30 September, 2013

An immortal wizard walks into the World Series of Poker... : "The Incrementalists" by Steven Brust and Skyler White

It sounds like the setup to a bad joke. A guy sits alone in a bar in Vegas, waiting for his next poker game to start. He flirts with the waitress, has a drink, thinks about the fact that his ex-girlfriend recently committed suicide; nothing really to set him apart from the sludge of humanity around him. But underneath his baseball cap sits a mind that's been reincarnated through dozens of bodies over the course of many centuries-- a mind that remembers every era of history and every time he used his magic to change things for the better. And the best part is, our wizard isn't alone. He's got 200 friends just like him-- a secret society who's been magically nudging people toward working for the greater good, operating between the lines since the dawn of time. This is the premise of Steven Brust and Skyler White's The Incrementalists-- the foundation for a story that is simultaneously fantastical and everyday, mixing magic both wondrous and mundane. 
Now imagine a hard drive made up of minds-- a collective memory, if you will. Every experience you have, every bit of your personality, is backed up on this memory hard drive. And when you die, instead of being dead, your entire essence sits there like a thumb drive waiting to be put into a new piece of hardware. And it's the job of your 200 friends to find a suitable motherboard. Once the transfer's complete, the memories and personality of your new blank slate will be integrated into your immortal whole, and you'll pick right back up where you left off-- at least, when things go the way they're supposed to.

Renee, called Ren, is one of the book's narrators, acting as that new motherboard for the incumbent personality of Celeste, a recently dead Incrementalist. Celeste's ex-lover Phil is our other narrator, and he's the one tasked with recruiting a new body for Celeste after she dies (by committing suicide, which makes Phil even more eager to bring her back, so he can ask her why).

But the implant process goes awry in a way nobody understands-- Ren ends up with Celeste's powers, but not her memories. Where did they go? How did they go astray? Was it an accident, or done with intent? How does it link to her suicide? A few other Incrementalists gather with Phil and Ren in Vegas to unravel the mystery, and slowly they discover that the tempestuous wild woman Phil has loved for centuries has been manipulating all of them for longer than they enjoy admitting.

The premise of the book intrigued me, and knowing what I know of Brust and White's past work, I was ready for something grand and exciting. But what the book actually is, is far subtler and, frankly, much more unique. Instead of starting at a small point and working out to a grandiose large-scale event, the book stays small. We meet a handful of the Incrementalists, and while it's true that they are the sort of governmental force of the group, none of them have supreme powers or anything that creates a huge power imbalance. I kept waiting for the 'change the world' stuff to get epic, for them to have to use their powers in a bigger way, but I liked that it didn't go there.

I kept being surprised by the turn of the plot-- it's rare, especially in urban fantasy, I think, for the stakes to be nominally low this way. But it drew an interesting point: that eve personal stuff like finding out your longtime lover never really loved you at all can be big-- falling in love can be huge-- and when you're dealing with magic, those personal struggles have the capacity to have a huge effect on others.

The book's strongest points were its language and characterization-- the narrative style was easy to read, the dialogue was realistic, and the Incrementalists all felt like people. I really liked their group dynamic-- their little personality quirks, how they all knew each other so well. It was easy to believe they'd known each other for centuries. I also enjoyed the con-man aspect of the magic, isolating people's “switches” and flipping them to influence their subconscious. I liked the obvious thought the authors had put into the structure of the magic-- how it worked, the rules that governed it, and how its practitioners kept tabs on those rules being observed.

Also, I enjoyed the women in the book. There were a few in the mix, all interesting and complex characters, none of them serving as plot devices. I would say my favorite female character was Irina, but I liked how Celeste was sort of a virus, a really good villain, larger than life. I liked how they portrayed her decline and talked frankly about her being a bitch and a little bit evil without making her one-note. I haven't been impressed with the way Brust writes women in the past, so I was pleasantly surprised. Despite the love story (which was cute, even if it didn't pack an emotional punch) I really felt like this was Celeste's story, and kind of liked it better because of it.

There were soft spots in the structure of the book, though they didn't take away from my enjoyment of it too much. Sometimes it moved so fast that aspects of the characters' personalities seemed glossed over-- Ren's especially-- it felt sometimes like I was expected to take her motivations and behaviors on good faith that they were for a good reason, and the leaps when her mind changed about something or she figured something out were sometimes a bit of a stretch. Also, breaking the 4th wall at the end was tongue in cheek and a little heavy handed, but funny nonetheless.

I rated this one three and a half stars, which I rounded up to four because I enjoyed the experience of reading it, and its weak spots are smoothed over for me by the uniqueness of the premise. While I doubt I'll find myself ever driven to reread it, I'd recommend it to anyone who, like me, enjoys books about wizards who aren't the kinds of wizards you'd expect. Reading it, I sort of felt like the first time I'd read So You Want To Be A Wizard, discovering a whole new system of magic instead of something that plays by the magical rules I'm used to. If you're into the idea of urban fantasy that's not gritty but thought-provoking and character driven, then definitely pick up The Incrementalists.

Steven Brust's website is here, Skyler White's is here. You can read more about The Incrementalists on Goodreads, and you can buy it on Amazon.

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