RogerBW's Blog

Flex, Ferrett Steinmetz 11 November 2015

2015 modern fantasy. Magic is in the world, but "'mancers" only use it to cause chaos – and it's still true that nothing is free. Flex is a drug, distilled magic, but the mundanes who take it are even less able to deal with the backlash than the 'mancers are. Paul Tsabo, ex-cop and once known as the only mundane to have killed a 'mancer, tries to track down the terrorist who's filling people with Flex and sending them out to destroy themselves and others.

There are obvious parallels with Myke Cole's Shadow Ops series: Europe is an unvisitable hellhole (though this time it's because too much concentrated magic allows chaos and demons into the area, which here happened during WWII), and magicians are either nasty evil criminals or in the Army. But it's a vastly better book.

Paul, of course, becomes a 'mancer, and has to try to balance that with thinking of himself as a good person. Magic here is the product of obsession: be sufficiently unhappy, be sufficiently determined to escape into a specific activity, and that activity can become the source of magic for you, such that your own beliefs determine the power you have. Paul, a detail-freak who's been working in an insurance office since a 'mancer destroyed his foot before he killed her, finds that he has drifted into being a bureaucromancer: his power is in forms and routine and procedure. Another major character is a videogame-mancer: she can manifest first-aid kits and Portal guns, or re-skin herself to look completely different.

But all this comes at a price: the more improbable things you do to make good stuff happen, the more the universe needs to make bad stuff happen back to you. That's also channelled through the subconscious, and it means you lose the things you care about. Active 'mancers don't tend to have cars, or homes, or long-term friends, any more. On the other hand, magic is beautiful: it's the thing you care about most in the world, given physical form.

So yeah, this is clearly a magic as drugs metaphor, but it manages mostly to avoid cliché. Paul is, as all 'mancers must be, a rather broken person: his wife has divorced him, his daughter's been badly burned in one of the Flex-inspired events, and now he's realised he has an illegal power. If he turned himself in, he'd be brainwashed to the point he wouldn't have a personality any more, and become a Unimancer for the Army (what one knows, all know). Or he could track down the mysterious "Anathema" behind the attacks, while also trying to get proper medical treatment for his daughter (it's an American health-care system after all), and to stop his flux from rebounding on her.

It's all decent stuff, and I particularly liked the appreciation that having Great Power doesn't necessarily solve all one's problems. By the end of the book Paul is still divorced and still on uneasy terms with his ex-wife; his daughter is still burned and getting treatment, not magically healed (in fact magical healing never gets mentioned here, presumably being too prone to flux backlash); a drug-dealing bad guy still has something of a hold on Paul.

Because although each magician is different, they can all make Flex: it's distilled magic, squashed down into crystalline form. Most of it carries its own flux with it, but occasionally the flux can be shifted somewhere else, at which point the user can do magic without consequences. Everything just works out for him: a gun fired at him blows up in the firer's hand, he trips just in time to avoid a blow, the woman he wants to pick up has just had a fight with her boyfriend. (And even that doesn't make people's lives perfect…)

There are flaws: in particular, what characters can achieve or even think of trying tends to wax and wane with the needs of the plot. Paul tends to go on and on in his internal monologue about how he's a terrible father and horrible person in general. Valentine, the videogame-mancer, has a bit more of a sense of fun, but everyone else in the book is pretty one-note. Some of the plot twists are distinctly predictable. It seems odd that there should be so many recognisable named elements of the modern world (particular TV shows and video games) in one that diverged from our own over seventy years ago.

But this is a first novel, and in spite of the flaws it's a distinctly good one. Followed by The Flux.

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