Flex has a great opening. But since the opening is a prelude, it actually has two great openings. Both hooked me immediately. And then it gets better.
The premise: Obsession leads to the creation of magic.
Translation of the premise: be an obsessive compulsive geek about something, and one day you’ll find that obsession has turned into magical powers called ‘mancy. So it is with Paul, a guy who loves paperwork and bureaucracy to the point of worship (it holds humanity together! it creates the opportunity for fairness! for law! for order! for good!) and one day awakes to find he can do paperwork-based magic. He can call secret records out of the police files by filling out the right forms, or he can backdate a fax to the police to make sure they show up when he’s in trouble. He calls it bureaucromancy.
“He believed rules made life better. He believed organizations made humans play fairly. He believed that good records were sometimes all that stood between a well-deserved life and a messy death.”
Then you have Valentine, who loves video games so much she’s become a videomancer and damn, she can do some cool things with a game of Mario Cart. Watching Valentine work was thrilling in the way that parts of Ready Player One are thrilling; they give gamers a moment in which they can think of their acquired skills as vitally important. You know what else is cool about Valentine? She isn’t skinny, but she’s still attractive. She’s not in great shape, but she still kicks some ass. I can’t think of a single heroine in recent reading who wasn’t some variation of hardened wisp of warrior woman. It’s nice to see a badass lady hero who’s a little bit out of shape, a little doughy around the middle, and is totally hot and kicks ass.
There aren’t many ‘mancers in the world—Valentine is the second that Paul has ever met and he had to track her down private-detective style—in part because ‘mancy is illegal and the police hunt ‘mancers and then either kill them (Paul’s former job) or sign them up for the army where the side effects of their magic can be curbed by joining a ‘mancy hive mind. Because when the magic flex comes out and a ‘mancer bends the world to their will, the flux—that is to say the yang to flex’s yin—follows soon after. So when you make something good happen with your magic, you get a blast of bad back in your face. And it tends to go after the thing you love most, making intimacy with a ‘mancer a dangerous proposition. With the flex-flux balance, Steinmetz has created a magic system with consequences, with the give and take us mundanes are familiar with in reality. I love me a magic system with consequences. It’s all very karmic, and it makes the magic feel more real, which in turn allows me to suspend my disbelief a little further and to continue to dream that maybe my Hogwart’s letter just got lost in the mail.
“‘Mancy isn’t a bad thing: it’s proof that if you care enough about things, the world listens.“
Now there’s an optimistic thought, eh? Magic is real and if you care about shit, that’s enough. There’s a lot of comfort in the magic of this book, and that was a big part of its charm. Bad shit happens in this world, really really bad shit, like little girls getting badly burned in house fires and insurance companies weaseling out of claim payments, but if you care, you can set it all right. At least you can try. That is a nice thing to read about on a rainy, cold day.
I loved Flex. When I started it, I was thinking, “Ok, I have to make sure to finish this before March 3rd, when it comes out. Shit, I hope it’s not a slog.” When I finished it I was thinking, “Holy shit, I have been saved from the boring! That was so much fun!! Please! Thank you! More!”
I don’t like using exclamation points, but this book deserves all the exclamation points. Look, here’s a whole bag! They are to be placed after the words Flex and awesome whenever they appear! Flex! Awesome! Flex! Awesome! Flex! You get the idea.
The book’s pacing was just right, the information drip satisfyingly steady but with enough mystery to keep me reading. I wanted to find out who would do what and how. I wanted to know who was going to win. I wanted to know about motivations. I wanted to see some more video game magic. I wanted to read it whenever I had time. If I end up writing a list of my ten favorite books from my last five year’s reading, this book is probably going to be on it.
Bureacrocy versus anti-civ, fight!
The fun side of this book would have been enough for me to make it a chain of exclamation points to hang around its papery neck—but hey look at that—there an interesting political discussion taking place through and under and beneath the surface story. Just my sort of political discussion! This bit of the review is going to contain spoilers, so I recommend skipping down to the next bolded title if you don’t like that sort of thing. You have been warned. Skedaddle! Buy the book! Read it! Come back!
“‘She’s an anarchomancer,’ Paul said.”
When Paul notices that his narrative’s villain, a woman named Anathema, is targeting things that are “civilizationy” (a conclusion that does come across as a bit of a stretch in the story, because, come on, just about everything these days could be called “civilizationy”), he concludes that she is fighting for chaos. I got a little tense at this point in the narrative. Was this going to be one more story that made anarchists out to be a bunch of EVIL black-clad bomb-throwing nihilists who just wanted to watch the burn? Was it going to be another book that confused anarchism-as-political-belief with anarchism-the-word-that-means-chaos? Was it going to stereotype anarchists and demonize them the way they have been stereotyped and demonized by every underinformed critic of anarchism ever? But the term only applies insofar as Anathema appears to be fighting for chaos over imposed order, and Paul quickly changes his label to “paleomancer.” Which Valentine thinks sounds kind of stupid.
“Okay, fine, a society-hating ‘mancer A primitive-mancer? Whatever. The point is she’s been targeting the things she thinks are fripperies. She wants us huddled in small groups around a campfire. I was more right than I knew—she’s not out to destroy the government, she’s out to destroy civilization.”
Ah-ha! We are not dealing with a stereotyped anarchist baddie here, but an anti-civ person pitted against the symbol of human organization: bureaucracy. Who will win? Who are we encouraged to root for?
A note on anti-civ. (Not just an easy motivation for baddies in movies, but an actual movement! Whoa!) I’ve read a lot of anti-civ literature. The main gist is this: humans are destroying the resources we need to survive and if we’re going to survive as a species we need to drastically reduce our population and get our shit together. That much I can vehemently agree with, though it is a philosophy that manifests itself in many trains of thought and plans for action. The primitivists (incoming generalizations for the sake of a quickish explanation) head out into the woods and re-wild, ie live like early humans, in order to prepare for what’s coming or maybe to convince others that this would be a more sustainable way of living. Some anti-civ folks are convinced an environmental collapse is inevitable and that it would be a good idea to prepare or help it along or just, you know, kill as many people as possible so we can reduce the population now instead of getting around to action when it’s too late. Though some of the conclusions anti-civ comes to are more ethically viable than others, it is a philosophy that I can relate to on the whole because it is painfully obvious that we’re using resources up that we need to survive and that we need a fucking plan if we want the human ego-train to carry our DNA into the distant future.
Returning to Flex, at the point in the story when Anathema was revealed as an anti-civ villain, I was still a little worried that this was going to be strawman material. For reasons I think are obvious, it is very, very easy to villainize/laugh at the philosophy of anti-civ folks. Would Steinmetz give the idea enough air to be worth more than a bullet in the head? I crossed my fingers. At long last, we are given a glimpse into Anathema’s past and inside her head, where we find a pretty relevant critique of modern society:
“We’re broken from having to work for money, from being at the mercy of vast economies, from being forced to specialize like insects.
“This sickness manifests in obsessions. We gorge ourselves on television, on pills, on sex, on anything that might distract from the truth…”
The source of these problems, Anathema concludes is the size of the population. Though she comes to questionable conclusions about what to do about this (and a few pages later blames the internet for all of it), her observations about how modern economies and lifestyles affect many people are worth thinking about. I liked her. I asked Steinmetz about it on twitter, and he said he really liked her. I wouldn’t have minded if she had won. So all in all you can say her perspective gets fair play. Still, in the battle between bureaucracy and chaos, I bet you already know who wins. You get one guess. Yup! Business as usual.
But wait just a fucking second. Bureaucracy as magic? A fucking magical hero whose superpower is paperwork?! When you step out of your daze of suspended disbelief, this is totally fucking ridiculous. When I took a step back and thought about it, I laughed. While reading the story it is impossible not to take seriously because the story has an iron grip, but the more I considered the idea of magical paperwork, the more I felt like I was sharing an inside joke with the author. Yeah yeah, order versus chaos and the modern (paperwork) versus the historical (the paleomancy) and yes those are age-old dichotomies that we tend to take seriously and that fantasy is always fucking around with, but how ridiculous is that?! So let’s all sit back and laugh at ourselves, even as we seriously consider the implications. There was something about the idea of making paperwork magical that was perfect and magical and hilariously absurd and the stull of desk workers’ daydreams. Being able to notice yourself taking something kind of absurd really seriously and then to laugh about it? That can be cathartic. That can be revealing. That can help us think. It was a nice touch, though I didn’t find any signposts in the text that confirmed it was intentional. Not that intention always matters.
Welcome back to the review, avoiders of spoilers
Did I mention that I loved this book? Though it was mildly didactic, it was smart, inventive, and a hell of a lot of fun. On top of all the things I’ve already mentioned, it has something to say about stereotypes (a person who has seen ‘mancers as evil beings who need to be killed discovering that things aren’t so black and white). Paul deals with divorce and the challenge of creating a good relationship with his daughter in its wake. There are important handicapped characters (Paul is missing a foot and his daughter is badly burned), there are important black characters, there are important female characters, and there are lines like this, that blow the usual narrative assumption that everybody is white and hetero right out off the page:
“Was Anathema white? Gay? Indonesian? Genderqueer? Nobody knew. Not one living soul had seen him, her, or it.”
Did I mention that ‘mancers can distill their magic into a drug that let’s you manipulate probability, but that tends to kill people with its backlash of flux? I am a big fan of the “magic as drug and drugs as magic” theme that I have until now only read in Holly Black’s Valiant. Did I mention that there are too many things to rave about in this book, the few problems more parenthetical than bothersome? You’ve probably figured that out by now yourself.
Thanks for a great ride, Steinmetz, I look forward to the next book.
PS Visit Steinmetz’ blog for it is awesome.
Ten out of twelve perfectly completed forms.
Where I got it: Sent to me for review by the author
Where you can get it: Flex comes out on March 3, 2015, but preordering is one of the ways you can help an author look their awesomest. You can do so on Book Depository here.