Lord of the Night reviews the superlative sequel to the original Urban Fantasy novel Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz, titled The Flux, and published by Angry Robot Books. (Note: An ARC of this book was provided by Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.)
"A sequel that takes everything the original did, which was already brilliant, imaginative and felt fresh in a genre that has perhaps become dominated by a few big name series, and improves on every aspect from plot, characters, action and variety of magic. Steinmetz thoroughly proves he is no one-novel wonder." - Lord of the Night @ Talk Wargaming
Flex has been one of my favourite novels in recent months primarily due to it's truly unique approach to magic, and the sheer variety that said approach offers. Add in likeable and relatable characters, a story that sucked me in and action scenes that kept me on the edge of whatever surface I was sitting on, and it becomes a novel that would I whole-heartedly recommend to anybody with even a remote interest in fantasy. So I went into the sequel with high hopes and I was not disappointed on any level; the sequel truly surpassed the original with a tighter and more focused plot, new characters with some truly memorable magic, and more scenes featuring mancer on mancer combat.
Mancers, people whose obsession with whatever they are most passionate about gives them the ability to warp reality, and potentially destroy it too. Mancy is illegal all the world over, the smoking demon-haunted ruins of Europe a grim reminder of the risks involved when mancers are given free reign. Paul Tsabo, Bureaucromancer and magic drug dealer, will do whatever it takes to protect his daughter Aliyah, now a Videogamemancer, from the mancer-hating world around them. But as Aliyah's power continues to grow, as does her fury at having to hide her gifts from her mother, friends and teachers. But his daughter's killer temper tantrums aren't Paul's only problem, a new player calling himself The King of New York has a problem that only Paul can solve and is prepared to offer Paul, Aliyah and their friend Valentine DiGriz paradise to ensure their aid, but what the King calls paradise may not be what the Tsabo family are expecting as they enter The Peregrine Institute.
If Flex was Paul Tsabo's book, then The Flux is Aliyah Tsabo-Dawson's book. The eight-year old mancer has really started to come into her powers and this produces one hell of a character story, an adult gaining these types of powers would find their preconceptions and morality tested beyond all measure; so how is a child without a firm sense of right and wrong and the logic of the very young supposed to deal with it? Steinmetz wastes no time in showing how Aliyah's power combined with her youth puts Paul and Valentine in great danger, which sets up the story as Paul receives an offer from the King that might just solve his problems. One aspect that I felt was an improvement over Flex was that in the original parts of the story felt disconnected from the rest, or involved time/scene-jumps that were too abrupt or cut material that was important to the story. The Flux has a much more focused plot, Paul's efforts to find a haven for his daughter while also trying to help her understand not only her powers but the ramifications of what she can do with said powers, and Aliyah's desire to keep her daddy safe at all costs whether he likes it or not, are the elements that drive the novel's plot. The Flux does feel a bit slower than Flex but it works; the novel takes it's time building up the plot along with the newly introduced characters and the Institute they represent, growing tensions between characters and issues both magical and mundane ratcheting up the stakes before reaching Part 3 where the pace really takes off and all the events of the book come together in a stunning final few chapters that had me glued to the page. There are plenty of surprises across the book, Steinmetz has a talent for taking a left turn when everything you see tells you he's turning right, something that really makes the book a much better read as it feels unpredictable.
The characters were to a man/woman, great. Both old and new, Steinmetz really knows how to write interesting characters that are not only likeable, but relatable as some of the issues they face can really resonate with the reader. Paul Tsabo's growth as a mancer continues as he begins to learn a lot more about the history of the very exclusive group he and his daughter have joined, and we see Paul thrust into a situation that his bureacromancy cannot help him with; raising an eight-year old with both anger issues and deadly magic powers. I particularly liked how Paul both changed and stayed the same across the book, but it was Aliyah that was the real star of the book. As I said prior, an adult would have a difficult enough time adapting to these powers that she has gained, so a child would have an even harder time; not in accepting that magic is very very real (something that is refreshingly absent in this series as everybody KNOWS magic is real) but in learning what effects her powers have on those around her and the dangers that they pose. I felt that Steinmetz realistically portrayed how a child, with a child's simplistic approach to the world, would react to gaining wondrous powers that are hated by everybody and how she reacts to that unthinking hate; Aliyah's dilemna isn't solved in a few pages or easily, because her situation isn't an easy one. Valentine, my favourite character of the series, was brilliant as usual, sarcastic and brimming with video-game references, but this time we get to see her vulnerable side and just how the isolating life of a mancer combined with the Flux-death of her boyfriend has affected her in some very poignant scenes that reinforce the cost of being a mancer. Steinmetz also introduces several new characters including Rainbird the Pyromancer whose contrasting viewpoints with Paul produced some wonderful conflict and tense scenes, Tyler Durden the Fight-Clubomancer whose relationship with Valentine was both funny and heartwarming (though I imagine somebody who has actually seen the movie Fight Club will appreciate him much more), and the King of New York who I won't say anything about except that he proved to be a very interesting character with very grey motives and ideals.
The action scenes were an improvement over the first book as The Flux featured a lot more of mancers slugging it out, physically and magically. Fights with eight-year old girls wearing Mario and God of War skins like armor, groups of Fight Club devotees clashing with Riot Squads, a pyromancer fighting a pretty famous video game cameo character, and one particular scene that shows a fight does not have to have a single punch or fireball thrown to be totally freaking awesome. One of the best things about this book, and series, is that Steinmetz doesn't have his characters change in order to win fights, they use their powers creatively to make the fight scenes their own, and with the unique types of magic present in the book, many of these fight scenes feel completely unique and very definitely stick in the mind, something that can be hard to acheive for fight scenes. Really it's the Video Game magic that makes these fights truly something, they are exciting, funny and evoke a sense of wonder but also familiarity, it's magic bringing some of our favourite characters and worlds to life, and using them to kick ass. However I think the fight scene that was the most impressive was the penultimate one because it was a scene that proved that Paul's magic of paperwork, forms filed in triplicate and codes can be just as powerful and epic as Aliyah's Fire Mario or Tyler's Fight-Club magic; Steinmetz knocked it out of the park with this scene as he made Paul's magic useful in battle yet didn't have to alter it or make him suddenly grow into something he wasn't.
The pacing was quite well done, The Flux is a slower burn than Flex but it's a bit more focused and the final chapters are much more satisfying for it. The first two parts of the story built up the plot and character situations, the tension growing as opinions begin to differ and situations spiral out of control due to conflicting desires, until the third part takes off as it did in the third part of Flex. This, combined with the more focused plot, is one of the aspects that I felt made The Flux an improvement over Flex. The world building was significantly improved as well, in the first book the characters didn't really have the time or inclination to learn more about what they were, but many subjects are expanded on in the sequel from the Buzzsects and the ruin of Europe, the history of mancers and in particular the strengths and weaknesses of mancy in general rather than any one person's particular type of mancy, and of course more and more types of mancers, some that were rather typical kinds of wizards, and some that are truly unique in urban fantasy. These additions really flesh out the world that Paul and his family inhabit, a world where magic is very real and everyone knows it, a world where the universe itself can be bartered with, and where Kratos isn't just data pixels.
My favourite quote, I think has to be these two;
"FLAWLESS VICTORY. FATALITY."
"We remember you."
The ending was surprising and sets up quite the premise for the third book in the Mancer series. I definitely did not expect Paul to make the decisions he did by the epilogue, and only time will tell what those decisions will mean for the cast and for the world at large, but it is definitely a markedly different ending point for the characters than in Flex and it makes the ending of the book more of a cliffhanger than the first book's ending was. Steinmetz nicely wraps up the stories that began in The Flux while at the same time setting the stage for the next book that will have it's own story, as he did in Flex. I particularly enjoyed that all of the survivors were featured in the final chapter, showing how the events of the novel have changed them and strengthened them. There weren't as many teasers towards book three since the cliffhanger-style ending more than gets the reader eager for the next and likely final instalment in the series.
For a great story that was more focused, and more rewarding, than the original, characters that continue to be very enjoyable and understandable as well as memorable, action scenes that blend video games, bureaucracy and magic together seamlessly, and plenty of brilliant video game references that I got 98% of the time (If I could make one request of him it would be this; please make a Dark Souls reference in book three. Valentine has to have played it at some point), I give The Flux a score of 9.5/10. This is a Great novel that like with Flex I would strongly recommend to anyone who has any interest at all in Urban Fantasy as a genre, and even to people who've never read the genre before and might be interested in giving it a go; the Mancer series would be a fantastic introduction for you. If you don't like Urban Fantasy however, sadly I can't say that this is a book for you, but if your mind isn't made up on the subject, perhaps gie the series a try and see if it can't make a fan out of you. I would also say that this book makes Ferrett Steinmetz a name to watch, I know i'll definitely be looking out for whatever his next project is after the Mancer series is done.
That's it for this review. Thanks for reading, until next time;
AVE DOMINUS NOX!