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The Rise of Ransom City by Felix Gilman

The Rise of Ransom City by Felix Gilman
Book Name: The Rise of Ransom City
Author: Felix Gilman
Publisher(s): Tor Books
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audio Book / eBook
Genre(s): Fantasy / Steampunk / Western
Release Date: November 27, 2012

Harry Ransom is many things to many people: a genius, a con man, an inventor, a sorcerer of the East who stands seven feet tall, even a myth. His most famous contribution to the world is the Ransom Process, a machine which creates free light for all. Unfortunately for Professor Ransom, it is also capable of being used as a weapon, one capable of killing even the immortal spirits of The Line and The Gun.

The Rise of Ransom City is Felix Gilman’s semi-sequel to The Half-Made World. It focuses on separate characters in the same weird west environment. Both novels use common western tropes enhanced to mythic proportions.

The Line, a series of sentient engines, continues creeping further and further west with their railways and their technology. They provide meager benefits to the towns that fall under their control, and bankrupt them in the process, leaving the towns dependent on them. They bring strict laws to places that had few or none. The Gun, demons who provide supernatural power to their Agents, are an exaggeration of the western genre’s obsession with individualism and the gunslinger. Even the landscape itself shifts around more and more the further west one goes, signalling the limitless potential of the land.

The idea of doing a novel with entirely separate characters in the same world isn’t original to Gilman, but it remains a great choice. The ambiguity of the ending of The Half-Made World remains intact while giving the setting greater fleshing out and giving us a fantastic new character in Harry Ransom.

The Rise of Ransom City is told in first-person, and as with all first-person narrations, voice is extremely important. Gilman’s technique here is impeccable. We get occasional hints of the unreliable narrator underneath, particularly through the framing story of a journalist compiling his notes. Harry Ransom is particularly taken with The Autobiography of Alfred Baxter, and it is not hard to see that his own writings are a response to that book which was so formative to him. A revelation regarding the book’s provenance is crushing precisely because of that.

The story is set in four parts and details the three times Harry Ransom changed the world. In the first part, he is taking his Apparatus to a number of smaller cities and towns out west. The Apparatus should provide light to all mankind without the Northern Lighting Corporation’s exorbitant fees. During one incident, he is introduced to Liv Alverhuysen and John Creedmoor, the protagonists of The Half-Made World, both of whom are now fugitives. For his part in a battle (namely, his Apparatus explodes) rumors begin to spread that he is a sorcerer of the East and he becomes a hunted man in his own right.

He changes his name to Hal Rawlins and gets a job on a riverboat, pretending to play a self-playing piano which he claims to have invented. Things get their most tense in part three, where he tries to rebuild the Apparatus in Jasper City, only to have a legal injunction raised against him from a rival with much greater legal support. Political machinations surround and enmesh him.

The Rise of Ransom City is written as an autobiography, and like all lives it wanders through various situations. The Half-Made World had a greater sense of causality and plot, but The Rise of Ransom City has a much stronger voice and exceptional characterization. Harry Ransom is often funny, with a fantastic sense of dry understatement.

“I spent much of that summer pursuing the affections of an actress…She was pretty and good-natured and did not ask difficult questions about who I was and so far as I know never once thought of shooting anybody for any reason.”

His quirks fill the book. He writes &c in lieu of etc. often as a wry aside (such as when he refuses to write his companion’s too-long name). He’s genial but egotistical. When he actually achieves mythic status, he hates it, because it’s not for the right reasons. He also acknowledges his faults and foibles easily enough.

“I do not mean to boast but I am what is called an Autodidact. That means I taught myself just about everything I know and that is why some of my notions are unorthodox, and it is why when I write letters to the Professors in Jasper City they do not write back.”

If you’re looking for a book with a breakneck plot that you can’t put down, this is not the book for you. But if you’re willing to take a slow story of a man’s life, being told by a captivating storyteller, in one of the most fascinating settings in fantasy, read this book.


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