Ferrett Steinmetz’ debut novel Flex is the first volume in his ‘Mancer trilogy.
The good news is that magic is so easy any idiot can try their hand at it. The bad news is that a lot of idiots do, which is why Europe is a howling wasteland of reality holes and why the authorities react to magical outbreaks with overwhelming force.
Rewriting reality always comes at a cost … but it’s not just the ‘Mancers who have to pay. Former cop turned investigator Paul Tsabo and his daughter Aliya survived a magically triggered gas-main explosion that left young Aliya horribly burned. Reconstructive surgery will cost a half million dollars 1, which insurance company Samaritan Mutual is loath to pay.
Lucky for Aliya, her father is a bureaucrat par excellence. In fact, he is one of Samaritan’s own, using his obsession with paperwork to track down rogue ‘Mancers. Less luckily for Aliya, obsession is the stuff of magic. Paul isn’t just a bureaucrat. He is a full-fledged bureaucromancer. Paul is afraid it might have been the backlash from his own magic that set off the gas main.
Remorse and repentance are abandoned when Paul learns that the explosion was not his fault. Somewhere in New York City a ‘Mancer codenamed Anathema is making and distributing flex, a drug that imbues users with implausible luck. A couple of lines of Flex, and everything will go your way … until it does not, in unpredictably horrible fashion. An ambitious young man who worked several floors below Paul levelled the building when his luck turned on him.
Paul may not have maimed Aliya, but she still needs the surgery and she’s still owed justice. Paul may be inexperienced with magic, but he knows paperwork. That’s enough to put him on the track of the ‘Mancer.
The ‘Mancer he tracks down is not the villain he expects but a sympathetic young woman. It’s inconceivable that someone like Valentine could be the Flex-pusher responsible for Aliya’s burns and dozens of deaths. That’s because she isn’t. Valentine is merely a newbie who is bad at covering her tracks. She is a ‘Mancer doomed to a short, lamentable career terminating in death or arrest.
Anathema is far more skilled than Valentine and much, much better at hiding. More importantly, Anathema has a vision of the world she wants and a plan to create it. It’s a scheme that goes beyond epic into apocalyptic.
Paul and Valentine could stop Anathema, but first they will have to survive Paul’s own epic scheme, one that lands the both of them in the middle of New York’s violent drug world.
That is a very pretty cover.
Magic in this world seems to be a much riskier version of A Certain Magical Index and A Certain Scientific Railgun’ s ESP, in which each user breaks laws of physics in ways defined by their specific obsessions. The ESPers in ACMI and ACSR pay for their powers with a government that has never heard of informed consent. ‘Mancers. pay with the deaths of their loved ones and their own lives.
Once again Europe gets a kick in the pants because an American author needs to set up an off-stage calamity-that-justifies-official-overreaction somewhere that will leave the US functional. Although it’s not always Europe: I can think of a couple of novels that annihilated Africa and several more that burned off Asia to provide much-needed moral suasion to the US. Americans are not the only ones to do this: The Space Eater’ s backstory wipes the US off the map after American physicists discover how to turn all the matter for a significant distance around them into energy. The important thing is that the population with whom the author identifies survives and emerges from the experience with a firm sense of “let’s not do that again.”
Unlike millions of people around the world, I bailed on Breaking Bad after season two, so the long section in which Paul and Valentine’s attempt to monetize their ability to make Flex goes wrong felt like a digression to me. Other readers may find it an entertaining exploration of how one’s choice of business partner can shape an otherwise straightforward project. Try not to go into business with violent sociopaths. Oh, and try not to be cursed.
The basic reason I was not crazy about this book is that this not the first book I have read that features a middle-aged vengeance-driven ex-cop with a broken marriage and a child who is the core of his universe. Don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against male characters if the plot calls for them, but this particular variety is one that I have encountered a few times too often. Steinmetz does at least make Paul distinct from the usual ex-cops by making him a weedy little guy barely able to pass the force physicals. Not a two-fisted adventurer, but someone who has to think his way past obstacles.
Valentine is (in her way) as much a stock character as is Paul. At least she is a stereotype less frequently encountered. I would have been more enthusiastic about this book if she had been the central figure rather than Paul. I suspect she’s fated to always be a supporting character in someone else’s story. Poor Valentine….
Flex is available here.
1: It’s interesting that this world must be dramatically different from ours (consider for example what the Winds of Change would look like when the European colonial powers have not been just weakened, but annihilated 2), However, the US has embraced the same cockamamie approach to health care as it does in our world.
2: Not to mention the probable effect on the American Civil Rights movement if it had not taken place in the context of the Cold War. US race policies were an embarrassment that undermined US yammering about being the bastion of FREEDOM.
Speaking of civil rights, the US does not shoot ‘Mancers out of hand. They mindwipe and brainwash the ones who survive arrest and turn them into conditioned warriors for the status quo. I have suspicions about which demographic provided the guinea pigs as the US worked the bugs out of their brainwashing methods.