Cross posted from Goodreads
The setting of The Half-Made World is innovative even in an era when the 19th Century is being routinely mined for fantasy setting material. It isn’t properly steampunk, because while one faction in the world has clockwork technology and airships, they are not available to everyone and are considered technological marvels.
The action takes place across a world-spanning continent. The eastern part of the world is reminiscent of Europe–settled, peaceful, refined, maybe even effete. However, across the World’s End mountains (so named because they once marked the edge of the world) lies a land reminiscent of 19th-Century America, with slave-holding barons in the South, small towns in the shadow of the mountains to the east, and a vast, Wild-West-like landscape in the rest of the “made area.”
The West is dominated by two supernatural forces engaged in a war for control of humanity. Line, a collective of 37 demonically possessed railroad engines, represents order to the point of fascism, spreading its stations and tracks in an ever larger and denser network, threatening to take over the landscape. Gun, a group of maybe a couple dozen possessed weapons (which we learn change their appearance based on their user), represents chaos (and freedom) to the point of anarchy, bonding with the most extraordinary misfits in its efforts to sabotage the Line.
The story details the intersection of the lives of Liv Alverhuysen, a psychology professor from the settled East; Lowry, an ambitious man of the Line who can’t quite learn the collectivist self-denial and humility his masters expect of him; and John Creedmoor, an aging agent of the Gun who wishes he could retire but is constantly pulled back into service. What draws them all West is one man: General Orlan Enver, the military leader of the old Red Valley Republic, an idealized version of America’s founding vision which crumbled before the forces of Gun and Line. The General is now confined to a hospital at the edge of civilization (literally), his mind seemingly permanently addled by the effects of the Line’s noise bombs. However, his mind still holds a secret given to him by the aboriginal Hill Folk, the location of something (a weapon or a cure, nobody knows which) that promises to bring the Great War between Gun and Line to an end and change the world. The effort to recover the general’s secret will take all of our major characters into the titular half-made world, the area west of civilization. There the landscape, and even the times of sunrise and sunset, are unpredictable from one day to the next.
While the setting is clearly a metaphor for American history and the American character, Gilman makes sure that his story isn’t an allegory or a blunt statement about history or contemporary politics. Instead, this novel feels like the story of characters trying to fulfill their dreams and solve their problems in a landscape that just happens to be an extended metaphor. That means you don’t have to be a historian or history buff to appreciate this book.
There are a few odd wrinkles of the setting. For example, it is implied that there is some form of Christianity in this world, which makes me wonder why Yahweh isn’t running around the West smiting people with thunderbolts, since human thoughts have a tendency to be given being there. There is also some confusion about whether the divide between civilization and the frontier runs east-west or north-south. This error and other small errors occur just often enough to be distracting, but they still don’t overshadow the many good things about this book. I look forward to reading the recently released sequel, The Rise of Ransom City