Felix Gilman, The Rise of Ransom City, ISBN: 9780765329400, Tor, November 2012.
Reviewed by Liz Bourke.
It’s always interesting to read a novel written in the style and manner of a memoir. Such a book (fictional or not) succeeds or fails, rises or falls, on the vividness of the memoirist’s personality and the observed details of the surrounding world. The reader who enjoys the memoirist’s company and tone will find digressions and side-roads diverting: the reader who finds it tolerably entertaining will have less patience, and require more in the way of narrative coherence and identifiable character growth, to maintain a feeling of investment in the ultimate outcome.
Harry Ransom, the memoirist of The Rise of Ransom City, is an undeniably vivid personality. An autodidact, a self-proclaimed “professor,” a travelling inventor, a man composed of good intentions and immense ego, determined to make his mark on the world, his voice is strong, well-defined, and interesting. The novel recounts – from the point of view of a retrospective typed on the run, collected by a newspaper editor in pieces years later – the important events of Ransom’s life, which revolve around his invention/discovery of the Ransom Light-Bringing Process, and his part in some of the major events of history and politics (or as he puts it, “History and Politics”) of his time.
The Rise of Ransom City is Gilman’s fourth novel, set in the same world as 2010’s highly-lauded The Half-Made World. The world-building makes masterful use of the mythology and imagery of the American West (in fact, I’d say what Gilman has done for the American West is on the same level of innovation as what Tolkien did for the mythology of English landscapes), casting the forces of industry and control, and the forces of individualism and outlawry, into two warring camps driven by inhuman spirits: the Line, with its self-willed Engines, and the Gun. The Gun and the Line have been ruthlessly at war in the west for a very long time. Between them are a few small bastions of neutrality, and further west the world is still unmade, and unsteady. Instead of an alternate American West, Gilman builds a world that deftly uses it for the basis of its mythos, and fortunately he does not ignoring the more problematic aspects of that West.
The Rise of Ransom City isn’t a direct sequel to The Half-Made World; it does follow some time after its events. Not having read The Half-Made World, I cannot say whether the events of Ransom City are elucidated by knowledge of what has gone before.
A vivid voice, a well-drawn world: these are The Rise of Ransom City‘s strongest points. It’s clear that Gilman is a talented and ambitious writer, but the choice he made in dividing the narrative of Ransom City into four parts, each dealing with one of Harry Ransom’s brushes with the greater forces of history, is a choice with its downsides. The early chapters feel meandering and slow, and the final ones compressed and under-written: only in the middle parts does the narrative seem as though it hits a happy medium. Ransom himself is the only character who continues through all four parts, and his well-meaning egotism grows a bit wearing in the final 100 pages.
That said, this is a novel that’s in the main part engaging, and its failures are interesting ones. I recommend it, in a qualified sort of way.