Fix, by Ferrett Steinmetz

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – September 06, 2016

Summary: “America’s long sent its best SMASH agents overseas to deal with the European crisis. As of today, they decided dismantling your operation was more important than containing the Bastogne Broach. Now you’re dealing with the real professionals.”

Paul Tsabo: Bureaucromancer. Political activist. Loving father. His efforts to decriminalize magic have made him the government’s #1 enemy – and his fugitive existence has robbed his daughter of a normal life.

Aliyah Tsabo-Dawson: Videogamemancer. Gifted unearthly powers by a terrorist’s magic. Raised by a family of magicians, she’s the world’s loneliest teenager – because her powers might kill anyone she befriends.

The Unimancers: Brain-burned zombies. Former ‘mancers, tortured into becoming agents of the government’s anti-‘mancer squad. An unstoppable hive-mind.

When Paul accidentally opens up the first unsealed dimensional broach on American soil, the Unimancers lead his family in a cat-and-mouse pursuit all the way to the demon-haunted ruins of Europe – where Aliyah is slowly corrupted by the siren call of the Unimancers…

Review: When you read the books in this series back to back, you end up torn apart by the end, after the rollercoaster ride of emotions and tension and revelation. It took me a while, after finishing Fix, to pick myself up and put myself back together. The story is tight, the surprises keep coming, heartstrings keep getting tugged…

Dammit, Steinmetz, how do you keep doing this?!

Fix takes places years after the events in The Flux. Aliyah is now 13, and together with Paul, Imani, Valentine, and Robert, the group seek to find a place where Aliyah can be herself and be safe. Paul, especially, wants Aliyah to experience life as a typical American teenager, the joys and sadnesses that most people experience, instead of the constant battle against her magical inclinations.

But all doesn’t go according to plan when Aliyah gets carried away and accidentally does ‘mancy in front of her new friends, and the ensuing chaos causes a broach. SMASH and the Unimancers get into the mix, demanding that Paul give up and give himself over to them. Paul refuses, of course, because who would want their personality tortured away in order to become part of a vicious magic-hating hive mind? But when Aliyah finds herself bound to the Unimancers, the whole world flips on its head, and nothing — absolutely nothing — is what anybody thought it was.

Some books in a series, even final books, you can go into without having read the previous entries. This isn’t the case with Fix. Even if somebody explained the backstory to you, there’s so much you’d miss out on by skipping right to the end, so many subtleties and other assorted pieces that aren’t essential to understanding the story as a whole, but that add so much. You’d miss out entirely on the impact of the Valentine/Robert romantic subplot. You’d miss the terror of Paul’s decline, since you wouldn’t see just how he started out in the first place. Definitely a case where I’d say the ‘Mancer series is much more than the sum of its parts, and Fix is a glorious ending to the trilogy that’s open-ended enough to leave the possibility for more stories while still capping off the main storyline.

I wondered, at some parts, how many people would read Fix and cry out that it’s horrible because Steinmetz dared to even mention certain things. (“There’s a lesbian here; stop shoehorning gay people into my fiction!” “A trans character gets mentioned; ugh, that’s just terrible!” “You mentioned a functioning triad; you’re trying to bring down traditional marriage values!”). Aside from the fact that it’s good sometimes to even have a couple of throwaway lines that imply yes, people do come in all shapes and sizes and behaviours and flavours of being, claiming such things would entirely miss a huge point that gets brought up multiple times throughout Fix: there are multiple ways of doing things, no one way is absolutely right for everybody, and sometimes the best way to heal the world is to adapt to the new things that occur rather than trying to force it back to the old way. I can’t say for sure that Steinmetz was going for that kind of social commentary during the novel’s final scenes, but it’s certainly applicable, and I, for one, appreciate that.

It was interesting, in that regard, to see a different strategy evolve for taking care of broaches. Paul’s way worked initially, to convince the universe to follow the rules that kept it stable before, rules that Paul believed in even without knowing what those specific rules were because he believed in rules and order so very deeply. But that way only worked for him sometimes, and when confronted with a bigger change to the world — the European broach — there was need for a different strategy that involved adaptation rather than reform. That tied in well with the idea that one way of life, one way of thinking, didn’t always work for everyone, such as Aliyah finding her place within the Unimancers even when Paul didn’t like their way of doing things.

Overall, Fix takes a lot of preconceptions and gleefully tears them to shreds, scattering the confetti of old beliefs and daring characters to figure out what to do now. ‘Mancy forces the universe to bend to new rules, and now it’s like the universe is fighting back, not with broaches and the destruction of physical laws, but by taking mundane occurrences and forcing broken characters to adapt. How well do you handle it when your daughter falls in love with another girl? How do you cope when your partner regains emotional stability (and loses their ‘mancy) when you’re still proud of the way you’re so powerfully flawed? What do you do when you can’t protect those you love? Things that can happen to anyone, regardless of magical ability, regardless of time or place, but that can knock you for a loop regardless. Fix is a novel of push-and-pull, give-and-take, figuring out where you fit in the world, or whether you have to carve out your own place. Whether you’re Paul losing control over his life because you keep losing what you had, or whether you’re Aliyah finding out that you fit best in a place those who love you would never want you, or you’re an uncertain Valentine who needs to be needed, the world pushes back at you and sometimes you have to bend and sometimes you have to tell the universe no, this is where you are, and this is where you’re staying. Honestly, for all the heartache I felt while reading Fix, for all the times the subject matter hit extremely close to home in a painful way, it’s a very hopeful novel, because in the end what matters is the ability to adapt and find your place.

So do I recommend this series? Hell yes! To one and all! It’s a powerful story, a take on magic and obsession that crosses boundaries and paints new pictures of a reality that could have been and could yet be. It’s a brilliant piece of urban fantasy, and adventure that stays with you long after the last page has been read and the cover closed, and Steinmetz has done something great here. The characters are beautiful and flawed, the writing tight, the story fast-paced, the whole thing evocative and emotional. And I love it. It’s the kind of urban fantasy that doesn’t come along often, a diamond in the rough, and Fix was the best possible way to end it all.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Flux, by Ferrett Steinmetz

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 06, 2015

Summary: Love something enough, and your obsession will punch holes through the laws of physics. That devotion creates unique magics: videogamemancers. Origamimancers. Culinomancers.

But when ‘mancers battle, cities tremble…

ALIYAH TSABO-DAWSON: The world’s most dangerous eight-year-old girl. Burned by a terrorist’s magic, gifted strange powers beyond measure. She’s furious that she has to hide her abilities from her friends, her teachers, even her mother – and her temper tantrums can kill.

PAUL TSABO: Bureaucromancer. Magical drug-dealer. Desperate father. He’s gone toe-to-toe with the government’s conscription squads of brain-burned Unimancers, and he’ll lie to anyone to keep Aliyah out of their hands – whether Aliyah likes it or not.

THE KING OF NEW YORK: The mysterious power player hell-bent on capturing the two of them. A man packing a private army of illegal ‘mancers.

Paul’s family is the key to keep the King’s crumbling empire afloat. But offering them paradise is the catalyst that inflames Aliyah’s deadly rebellious streak…

Review: I was intrigued by the very concept of magic when I first read Flex. The idea that someone’s obsession can be so powerful, so focused, that it can warp the universe, essentially telling reality that no, I believe so strongly that this is how things should happen that indeed it does. That the consequences of rearranging the laws of reality like that is that reality can break down and extradimensional beings can break through and cause untold havoc. I can’t say it appealed to me in the sense of wanting to be a ‘mancer like that, but I can say that, as someone who has struggled with keeping their passions and interests in check so that others don’t get bored/intimidated/weirded out because I’m not being socially appropriate, I can at least say that I can relate a little to what it might be like for someone to have something they cling to that powerfully. And from there I was drawn in.

Last time, we saw Aliyah become the youngest ‘mancer in history. We saw Paul struggle desperately to shield his family from the danger of his ‘mancy, fail to hold his marriage together, defeat and survive any number of deadly issues. This time, in The Flux, we see Aliyah a little bit older, still conflicted about her ‘mancy, trying to make sense of the world that has created her and where she fits in it. Paul, for his part, uncovers a sort of safe haven for ‘mancers, but that safe haven comes at a price, and it’s one that Valentine, at least, doesn’t really want to pay even as Paul argues that it’s best for Aliyah’s sake. The King of New York has his own agenda, one that often intersects with Paul’s desires, and it’s plot twist after plot twist as the story unfolds and everybody suffers along the way.

Everything I liked about Flexis back in The Flux. Valentine is still a kick-ass awesome woman who doesn’t need to be model-thin to be that way, perfectly at home with her kinky sexual expression, a friend to Paul and mentor to Aliyah, and I love her to death because she’s the kind of character SFF needs more of. Paul is still a devoted father who doesn’t do things perfectly and makes frequent mistakes, but he tries to make amends and does what he thinks is best even when it’s a hard call. Aliyah goes through moment of being far too bratty and then far too insightful, but I also admit that’s what happens when you have a troubled kid who has plenty of evidence that the world really is out to get her, who has powers that are hard to control, and when the only person to give her what she wants is a psychopathic pyromancer. I’d be bratty myself, no matter what my age, if all that was heaped on me.

Steinmetz is very good at writing a believable reality that you fall into. Whether it’s through the little name-drops of brands to centre a reader on familiar things in the world, to characters that tug at your heartstrings (who didn’t feel emotion at reading Paul’s attempt to leave Aliyah for her own safety, or at the fate of K-Dash and Quaysean?), it all feels so very real. There’s more to realism than just a high level of detail and clear descriptions, and Steinmetz knows how to bring it all together to create a strong world that readers care about. It’s been a long time since I’ve read an urban fantasy that I want to share with people as much as the world that has ‘mancers in it.

Speaking of emotion, really, The Flux has it in spades. It’s an emotional roller coaster from beginning to end, mostly thanks to Aliyah’s development. Aliyah starts off with her continuing love/hate relationship for ‘mancy, which turns into disdain for those who can’t do ‘mancy and thus, to her mind, will never understand her and she won’t understand them, to being angry at her father for all the times he needs to be saved. But the real heartache for me was seeing Aliyah’s relationship to Imani, her mother. Aliyah craves her mother’s love and attention in the same way most young children do, but at the same time is truly afraid that if Imani discovers Aliyah is a ‘mancer, Imani will want to kill her. And given some thoughtless comments that Imani or David made in the past, her fear isn’t an overreaction. It’s heartbreaking to see that kind of conflict in anyone, let alone such a young child.

The story in The Flux feels like it’s got a bit of second-book syndrome. It is a complete story in its own right, a good continuation of the events in Flex, but it feels more like an interlude, the necessary setup and establishment for things that need to happen in the third book later. There was plenty of tension, great pacing, the snappy dialogue I love so much, but a lot of it felt like a book in which this character gets introduced, that realization occurs, to prop up a novel to come. This doesn’t make it a bad book — far from it! — but it does make it feel less important than the first novel, by far.

But I’m in love with the world that Steinmetz has created, and the characters within it, and the overarching story in this series so far is pulling me along at breakneck speed and I don’t want to stop. It’s a wonderfully creative take on magic, has a weird and varied cast of characters, and I can’t wait to dive into Fix to continue the story!

(Received for review from the publisher.)

GUEST POST: Ferrett Steinmetz on What Kind of ‘Mancer He’d Be

Many thanks to Ferrett Steinmetz for being willing to write such an interesting post. It started off as a simple question relating to the world he created in his novels, Flex and The Flux, and turned into so much more than I hoped. Read on to see why.


So in the world of THE FLUX, if you love something deeply enough, your obsession with that will punch holes through the laws of physics.  And because people obsess about weird damn things, THE FLUX features perhaps the oddest group of wizards ever set to page: paperwork-wielding bureaucromancers, crisply-folding origamimancers, bruised and battered Durdenmancers, blank-faced masqueromancers, and of course everyone’s favorite character, Valentine the pudgy goth videogamemancer.  (That’s her on the cover, wielding an Xbox controller like a gun.  If you were facing her down in an alleyway, you’d wish she had a gun instead of her controller.)

Yet the question’s been asked: if I were a ‘mancer, what kind of ‘mancer would I be?

Interestingly enough, I’m the perfect age to become a ‘mancer: middle-aged.  Obsession isn’t a young man’s work – I mean, yeah, we all know some kid who got a yen for lockpicking in college, but those are often fleeting things.  It’s easy to obsess when you’re in your early twenties and can chug a case of Red Bull with no aftereffects and the world is still fresh and new and awesome.  You may think it’s obsession, and the universe thinks your adoration is cute, but really it’s that first blush of romance where you’re head-over-heels in love because you have nothing to compare it to.

To become a ‘mancer, you have to marry your obsession.  And stick with it.

But the kind of obsession that is strong enough that the universe actually steps back and goes “…hey, maybe she’s right” and lets you fire a Portal gun to teleport between walls?  That takes decades.  You have to keep with it long enough that you’re still into long after the patina has clouded your vision.  You have to still keep with it when your back starts to ache and your body protests after that third all-nighter.  You have to keep re-falling in love with your obsession – okay, you’ve folded the same crane a thousand times, but you still look forward to that thousand-and-first challenge of getting a razor-sharp crease.

In the FLEX universe, Paul is about average.  He blossomed into ‘mancy in his early forties.  Valentine is highly unusual in that she opened up her ‘mancy in her late twenties.  And I often hear happy college kids telling me, “Oh, I love Anime!  I’d be an Animemancer!”  And because I’m kind, I don’t correct them.  But I think secretly that they can talk to me in a decade if they’re still speed-snorting torrents of Naruto.

The other thing that makes for a good ‘mancer is, well, something to escape from.  Happy people generally don’t become ‘mancers: hell, as someone says in FLEX, the formula to create a ‘mancer is “Withdrawal. Obsession. ’Mancy.”  And so the question is, am I dysfunctional enough to become a ‘mancer?

And as a guy who suffers from severe depression and social anxiety… yeah.  Almost certainly.  There are times when I look back on my day and see nothing but a crumbled set of ruined relationships, self-abnegation, and failure – and yet I look at all my manifest flaws and go, “But I can write.”  Sometimes, writing is how I escape depression, where I think “Crap, I’m a wreck of a human being, I’ve got no redeeming qualities – so let’s posit a universe where obsession creates magic, what ramifications would that cause?”  And I lose myself in fictional worlds.

Finally, the biggest question is: Am I obsessed enough to become a ‘mancer?  Because like I said, this isn’t some superficial commitment.  I mean, I like a lot of things – when I was a kid, I made my family take me to see Star Wars in the theater fifty-five-and-a-half times.   Why “A half,” you ask?  Because at one point, my grandparents misread the time the showing started, we got there an hour early, and so I made them take me into the theater to watch the last half of Star Wars,and then watched the whole movie again.

My grandparents were saints.

But even though I owe my life and my wife to Star Wars – we met in a Star Wars chat room – and I’m getting family Star Wars tattoos before the premier – but I don’t think about everything in terms of Star Wars.  I just enjoy Star Wars.  And to really have the universe stop and pay attention to you in the FLEXverse, you have to view everything through that warped lens.  You have to get up, look in the mirror, and wish you were a Jedi when you’re brushing your teeth… And that’s a pretty rare trait.  It’s established explicitly in the book that only about one out of every 50,000 people have that sort of devotion.  (And most of them die to instant karmic backlash, so the number of surviving ‘mancers is closer to one in 250,000.)  So I don’t know.

And then I think that I wrote for twenty-two years before I sold my first novel.

I think about how I wrote seven novels that didn’t sell and yet I never gave up, churning out well over a million words, never having sales, keeping at it no matter what.

I remember when I got into the Clarion Writers’ Workshop and thinking, “Six weeks is a lot of time to ask off from my job.  I hope they give it to me – because if they don’t, I’ll quit.”  And I’d worked at that place for a decade.

And I think yeah, there’s probably a reason I wrote a novel where obsession creates magic.  Because I was obsessed, for so many years.  I burned to tell stories people wanted to listen to.  And I just – would not – stop.

Then finally, I wrote a book that was weirdly personal.  It’s got, as noted, a man who made an art out of the DMV.  It’s got gratuitous references to donuts.  It’s got a chubby attractive woman who enjoys the hell out kinky sex and yet that’s not her defining trait.  It’s got a close father-daughter bond.

I’m not sure if I’d be a ‘mancer.  But I do know that THE FLUX is still magical for me.  And I really hope it’ll be for you, if you read it.

ferrettFerrett Steinmetz is a graduate of both the Clarion Writers’ Workshop and Viable Paradise, and has been nominated for the Nebula Award, for which he remains stoked.

Ferrett has a moderately popular blog, The Watchtower of Destruction, wherein he talks about bad puns, relationships, politics, videogames, and more bad puns. He’s written four computer books, including the still-popular-after-two-years Wicked Cool PHP.

He lives in Cleveland with his wife, who he couldn’t imagine living without.

Find Ferrett online at theferrett.livejournal.com or follow him @ferretthimself on Twitter.

Post-script from Ria: Reading these books is a wonderful trip, but both books have given me an interesting bittersweet feeling, because there’s a part of me that longs to be that devoted to something, even if the rest of the world thinks I’m spending too much time on it and ought to go live my life in some normal healthy way. I spent a good chunk of my youth trying to figure out who I was, mostly my trying to imitate the interests of others, and I’d fall in and out of love with various things. Nothing stuck. But there was, and still is, this burning ember in the back of my mind that tells me if I find that one thing, that shining obsession, then I’ll properly find myself, I’ll become myself, and whatever the rest of the world thinks won’t matter because I have my niche. I see characters like Mrs. Liu and her dozens of ‘mancy-created cats and my heart aches a little, because I both want to be her (I do love my cats, and take care of them better than I take care of myself most days) and to be the me that has carved out my own obsession-space in the world. I had the idea that if I could be defined by an obsession, I would finally have a definition.

I think these are the kinds of books that will resonate with anyone who’s even felt a touch of that mentality, and those who have felt at a loss to explain to the rest of the world just why something means so much to them when it doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone else.

Flex, by Ferrett Steinmetz

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 3, 2015

Summary: FLEX: Distilled magic in crystal form. The most dangerous drug in the world. Snort it, and you can create incredible coincidences to live the life of your dreams.

FLUX: The backlash from snorting Flex. The universe hates magic and tries to rebalance the odds; maybe you survive the horrendous accidents the Flex inflicts, maybe you don’t.

PAUL TSABO: The obsessed bureaucromancer who’s turned paperwork into a magical Beast that can rewrite rental agreements, conjure rented cars from nowhere, track down anyone who’s ever filled out a form.

But when all of his formulaic magic can’t save his burned daughter, Paul must enter the dangerous world of Flex dealers to heal her. Except he’s never done this before – and the punishment for brewing Flex is army conscription and a total brain-wipe.

Thoughts: Flex probably has the most interesting take on magic that I’ve seen in a long time. In a nutshell, when you get obsessed over a thing, really obsessed to the point of pretty much making your life about something, that something starts playing back. Your obsession can grow so powerful that it actually bends reality, allowing you magic and the ability to shape reality to your whims. Until, of course, reality starts pushing back and whatever you change comes with a price, a karmic balance of give and take because the universe has its own rules that it likes following and doesn’t like it when busybodies come along and change things. Sometimes it pushes back to far, bends so far that it breaks, and rips a hole through reality into a realm of demons and chaos.

This is the world of Flex, an alternate reality in which obsession creates magic, better known as ‘mancy. Paul Tsabo is a man known for killing a ‘mancer, becoming almost a hero is public eye, because ‘mancers are seen as scum and dangerous and worth killing because their obsession can potentially destroy the world. Imagine how Paul must have felt, then, at discovering he was, in fact, a beaurocromancer, a man whose obsession with regulations and paperwork has allowed him to break the bounds of reality and shape things as he wants using the power of forms and rules. If it sounds less than glamourous, well, it is. It’s not meant to be. Paul doesn’t have flashy powers with lightning bolts shooting from his fingertips. But he does have the power to reach through the papertrail that connects just about everything in the modern world and access information or affect the outcome of somebody’s application. Not dramatic, but wide-reaching.

So when his daughter gets badly burned in a fire and the insurance company he works for is dithering about paying for her care, Paul finds himself in a lousy spot. He could just submit the paperwork and use his ‘mancy to make sure everything goes smoothly, but it’s such an obvious breach of protocol that he risks being found out, captured and indentured to the hive-mind military organization known as SMASH, a group of brain-burned ‘mancers who have been linked to use their ‘mancy only to bring down and recruit other ‘mancers. Or he could get money another way, and learn more about his ‘mancy in the process. He chooses to seek out another ‘mancer, a videogamemancer named Valentine, who can teach him to make Flex, distilled magic in crystal form, sold as a street drug and at the heart of a growing terrorist threat by a mysterious person known only as Anathema.

It’s an interesting and fine line that Steinmetz walks with Flex, really, or at least it was so with me. I consider myself a bit obsessive about certain things. My reading, for one. It was with more than a touch of envy that I read about people whose passions ran so deep that they could affect reality, however dangerous that was, and I think that’s the very effect Steinmetz meant to create. There’s a huge theme of balance that runs throughout Flex, and the reader feeling a bit of envy while simultaneously wishing they didn’t seems to be par for the course. Nobody has that depth of passion without being a bit damaged, either because of it or because of what created the passion in the first place.

Paul himself occupies an interesting place in literature: the devoted father. In my experience, at least, men who want to be good parents and will sacrifice everything for their children are considerably less common than women who’ll do so. Often it seems that men who want to be good caregivers are awkward and bumbling at it, doing the best they can and disappointing all the while. So it was good to see a male protag who’s devoted to his young daughter and may not be the perfect father, but he does try his damnedest and generally is a good parent.

For my part, I loved Valentine. She was the character I could relate to the most, given her love of video games and the way she used them to hide from the crappier parts of reality. I did that a lot as a teen and in my early 20s, disappearing into pixellated fantasy worlds where I could become stronger and defeat whatever stood in my path and where there was always – always – the ability to do things over. Her obsession was instantly understandable to me, and I found it interesting how she could affect almost anything given her vast experience with games, but still had to follow the rules of the games to make it work out right. Using video game logic wasn’t a “get out of jail free” card, because every game has its universe and its own way of working things out. I love that Steinmetz threw that in there and stuck to it.

(Though I have to wonder if Valentine ever played the Shin Megami Tensei series, or whether she avoided it completely given that the premise of those games involves summoning demons and that’s what happens when a person’s ‘mancy goes entirely out of control… Too much threat there, or a possibility of controlling breaches?)

This is a world I would love to see more stories set in. This part of Paul’s story may be over, but Aliyah’s is just beginning, and she’s got a long road ahead. Anathema may have been stopped, but that doesn’t mean the threat of ‘mancy has ended. There’s an exciting world out there with dozens of possibilities, and I’m curious about so many things that if Steinmetz wrote anything else set here, I would pick it up in a heartbeat!

Flex is a fast ride with fascinating characters. Some you don’t really end up caring about, are mostly a means to an end and were there too long, such as Gunza, but most were incredible and I loved reading about them. The writing is tight, the plot intense, and the story wonderfully creative. Definitely a book for those who enjoy strong visuals and who want a book that inspires creative questioning, introspection, and who like a little wondering about the relation between reality and ourselves. Highly recommended for obsessive folks like myself!

(Received for review from the publisher.)