Harry Ransom made a brief appearance in The Half-Made World, as did his light-making apparatus. In the follow-up to that novel, Ransom's goal is to build the city of the future, with parks and tall buildings, where freedom and democracy reign. The Rise of Ransom City, Ransom's autobiography, recounts his travels and exploits, his successes and (more often) failures. As you would expect, the stories told in this novel and in The Half-Made World overlap, but only slightly.
The Great War between the Line and the Gun has been ongoing for two decades when Ransom sets out to make his fortune. Agents of the Line serve the Engines and know the secret of electricity -- an expensive secret monopolized by the Northern Lighting Corporation -- but Ransom has created an Apparatus that produces light without cost, based on ideas he acquired (or stole) from the First Folk. He calls it the Ransom Process, and it is a work in progress that he doesn't fully understand. The Ransom Process creates heat and light and magnetism but it also has unpredictable (and sometimes violent) impacts on time and gravity. In its later versions, it seems to attract phantoms.
In search of investors, Ransom travels with his mechanic (the secretive Mr. Carver) and, along the way, picks up two fellow travelers who introduce themselves as Elizabeth Harper and her father. We eventually learn that these characters are not who they appear to be. Ransom later meets a feisty woman named Adela who invented the player piano. Ransom's journey brings him into contact with both the Line and the Gun, as both forces (and others) would love to weaponize the Ransom Process.
The Rise of Ransom City is an odd but intriguing novel. I appreciated the relative absence of expository writing. It might not appeal to readers who need to be spoon-fed but I think it's refreshing to find a writer who doesn't feel the need to explain every detail of the world the writer has created. Felix Gilman thrusts the reader into the world as Ransom knows it. Ransom, writing his autobiography in the first person, assumes the reader lives in that world and therefore doesn't bother to explain much about it. The reader is left to puzzle out the background, a task that becomes possible as more information comes to light over the course of the novel. In that regard, having read The Half-Made World would be useful but not critical. The sequel stands nicely on its own.
The Rise of Ransom City incorporates a large dose of fantasy (or at least creates a world where the laws of physics as we understand them are a bit cockeyed) and a little bit of horror. There are echoes of post-apocalyptic fiction and of alternate histories. There are elements of steampunk and of westerns. The Rise of Ransom City is at various times an adventure story, a road novel, a romance, a political thriller, a comedy, a melodrama, and a twisted version of a rags-to-riches story. The novel's defiance of categorization is one of its most attractive features.
The book's success is largely due to the richness of Harry Ransom's personality. Part inventor, part philosopher, part con-artist, part adventurer, part dreamer, part schemer, Ransom is at times full of himself and at other times full of remorse. Often cowardly but occasionally brave, often confused but occasionally seized by a clarity of purpose, Ransom is engaging because, despite his all-too-common flaws, he is a good-hearted idealist who struggles (albeit with little success) to make the world better. His complexity is a welcome relief from the one-dimensional heroes who populate so many science fiction and fantasy novels.
Felix Gilman is an imaginative writer and a first-rate storyteller. In this wide-ranging story, Gilman pokes fun at religion by inventing one of his own (the Smilers), lambasts business tycoons, skewers the inclination of the judicial system to protect the powerful, and metaphorically comments upon Guantanamo-style interrogations. I'm not a fan of demons and spirits and supernatural characters of that sort, so I am happy to report that they play a relatively small role in the story (and the phantoms, at least, can be explained without relying on the supernatural). Ultimately, this enigmatic novel worked for me not just because the story is entertaining, but because it focuses on flesh-and-blood humans, with all their flaws, foibles, inconsistencies, and uncontrolled emotions. If I could, I would give The Rise of Ransom City 4 1/2 stars.