The Half-Made World, by Felix Gilman, is a strikingly original book that, though it had its flaws, is a fascinating opening to a new world and characters and one I'll look eagerly forward to rejoining when the sequel (and this books pretty much mandates a sequel) arrives.
The Half-Made World is set in an alternate America, but Gilman has gone well past the add-a-few-inventions-that-weren't-there-and-change-the-Civil-War kind of alternate world-building here. We have an old, established East (which we don't see much of) and an uncharted, still "uncreated" far West inhabited only by the immortal Hill People, who have either been driven from their eastern lands or enslaved. Between the East and the uncreated world lies the West, where nearly all the action takes place. Two rival groups--The Line and The Gun--have been warring via their human agents over the West's vast landscape for decades, though the Line has been slowly, inexorably winning. Embodied by its Engine spirits, the Line industrializes where it wins--laying track, building hulking, smoke-belching factories, employing relatively modern technologies, and using its "Linesman" as cogs in the machine. The Gun, embodied by its own spirits which inhabit either the "Lodge" or their agents' weapons, has been fighting a losing battle against the Line. Their agents are far fewer in number and lack technology, but the Gun spirits can imbue them with super-human abilities and healing. A third rival--the Red Republic--rose 40 years ago under the leadership of its General and temporarily carved out a society free of both, but it was eventually smashed and the General killed.
Or so everyone thought until he was recently found insane but alive in a madhouse on the edge of the West. More disconcerting to the spirits than his mere existence, though, is their discovery that buried in his head just might be a weapon that could destroy both the Line and the Gun. It becomes a race then as to which group will capture the General first. The Line sends out Linesman Lowry with a horde of other Linesmen and lots of mechanical support (airships, cannon, etc.), while the Gun turns to one of its oldest, most-experienced, and seemingly most reluctant agents--John Creedmoor. Caught in between these two is Liv Alverhuysen, a psychiatrist from the East who has just accepted an invitation to work at the madhouse, unaware of the all-important patient she will find there.
The premise of The Half-Made World is utterly fascinating and as I mentioned, one of the most original underpinnings to a story I've seen. I loved how Gilman took the archetypes of our frontier mythology--the expansion of the railroads and the gun-toting violent loner--and gave them literal life as magical spirits fighting for dominion. By their very nature, we see much more of the Engines and their working and these are some of the most evocative passages in the book. The Guns are no less fascinating, but as they build nothing and communicate telepathically from their mysterious Lodge, we never actually see them or their effects visually. The native Hill People, one of whom was an advisor to the General years ago and revealed the weapon to him, are also mostly off the page, but we see enough to more than pique our interest and I assume and hope we'll see more in the next book.
Creedmoor is a great creation, torn between his love of the power and independence the Gun gives him and his desire to be free of his masters. This tension only comes under more stress and he takes on this mission. Lowry lacks that sort of tension; he is eager to please his Engine masters, but he is such a creepy, obsessed, ambitious little creature that you can't take your eyes off of him. Liv is less successful as a character, mostly because she is much more passive for most of the book, more reacting than acting. Her passivity, though, has its causes, and so this isn't so much a character flaw as a product of plot. It is a welcome change, however, when she breaks free of it.
The Half-Made World does bog down slightly about two-thirds of the way through, but not for long. Beyond that, my only complaint is that I didn't delve as much into various aspects of Gilman's world as I would have liked to: the Engines, the Gun spirits, the Hill People. That I wanted more, despite this being nearly 500 pages, isn't so much criticism than as praise. And is the reason why, as I said earlier, I'm looking eagerly forward to the next book. Highly recommended.