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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

“The Incrementalists” by Steven Brust & Skyler White (Reviewed by Casey Blair)

Order “The IncrementalistsHERE
Read An Excerpt HERE

Imagine a centuries-old conspiracy to make the world better, a little bit at a time.

Now imagine a group of master manipulators maneuvering each other in a game where no one really understands the rules, let alone the stakes.

Take that and drop everything against the backdrop of the World Series of Poker and Las Vegas, and we begin to approach The Incrementalists. And I really do mean begin, because there is nothing like this book.

The Incrementalists is a collaboration between Steven Brust and Skyler White, coming out from Tor Books (September 24, 2013). This is one of those novels that I want to go back and re-read immediately, because I know I didn't catch everything the first time through. And I'll probably catch more on the next re-read, and the next, and that's really cool.

This isn't one of those books where you learn the magic rules and can figure out how the character will be able to apply them; it's nothing so formulaic. Every time you think you've got a handle on it, someone does something unexpected and the characters have to scramble to cope and adapt. Which is not to say that it felt haphazard; each new complication seemed, in retrospect, inevitable, so when the revelations hit, they hit hard.

The main characters are not mind-bogglingly brilliant, but you see their particular genius through certain lenses. Ren looks at the world through user interfaces and Phil through poker. Their voices are completely distinct — I always knew who was talking at which time, and so I always knew when Celeste had appeared in the same way the characters did — and the tone still meshes beautifully throughout.

The prose is straightforward and crisp, and then sometimes they do things with words that are absolute magic. I loved how the triggers involved so many weird combinations of senses, and they really fleshed out not just the characters to whom they belonged, but the ones who stored them, the worlds they came from and were stored in.

The Incrementalists are a secret society with a common goal of making the world better, but they're not all proponents of the same ideology — and what constitutes “better” is not the main point of the book. For a novel ostensibly about people all about meddling, we don't see much overt meddling to that end. At least, not on a grand scale, and that does matter. There is a lot of little, seemingly inconsequential meddling, which never is, really.

To me, the story had less to do with how the Incrementalists approach making the world better as with how they approach living. Even the characters who have lived for generations are very human; they're not doing things For the Greater Good, per se, but because of how they feel. However intellectual they may be, in the end decisions and choices are born out of their emotions. I loved how well, and how little, these people know each other. I love that the romance is not hinged on concrete reasons why the characters love each other, just that it's inexorable.

I think my very favorite thing about The Incrementalists, though, is that it assumes you're intelligent enough to follow it, and that the story is intelligent enough that I feel rewarded for understanding the gems. There is no extra explanation for the reader; the reader is expected to step up. There is never too much exposition at once, and yet there's always just enough to make me want to know how much more there is to know. There is a lot of in-world jargon, and there is a learning curve, and it is worth your time to invest in it.


bibliotropic said...

I didn't like this book half as much as you did. I didn't find Phil or Ren's voices that distinctive, especially when so much of the time there was unmarked dialogue and it got hard to follow just who was saying what. I also found that with the exception of about 4 characters, there was little development of personality; most of the other Incrementalists were practically interchangeable and didn't feel remotely realistic.

But I also seem to be one of the few who didn't enjoy this book; I know it's getting quite a number of good reviews. It might just be that this wasn't to my taste.

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