The Rise of Ransom City
by Felix Gilman
Cover Artist: Ross MacDonald
Review by Benjamin Wald
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765329400
Date: 27 November 2012 List Price $25.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
In The Rise of Ransom City, Felix Gilman continues (and possibly concludes, although there's room for a third installment if Gilman chooses to write it) the story he began in The Half-Made World.
Rather than follow directly the action of the first novel, Gilman chooses a new protagonist whose story intersects that of our former heroes Liv Alverhyusen and John Creedmore. Our new protagonist is Harry Ransom, or Professor Ransom as he likes to be known. The story is told as his autobiography, and his idiosyncratic narrative voice shapes the tale as much as the events recounted do. Ransom is a mix of a con man, visionary, hero and coward, and his story veers from the humorous to the tragic in a way that would have seemed fragmented in the hands of a lesser storyteller, but from Gilman manages to maintain a surprising unity. It is an excellent tale, showing us a man who remains somehow an optimist despite a story that is in many ways a litany of defeats.
The story takes place in the west of the aptly named half-made world, where the further west one travels the less settled are the laws of nature. The west is also the battleground of the two Great Powers, the Gun and the Line, groups of immortal spirits embodied respectively as guns carried by supernaturally empowered Agents and massive armored trains. These two powers have fought one another as long as anyone can remember, but the rumored discovery of an ancient weapon that can kill these immortal spirits has both forces kicked into high gear, accelerating their age old conflict as both sides struggle to possess the weapon to use on its adversary.
Harry Ransom becomes caught up in the middle of this struggle. He is an inventor and an idealist at heart. He has invented a device he calls 'the Ransom Process' which can create theoretically unlimited energy, and he seeks to perfect it so that he can bring light and power to the entire west free of charge. However, a chance encounter with Liv Alverhyusen and John Creedmore, fleeing from the Gun and Line, reveals the destructive potential of the Ransom Process, and makes Harry Ransom himself a target for the Great Powers.
Many fantasy novels blame supernatural evils for the ills of humanity. Despite a surfeit of candidates, Gilman never does so. The Gun and the Line are unquestionably forces for evil in the world, but they are aided and abetted by human greed and weakness at every turn, and even where they do not hold sway men are still far from perfect. Ransom is an idealist, seeking to help his fellow men, but time and again he is confronted by human ignorance and cruelty. Still, there remains a streak of optimism in the novel, and the hope that things will get better in the future, while refusing to ignore to how slim the prospects for this improvement seem to be.
This is unlikely to be the book that readers of The Half-Made World were expecting. Gilman turns away from the expected resolution of his story in favor of a different perspective on his setting and the events unleashed by the first book. This makes it a quite different novel from the first installment, but it is no less impressive. Gilman is one of the essential modern fantasists, and his latest book lives up to the expectations generated by his previous successes.