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“The Half-Made World” by Felix Gilman

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Felix Gilman’s The Half-Made World presents a fascinating fictionalized America in which everything west of the Rockies is in flux. The conditions of reality haven’t been fully defined, and the farther west you go, the more pronounced this lack of definition gets. Two great powers, the Line and the Gun, are embroiled in a decades-old war for the right to impose definition on these nebulous regions of the country. Psychologist Liv Alverhuysen is drawn into this war when she journeys to a hospital whose neutrality is enforced by a mysterious spirit. Unbeknownst to her, the patient she’s going there to treat has a secret locked in his mind—a secret that could finally bring the war between Gun and Line to an end.

I loved the characters in this novel. Liv at first seems rather blithe about her journey into the half-made world, but the reader is gradually shown that her apparent serenity is the byproduct of a laudanum addiction. Beneath that is a trauma that has defined her adult life. Creedmoor, an Agent of the Gun, is a fascinating character. In some ways, he’s a classic character type for a Western: the world-weary old warrior who just wants to be left alone but gets drawn back into conflict. Like Liv, he hides sorrow behind a devil-may-care attitude, and watching the two of them interact is a delight.

I also really enjoyed the concepts behind the two great powers in the setting. The Line are order and the Gun is chaos. Beyond that, both represent entities or archetypes that are central to the Western genre: the Line are trains (and more generally, expansion), while the Agents of the Gun are outlaws. But, of course, there’s a third side: the First Folk or Hill People, who live in the unmade portions of the West. The story has been framed as a conflict between the Line and the Gun, but from the perspective of the First Folk, they’re both invaders. This also raises larger questions about the very nature of the setting. The characters persistently describe the West as unmade, or half-made, or unformed. But unformed by whose standards? Perhaps it’s not truly unformed, but simply formed according to an aesthetic the main characters don’t understand.

There is one aspect of the book I didn’t like, and that was the ending. (So, spoilers ahead.)

–SPOILERS–

The Half-Made World is the first half of a duology. As such, I didn’t expect a complete resolution of the overarching three-way conflict between Line, Gun, and First Folk. However, a single installment in a series should still end at a point of at least temporary resolution. This allows the reader to have a sense of completion or satisfaction when they reach the end of the book. The Half-Made World lacks that. While Liv has learned where the weapon is, she hasn’t actually laid hands on it, and we still don’t know the nature of it or what it does. This made it feel like the book was ending in the middle of a single story, rather than in a pause or gap between two linked stories.

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