Anyone just emerging blinking from the steady grimness of The Half Made World is going to find The Rise of Ransom City a bit of a whiplash. It’s a misleadingly light-hearted book. Harry Ransom makes a fleeting appearance in The Half Made World when John Creedmoor lays waste to a small town in the middle of market day; Ransom is one of the shysters and confidence men peddling junk as science and medicine, spotted out of the corner of Creedmoor’s eye as he gets the party started. In The Rise of Ransom City, he’s the main event, and Liv and Creedmoor are the sideshow as Ransom fumbles his way around the frontier and into a ringside seat for the collapse of the Line. The Half Made World set up a war between Line and Gun, something which looked set to be fought out over book after book and reach some kind of climax eventually; in Ransom City, Gilman skips the usual guff, and has the Line fall apart while Ransom tries to scheme his way to the top. The best bit about Ransom’s scheming is that he’s not entirely a confidence trickster; even though he probably stole it and doesn’t understand how it works, his Ransom Process for free energy is a real thing. And the more headway he makes towards getting it to work, the worse things get for the Line.
By the time the book ends, Ransom has, largely by accident, precipitated and finally helplessly supervised the destruction of the Line, but wonderfully he spends the whole narrative seeing this as just a hideous imposition on his well meaning efforts to get ahead in business. It’s one of the cleverest aspects of the book. Ransom’s a guy who’s just trying to make ends meet in the middle of a cataclysm, and like any other schmuck, his real preoccupation is not the vast war, but the way it’s ruining his personal day. As a result, when we get to the end of the book, all we know for sure is that the Line has shot its bolt and Ransom is on the run into the wild frontier, but we’ve no idea whether the Line fell to the Gun, or the resurgent Red Valley Republic, or its own lunacy, or something which Ransom assumes everyone already knows about and has glossed over because it’s all about him, damnit.
In its own way, this is genius. Most fantasy is full of people who are all charged up with their sense of destiny and their importance to the great confrontation between good and evil. Gilman’s characters just wish good and evil would go away and play somewhere else. And Ransom is a great character; full of crap, but just decent enough to admit that, perhaps, there might be room for improvement, even though he seems unaware of just HOW much room there is. He’s good company without being anything even close to a guy you’d lend money to. And Gilman has taken leaving-us-guessing to new heights; it’s not just a matter of what’s going to happen next, but how he’s going to tell us about it.