With certain authors, I’m reaching the point where I feel like I may as well stop reviewing them, because their books have become so reliable it verges on the predictable. Not that I’d stop reading them: I enjoy their works, and there’s always something reassuring about a nice slice of comfort pie. It’s more that I feel like I’m running out of things to say about them.
And then there’s Steven Brust, who is not one of those authors. About 20 of his books are set in the same (Dragaeran) universe, but they still constantly surprise the reader in the way they experiment with form and style, switch narrators, juggle the internal chronology, and use a host of other tricks and techniques to keep things fresh and exciting. Outside of that universe, his books range from a retelling of the Revolt of the Angels to what’s possibly my favorite vampire novel ever to, well, just take a look at his bibliography to see how he has reinvented himself in the course of his career. Brust plays hopscotch with his readers’ expectations.
Case in point: The Incrementalists, the new novel co-written by Steven Brust and Skyler White. I’m not sure how to classify it (if such a thing is possible—or necessary—at all) but regardless, it’s a pretty sharp departure from Brust’s previous works. (I confess that I haven’t read anything else by Skyler White, so I can’t really comment on how this novel fits in with her work, or how it might be received by her fans.)
The Incrementalists is a contemporary fantasy about a secret organization of about 200 people that traces its origins back to the dawn of humanity. They pass on their experiences from person to person, in part by accessing an alternate realm where they “seed” and store memories. Their goal is improving life, and they do so by “meddling” with people in subtle ways, using sense memories to place them in the right frame of mind, then making suggestions to nudge them in the right direction, achieve the smallest incremental changes and, ultimately, make things better:
Small changes are just what lead to big changes. Can’t help it. That’s how nature works. Water gets a little hotter, and a little hotter, and a little hotter, and then you have steam, which is a pretty big change if you happen to be a water molecule. So even if you try to do something small, you’ll end up doing something big, and if you do something big, then people are going to get hurt.
All of this makes The Incrementalists sound like a secret history-type novel, and that’s definitely one way you could describe it. However, it also has a murder mystery (of sorts), and a strong romance component, and maybe most importantly, a ton of serious consideration about the nature of memory and reality and the implications of human consciousness acting on our world. Oh, and it’s mainly set in present day Las Vegas. Not easy to classify, but definitely an interesting mix.
The story kicks off when Phil, one of the oldest Incrementalists, tries to recruit a new person to the group, which involves, as close as I can explain it, having her become the repository of the memories of the most recently deceased member—Phil’s lover and long-time companion, Celeste. However, Phil and Celeste being somewhat senior within the group (the five oldest Incrementalists form an informal sort of guidance committee called, for reasons I don’t really understand, the “Salt”), the question of whether Celeste will still be Celeste or not has big implications. There are, as you’d expect, shenanigans going on here.
The result of all of this is an odd and initially confusing story. Brust and White follow the time-honored tradition of throwing the reader into the deep, especially in terms of the specialized vocabulary used by the Incrementalists to describe their interactions and processes. (Brust wrote a great post about this recently, tellingly titled “Making the Reader Work.”) You’ll be able to figure out some of it quickly because Phil has to explain at least the basics to Ren, but still, this is one of those novels where you occasionally just have to accept something that’s unclear and trust that it will get explained later.
Despite being a bit confusing early on, The Incrementalists is an entertaining and thought-provoking novel. Both Phil and Ren are fascinating characters who gradually reveal their layers, Phil the experienced Incrementalist and Ren the newbie who is just learning how all of it works. There’s a small cast of side-characters, mostly other Incrementalists with their own strengths, specialties, and individual agendas. The plot thickens steadily as more details about Celeste’s actions are revealed and as your understanding of the Incrementalists’ work increases. I’m keeping all of this vague, partly to avoid spoilers and partly because this is one of those novels where it’s just incredibly hard to explain things without also explaining a ton of the novel’s underlying concepts.
To be perfectly honest, though, the book didn’t work as well for me as I hoped. This was easily one of my most anticipated releases of the year, Brust being one of my favorite authors and the entire concept just sounding so bizarre and interesting. When all’s said and done, it didn’t blow me away the way I expected. The main problem, I think, is that the explanations of the Incrementalists’ concepts and techniques sometimes get a bit, well, wonky.The Incrementalists frequently feels like a book that’s more about showing off this incredibly cool and innovative fictional world and secret history than about telling a compelling story.
Another part of the problem may be that, aside from Ren, the characters are hard to relate to—as you’d probably expect from a millennia-old cabal of folks who have the ability to subtly manipulate everyone else. There’s also a strange sense of disconnect between what they are and how they act, partly because many of them display an oddly cavalier, almost casual attitude about what they do. This creates a weird, surreal atmosphere that doesn’t always mesh with the full meaning and impact of the Incrementalists’ actions: ancient, shadowy personalities who have walked among us for millennia and have ineffable powers, yet still bicker constantly and can’t agree on where to order pizza from. Fortunately this is balanced out by a sober dose of self-analysis later on in the novel:
Jimmy spoke softly. “It is evil, what we do.[…] We have good reasons, and we always hope to achieve good effects. But it is evil to meddle with people, to change who they are, to force them to our will, giving them no chance to even know we are there. It is evil. Perhaps the good we do makes up for it. I hope so. But we must never forget the violence, the violation, of our methods. And should we ever use them for even small things that do not make the world better, surely we deserve nothing but curses and contempt from those around us, and from ourselves.”
Despite my reservations about The Incrementalists, there are plenty of moments of magic here too. Ren is an amazing, memorable character. Towards the end of the novel, there’s a masterful scene of self-discovery that is just stunning in its breathless, all-encompassing honesty and gorgeous imagery. There’s also a funny scene involving popcorn, which is simply prime, grade-A quality Brust. There are too many beautiful, meaningful sentences and paragraphs to quote here, so I’ll limit myself to just one more to give you a taste of the beautiful romance that’s a big part of this novel:
I wanted to follow the thread of him into the labyrinth of days, to discover each next turn with him, to watch the walls of our baffling history slip by under his fingers, and to feel those fingers on my skin.
Despite some of my reservations, I can’t deny that The Incrementalists is a unique and surprising novel about the power of memory and the impact of even the smallest actions. Its occasionally breezy tone masks a spectacular amount of depth and history. When it allows that depth to shine through, The Incrementalists is at its best. I’m glad I read it, and I’m glad there are authors who still manage to surprise even their long-time fans.
This review was originally published at Tor.com on September 18th, 2013. Steven Brust made my day when he called it “wonderfully perceptive” on his own blog.