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The Incrementalists
by Steven Brust and Skyler White
Tor, 2013, $24.99, 304pp
Release Date: September 24, 2013

One of the best parts of attending Worldcon was getting to hear Brust and White read aloud from this book. (And yes, there is an audio version available, but no, it is not the authors’ voices.) There is no finer way to discover a story than to hear from the writer(s) throat(s), with the inflections in the correct places, the tonalities of irony, bewilderment, exhilaration, amusement, joy and anger - all just so. And this is a great story, told collaboratively because it is the story of a collaboration, one forged in unusual fires.

The plot: Ren thinks she’s going to New York to defend the user interface design she’s developed for a major client of Glyphx Design, but the meeting gets rerouted to Las Vegas , and the client gets delayed. Phil, who has pulled strings to make this very sequence of events transpire, is hoping to recruit Ren into a society of meddlers who try to make the things incrementally better in the world by way of small redirections. Yeah, yeah, they’ve had some spectacular failures, but you’ve no idea how much worse it could have been.

There aren’t many society members, so they are spread awfully thin, and they all have day jobs that keep them busy, not only to pay the mundane bills but to have user interfaces with the world, because if you don’t interact, you cannot influence. Recruiting replacements has its share of problems. The big problem is that you put your identity, your personality, your whole sense of self on the line, because joining the society means taking on the memories of the member you replace, who had to take on the memories of her predecessor, who took on the memories…. and back it goes. A strong personality can overwrite a previous or replacement volunteer, so you have to ask yourself: do you feel strong, punk? Do you?

Phil’s personality had been dominant for a number of lifetimes. One downside of this endurance is that he became strongly attached, welded might be a better word, to the personality of his longtime partner, who has recently, um, died. So does he want to find a replacement for her, or a vehicle? And what if he changes his mind midstream?

This is a complex, layered, and masterfully written story. You get Ren’s perspective, and Phil’s, and when his fellow Incrementalists show up you get their two cents’ worth as well. The ethics of what they attempt, the consequences of their actions, and the prices they pay all come up for scrutiny.

It might be good to recollect that the wren is the King of Birds, according to the European tradition, and if you know how the wren came by that title, you’ll have a clue to the story. And if by any chance you are familiar with Brust’s story “Calling Pittsburg”, originally published in the Roger Zelazny tribute anthology Lord of the Fantastic, Phil is indeed that poker-playing narrator, or he will be, or might be, if the future falls that way.

One nice aspect of this book is that the authors are pretty good about translating the poker vernacular, which is Phil’s langue du guerre. Maybe not right away, but if you are patient, exposition happens in good time. After all, one reason for having a newbie character like Ren is to give the author justification for explaining things, indirectly, to readers.

Usually it annoys me when an author deviates from the main series I love beyond measure to write an outside book. Bujold is the only character who ever got away with that stunt in the past, with The Curse of Chalion and its sequels; but now I find I am wishing for another Incrementalist adventure every bit as much as for another one with Vlad Taltos. I genuinely want to spend more time with these characters, and I will always want to hear what they have been up to. And the most wonderful part of this story is how the authors invite you to be part of it.

There are some books you love to reread, and some that reward you immensely for rereading. For me, this one is both. Thanks, guys. ~~ Chris R. Paige

For other books in this series click here

For other books by Steven Brust click here

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