Here is a fascinating combination of epic story-telling, with characters who come up, grab you by the front of your shirt and gaze intently into your eyes, in a world that is in the process of being created by unseen, unknown hands. The edge of the livable world has been vastly extended in the last 400 years, but beyond the edge is inchoate, swirling world-in-making. The Eastern reaches are quite civilized, if you consider solid construction and academia the pinnacle of human accomplishment, but there is still violence, madness, pettiness, and bad behavior. Off to the West, however, in the new frontiers between the white-capped World’s End Mountains and the edge, a terrible contest is being waged between the industrially religious, or religiously industrial men and Engines of the Line and the demonically inspired men and women of the Gun, violent anarchists who sabotage the Engines and the lines of railway that are being laid across the land. Between these opposing extremes are settlers and the enslaved old race of the Hillmen.
For a brief time, there had been the Republic. But the pale, officious citizens of the Line hated this independent enclave even more than they hated Gunmen and destroyed it utterly or so they believed. When a 30-year-old letter is found, written by the last General of the Republic, agents of the Gun and the Line are sent to find the surviving wreck of the former General, mind-blasted by the terrible noise-bombs of the army of the Line.
Sub-Invigilator Lowry is an ambitious man who conceals his passions from an Agency that punishes ostensible hubris, even as it recruits men like Lowry for tough missions. He was ten when he was sent to help destroy the Republic’s stronghold, and now he is sent to find and capture the broken man who may know a secret.
Creedmoor is a Gun, but he argues with and resists the directives of the fire-demon that rides him. Nevertheless, he sets out when so ordered to find the General in the neutral territory hospital called Dolores House, protected by powerful, mysterious wards set by the First Folk, near the end of the created world.
Meanwhile, a psychologist from the East, Dr. Lysvet Alverhuysen, answers a summons originally sent to her husband to come out west and attend the patients at Dolores House. Leaving behind the silliness and safety of her practice and studies, wisely bringing along the giant, loyal, but imbecilic Maggfrid, Lysvet ventures away from the oh-so-slightly uncomfortable known to see if something better than the familiar can be found in the unknown. She is like an adult Dorothy in a decanted Oz, questing, befriending, confronting.
The story is a splendidly allegorical, but in such an ambiguous way that it holds any number of meanings, leaving plenty of room along the way for amusing descriptions of psychologists (based on certain well known practitioners from the 19th century) and astute depictions of gamblers, spies, fools, and adventurers. Part steam-punk, part history of the westward March of Progress, part The Once and Future King, this makes for captivating reading. Chris R. Paige