The Flux is the second part of a trilogy by Ferrett Steinmetz. It follows a magic user, Paul Tsabo, as he attempts to cope with the effects and consequences of using magic. It also examines his relationship with his young daughter, also a user of magic, as he attempts to keep her safe from harm whilst allowing her the freedom to grow. In between these emotional character arcs, there’s a fair few chases, explosions, and the occasional gunfight.
The world that the author gives us in The Flux is an interesting one. It posits a world in which individuals with sufficient passion for a subject can work magic based around that subject. So there are bureaucromancers, videogame-mancers, moviemancers, cookingmancers – a whole cavcalade of passionate individuals, in a minority to the world’s population. But they have the power to change that world, in the limits of their passion – forms changing on demand for the bureaucromancer, food becoming lavish banquets for a cookingmancer, and so on. It’s an interesting system – with these individuals isolated and outnumbered, there’s plenty of room for conflict, and for discussion of individuals rights. There’s also the problem of the titular Flux – once a ‘mancer has changed the world to fit their whim, the universe punishes them with a backlash of bad luck. Each opportunity to work a miracle is balanced by the following disaster – usually to something or someone the ‘mancer holds dear.
Steinmetz’s system is clever, and gives his magic a sense of emotional depth; the characters dare not act too far into the realms of fantasy, lest they be punished awfully by the universe for doing so. There’s also the possibility of government response – an army of ‘mancers madeinto a hive mind and set after their fellows, and the more common task forces of city police forces. It’s all plausible, if a little dystopian – but the idea of letting passion run free, and facing the consequences, is a powerful one, which sits at the core of this world, making it feel both vulnerable and real. That it looks at those consequences unflinchingly gives it a vibrant emotional truth.
The central characters of this piece are Tsabo (the aforementioned bureaucromancer), his daughter Aaliyah, and their friend, Valentine. The latter is also known as Psycho Mantis, a dangerous and destructive videogame-mancer. Despite, or perhaps because of this, the extroverted Valentine gets on well with the more emotionally cautious Paul, and seems invested in both their friendship, and her bond with Aaliyah, as she tries to teach the little girl to live with her magic, and remain sane.
Steinmetz writes Valentine as caring, pleasant, occasionally excitable, with a core of fire and steel that allows her to consider actions that Paul finds reprehensible. Paul, by contrast, has at his heart his relationship with his daughter – the author gives us a man determined to keep the most precious person in his life safe, at any cost – and that cost, in family stability, emotional health, and even blood, could be very high indeed. Aaliyah is portrayed with the emotional sensibilities of pre-teen – which given she is one, is a piece of spot on work by Steinmetz. She’s looking to keep her father safe, ironic given that he wants the same for her, but carries a more ruthless streak, willing to dare more to do so, whilst faltering over what kind of person she wants to be – whether she’ll be defined by her incoming power, or craft her identity in another way.
There’s other relationships here - Paul’s relationship with his ex-wife, for example, is poignant, edged, and carries an undertone of caring that feels entirely real. But the core, that triad of affection, platonic and familial, between Paul, Valentine and Aaliyah, is the heart of the book. That relationship feels genuine – often fraught, sometimes sharp edged, but always with love at the centre – and Steinmetz sells it, making those three characters into real, caring people, based on the way they interact with each other. It’s an outstanding piece of character work.
The plot, not to spoiler, begins with Paul and Valentine trying to generate a load of ‘Flex’, a sort of liquid luck. Things very quickly go downhill from there. There’s SWAT teams, hostile magic, and an effort by Paul to keep his seemingly crumbling family and friends together. The story serves the character relationships, but it isn’t afraid to land a few punches – there are moments of real emotional resonance, and Steinmetz isn’t afraid to show that Tsabo and his family live in an often deadly world.
What starts off as a simple brewing operation quickly becomes something else, and the reader is gradually led into the wider story at the same time as their protagonist. The pacing is spot on, and by the end I was flipping pages quickly to find out what happened next, whilst hoping the book wouldn’t end.
Overall, this one’s worth giving a look to. It has a strong core of characters, with well defined and evolving relationships. It has a world with an interesting backstory behind it, shifted from our own, but believable. And it has struggles against oppression, comments to make about marginalisation, and...did I mention massive explosions? There’s something for everyone here, and it’s all in a very neat package indeed. Having missed the first volume in the series, I'm looking forward to the next one immensely!