Fix ('Mancer #3)
by Ferrett Steinmetz
I've said it before and I'll say it again: Ferrett Steinmetz's Flex series is one of the most imaginative and unique urban fantasies I've encountered. The trilogy takes place in a world where passionate, obsessive belief actually has the ability to warp reality to match their internal vision. As the book puts it:
"If you believed with a diamond-hard conviction the universe should act in a certain way, sometimes it did. You didn't mean to make it do anything, it just… shuffled out of the way.
Someone with an unhealthy obsession with gaming might become a videogamemancer, causing bullets to bounce off skin or magicking portal guns out of thin air or causing people around them to patrol in repeated loops. An edumancer might actually be able to teach anything to anyone and make them remember every word. But 'mancy comes at a cost. When the universe is bent into an alternate system, it rebounds with flux: concentrated bad luck that targets the 'mancer and causes their greatest fears to come true. And when 'mancy stands off against 'mancy, as happened in Europe, reality can be so horrifically distorted that it can breach, opening a door for creatures from the Lovecraftian Dungeon Dimensions.
If any of this sounds interesting to you, check out Flex, the first book in the trilogy. From here on out, there may be spoilers for the previous books.
In some ways, Fix was a satisfying book. I love series that end, that resolve their plot arcs rather than dragging out character development and conflicts infinitely. As Steinmetz notes in the afterward, Fix is indeed the end of the trilogy, and I appreciated the sense of closure. However, at the same time, Fix was extremely difficult to finish. The previous books may have been dark, but Fix repeatedly verges on utter despondency. I believe that pacing is a delicate feat of acrobatics: if everything's too safe and easy and achievable, there's no suspense. However, when things are too hard and hopeless, where all of the protagonists' moves just make everything worse and worse, then there's nothing to keep the reader engaged and it's all too easy to give up and put the book down. Unfortunately, I think the first 75% of Fix falls neatly into the latter category. The protagonists--the people I've rooted for, admittedly with mixed emotions, for two previous books-- push so far past the moral event horizon that I felt alienated from them and just wanted it all to end. I kept putting down the book, coming up with any excuse to read something else. I had to force myself to take it up again again and again.
One of the things I've loved about these books is the protagonist. Paul is a bureaucromancer. He believes in laws and rules and order with so much passion that his faith actually bends reality. Needless to say, he's a bit on the OCD side. As someone who is compelled to turn the doorknob repeatedly in multiples of five when leaving the house to make sure it's really locked (not kidding about multiples of five, sadly), this makes Paul a very empathetic and relatable character for me. An example of why I love him:
Back in the days before Paul had fallen hopelessly in love with Imani, he would find himself seized by shameful urges in his dates' apartments [...] college dorms so cramped they were practically spooning; Paul laced his fingers together to avoid temptation. His dates always smiled when they noticed his discomfort.
"Whatcha thinking?" they'd ask.
"Yes?" They'd tilt their chins, all but begging to be kissed.
"Can I rearrange your bookshelves? They're out of alphabetical order."
The dates ended shortly after that.
Paul's singlemindedness has always made him something of an antihero; after all, in the initial book, he's willing to sell drugs to gangsters to save his daughter and in the second book, his actions against the villain left me horrified. However, in this book, his descent is so abrupt that it wasn't possible for me to empathize or even comprehend his actions. Instead, I was left feeling disconnected, unable to empathise with Paul or see him as anything other than a villain.
'Mancers were always set up to be antiheroes. Their steadfast certainty means that they see the world in an inherently rigid and inaccurate way; after all, that's how they do magic. In this book, Steinmetz really examines the consequences of this rigidity. In some ways, I loved this introspective aspect and the ways it explored Paul's motivations and the repercussions of his actions, but it was also heartbreaking to watch him do some truly terrible things.(show spoiler)
I forced myself again and again to pick up the book, and I'm glad I did. I love how the book continued to develop Imani and Aliyah's characters. I love that we finally get to see breach-torn Europe. I love that we learn more about the Unimancers and their system. And I also love the way Valentine's romance develops through the story. Without any spoilers, I found the ending profoundly satisfying and also sweet.* If you've read the other books in the series, then I don't need to recommend Fix to you--you're going to pick it up anyway. If you haven't, and the idea of an OCD paperwork-loving 'mancer protagonist sounds like fun, you should definitely take a look at Flex. As for me, I'm excited to find out what Steinmetz has in store for his readers next.
~~ I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publishers, Angry Robot Books, in exchange for my honest review. (Thank you!) Quotes are taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the book as a whole.~~
Cross-posted on Goodreads.
*If you think that's spoilery, bear in mind that my definition of "completion" is apparently somewhat unusual, so don't necessarily assume a picture-perfect HEA with every plot thread wrapped up.↩