Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Review: The Rise of Ransom City by Felix Gilman

Some thirty years ago, the (in)famous Professor Harry Ransom penned his autobiography and mailed the various parts to friends and acquaintances who might wish to hear his side of the story. Elmer Merrial Carson, newspaper man and one-time friend to Ransom, has spent the intervening decades tracking down the fragments and editing them into a form that makes sense. Now, for the first time ever, the complete text is available so the public may judge whether Harry Ransom, inventor of the Ransom Process, hero of the Jasper City conflict, and founder of the stupendous Ransom City, is the hero or the villain of his own tale.

If THUNDERER was Dickensian, THE RISE OF RANSOM CITY is pure Mark Twain. This story of a young man trying to make his way in an embattled world simply reeks of the sort of wild, sprawling, fifteen-tales-for-the-price-of-one novel at which Twain excelled. Even though the novel appears to be secondary world (the dates match ours, but the geography strikes me as pretty durned different), Gilman limns his pseudo-nineteenth century novel with such a sure hand that it’s easy to believe in it as a story of pluck and verve set against the backdrop of westward expansion.

To be honest, I had a bitch of a time with it.

It’s not that THE RISE OF RANSOM CITY is unsatisfying. To the contrary, it’s fascinating on about ten different levels. It’s also dense, though, as is only fitting for something that accurately emulates a nineteenth century prose style. Much to my distress, I couldn’t make it through in one go. If I hadn’t paused to read something else between each part, I’d have been forced to abandon what is, at heart, an excellent, multi-layered story.

Thank goodness there’s no law against taking a break from your current read.

Gilman delivers a fully realized secondary world in which demonic forces battle it out by assuming technological forms. He never explicitly describes the Gun and the Line--after all, Ransom assumes his readers have known both from the cradle--but they nonetheless exert a rich and sinister influence on the world at large. Their presence affects everything from mercantile concerns to gender roles to the politics of exploration. The Gun and the Line are an integral part of the world building, and their impact is never possible to ignore.

Ransom himself is an unreliable narrator of the very best sort. As the story progresses, it becomes clear he has a definite agenda in penning his autobiography, as well as compelling reasons for for painting himself in a particular light. There are areas where he’s deliberately opaque, followed by scenes in which he is a shade too honest. The reader has to sift through and carefully consider everything he says. What he leaves off the page is often as interesting as what he puts on. It’s a wonderful narrative exercise, but it does take an awful lot of mental energy.

Hence my need for breaks every hundred pages or so.

THE RISE OF RANSOM CITY also works in concert with THE HALF-MADE WORLD, Gilman’s earlier offering. I must confess, I haven’t yet read it, but I hope having the companion novel under my belt will enrich the experience. The few reviews I read before I started state the opposite is certainly true.

In the end, I didn’t quite love it, but I did like it awfully much. I’m looking forward to reading THE HALF-MADE WORLD in the new year, and I’ve already secured the first place on the library list for REVOLUTIONS, Gilman’s forthcoming novel of Victorian spiritualism. And of course, I'll go back and read THE GEARS OF THE CITY (a companion/sequel to THUNDERER) as soon as the opportunity arises.


While I always advocate your local library as the absolute best source for books, I recognize this may not be an option for everyone where every book is concerned. If you're in search of another way to read THE RISE OF RANSOM CITY, you can try:

  • Kobo (e-book; for purchase; coupons don't work)
  • The Book Depository (paperback; for purchase; free shipping worldwide)
  • Amazon (paperback & Kindle; for purchase)
  • Audible (audio; for purchase)

I receive a small percentage of the purchase price if you buy the book through one of the links above.


  1. I have THUNDERER, I think. I should give it a read and see what I think...

    1. I think there's an excellent chance you'll enjoy both THUNDERER and this one.