11 February 2015
Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I've been reading Ferrett Steinmetz's blog for at least 10 years now, probably much longer. One of the first real "bloggers" I ever kept up with, I've always found his writing to be compelling and interesting, even when he's writing about things that I have limited interest in. Why, then, was I nervous about reading a book that he's written? He did the Clarion workshop, he's never done me wrong in our interactions, but the transition from blogger to Capital-W-Writer is always a strange one, especially for someone who is, in many ways, an online acquaintance.
So getting that out of the way, we have Flex. It's urban fantasy for sure, and it's billed as The Dresden Files (which I enjoy) mixed with Breaking Bad (which I understand the context of even if I haven't watched it). To try to compare it to them is not really fair, though - while a great elevator pitch, Flex has a lot more going for it than that, and it deserves to be noticed on its own merits as a result.
The situation in Flex involves an insurance bureaucrat who can do magic, and his magical ability is tied to his skill in bureaucracy (think Geekomancy or Celebromancy). There's a magical drug going around called Flex, and he's got a role in working against it. He's also got a daughter he loves, and that daughter has been severely hurt in a Flex-related accident. The insurance company is possibly/probably/likely to balk on paying out to fix things, so our hero is forced to get into the Flex trade to help make sure that ends meet.
The story is simple on its face, and appeals to a lot of different viewpoints without feeling like it's pandering to anything specific. What makes this book great instead of merely good is that it comes fully formed. The magic system makes sense from the very start, as opposed to having to make a variety of rules and limitations as we roll along to make the plot work. Everything makes sense. Yes, the way magic works for individuals is very Geekomancy (to the point where you could theoretically put Ree Reyes in the female lead role and still have it make sense), but it's much darker and more mature and actually feels like it carries some weight. Even with this "dark side," as it were, the story isn't afraid to go for the laugh - the geek-based magic of Paul's sidekick is clearly defined and would be eye-rolly in any other context, but works really well as a foil to the really nasty happenings that surround it.
Plus, Paul is a bureaucromancer. That's just great in its own really specific way. That'd be my power too, I think.
No book is perfect, and there is a specific voice in this narrative that I know to be distinctly Steinmetz's given that I've been reading him for so long that might trip up other readers. If you found the conceit in Geekomancy to be ridiculous, this probably isn't going to help, and Flex is not shy about wearing its influences on its sleeves - it definitely feels like a Dresden book from pacing to the exchanges, for example, but without the predictable third act. But, truly, if I'm looking to criticize Flex, it's more nitpicky in nature. I started this book on a three hour plane ride and finished it before I landed, it was that good.
Overall, I'm really glad this book exists for a lot of reasons, and the fact that it's actually pretty awesome is significantly one of them. This is a must read for fans of urban fantasy, for those who know what I'm referencing above and enjoy them, and those who are really looking for something a little different in their urban fantasy reading. Now, can we get that sequel already?
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