BOOK REVIEW: THE FLUX by Ferrett Steinmetz

written by David Steffen

THE FLUX is the sequel to Ferrett Steinmetz’s premier book FLEX that was published earlier this year.  If you haven’t read the first book, I recommend reading FLEX before this one–you can read my review of that book on SF Signal.  This review may contain spoilers for the first book, so if you want to avoid that, go read the FLEX review or pick up that book first.  I’ll try to give a general overview so this review won’t be incomprehensible to newcomers, but it may ruin some of the effect of the first book.

Still here?  Okay.

THE FLUX takes place a couple years after the FLEX, and mostly centers around the same three characters.  The magic (or ‘mancy) in the universe of these books is extremely personal–if you are obsessed enough with something, that obsession can bend the universe around you to suit your beliefs.  But it comes at a cost–every time a ‘mancer changes the world with their ‘mancy, the universe pushes back against the change with flux.  Flux is a load of bad luck proportional to the extremeness of your mancy.

Paul Tsabo is a bureaucromancer, whose power rests in his belief that paperowork is a powerful force for good.  His ‘mancy can be very powerful, but in a quiet way–not  usually the deciding factor in a firefight, but it is subtle enough to make things happen that would be impossible for many other kinds of ‘mancy.  Since the death of the anarchomancer Anathema at the end of FLEX, whom the public thinks was killed by Paul, he has become a bit of a celebrity for having killed two ‘mancers.   He has been appointed the head of New York’s new local anti-mancer task force to offset Anathema’s claim that she had been producing new ‘mancers in the city.  He has also been brewing FLEX for a local crime syndicate to fulfill his past obligations.

Valentine DiGriz is a videogamemancer, a powerhouse with wide-ranging abilities that she can draw from any video game she’s ever played.  Her ‘mancy is loud and conspicuous, as she herself often is.  In many ways she is the opposite of Paul, but they have forged a deep friendship through fighting to help Paul’s daughter in FLEX.

Aliyah is Paul’s daughter, also a videogamemancer, who even now is the youngest ‘mancer any of the characters in the book have heard of.  She gained her power during the fight against Anathema, and she used those powers to kill Anathema, a fact that she is still trying to cope with.  She is powerful, but young and headstrong, and tends to rush into situations.  She is very protective of her father, and struggles with lying to her mother who Aliyah feels would turn her into the authorities if she knew about Aliyah’s ‘mancy.

The book starts out two years after the end of FLEX.  After Anathema’s promise that she has seeded New York City with ‘mancers before her death, Paul and Valentine were braced to try to handle the onslaught of magic in the town, and especially Paul in his role as the new taskforce manager.  But in those two years, no new ‘mancers have risen.  What could be the cause of this unusual lull during a time when a surge was expected?  Paul and Valentine decide to find out.

Meanwhile, they are trying to help Aliyah survive her childhood ‘mancy.  Her inexperienced and headstrong use of ‘mancy threatens them with the blowback of the flux every time she uses it.  And if she’s ever caught, she will be brainwashed and recruited for the SMASH military anti-‘mancy unit like anyone else.

I don’t want to say much more about the plot because, as with the first book, Ferrett has done an astounding job of making the book unpredictable in the most satisfying and self-consistent way.  Every time I felt that I had a grasp of where the book was going next, something new would happen and the plotline would end up on a completely different course.

And, wonder of wonders, Ferrett has managed to avoid the Book Two Slump that many series of novels has difficulty slogging through–that point where the novelty of the idea or setting is no longer fresh and the story has to make up for the lack of novelty.  This book does not feel like a Book Two.  It is every bit as fresh and solid and consistently entertaining at every moment as the first book.

The biggest strength of the book is the likeable but disparate characters.  Paul, Valentine, and Aliyah are a group that it’s easy to root for, who will fight for each other just as strongly as they’ll fight for themselves, but there is interesting conflict inherent in their different personalities, as with any family.  These three together are the heroes of the book, even when they make choices that I didn’t agree with.

The stakes are ever high for ‘mancers, since apprehension by authorities  means brainwashing, overusing magic builds up flux that can vent in the most improbable and destructive coincidences, and with the head of crime syndicate as one of their few allies.  The ‘mancy in these books is flexible enough that it’s a treat to see characters find new ways to apply their magic, but everything has a cost–the flux must be accounted for.

Gamers will especially love both this book and the last, especially in fight scenes where Valentine’s and Aliyah’s videogamemancy powers often take the forefront, tapping into real games to force those gameplay features onto reality.

I felt like this book (and the one before it) was written just for me in a way that I’ve never felt about a book before.  Weird, fun, heartfelt, unpredictable, and compelling.

Ferrett has also announced the wonderful news that Angry Robot Books will be publishing book 3 in the series, THE FIX.  Bring. It. On. I can’t wait to read it.