Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz – Review [Lord of the Night]
Lord of the Night reviews the stunning urban fantasy debut novel Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz.
“A novel that is 50% Breaking Bad and 50% Dresden Files, and 100% awesome! Yet at no point does it feel derivative or anything less than a unique take on magic and wizards. A must-read for any fans of urban fantasy or anyone whose looking for a story that is both exciting and entertaining on every page.” – Lord of the Night @ The Founding Fields
Flex first caught my eye during a random browse of upcoming books at Amazon, right away the premise of magic and drugs combined drew me in and made it an inevitability that I would read this novel. I didn’t wait very long before getting it and starting on the day it arrived, and after barely being able to put down this gripping story of obsession-fuelled magic, a relatable protagonist who feels different from all the other urban fantasy heroes that have come before, and plenty of pop-culture references that not only reflected the author’s knowledge of these topics, but the fact that he is a real fan that has actually played/watched them and isn’t just referencing stuff he has looked up on the internet, he has the in-depth knowledge that lets him add a depth to his references that convey that level of knowledge and fandom. It was a delight to read a book that so thoroughly engaged me as Flex did, so much so that I simply had to review it despite the fact that I haven’t done so in quite some time.
Flex. Distilled magic into a crystalline form that has rapidly become the most dangerous drug in the world. Mancers, people whose obsessions turn them into reality-warping wizards, the same kind of wizards that turned Europe into a demon haunted wasteland devoid of all human life. This is because the universe hates magic, and when one tries to alter the laws of physics to their own ends, the universe demands payment in the form of pain and loss. This is Flux. Paul Tsabo, the only man to ever take on a mancer single-handedly and win, has recently discovered that he himself has become a mancer, his love of forms and order turning him into a Bureacromancer. But his power over the grinding engine that is bureacracy cannot help his daughter when she is monstrously burned in a Flux-accident, to save and avenge her Paul must enter the underworld of Flex dealers with only a perky goth videogamemancer and the Beast of Bureacracy at his side. But being a mancer is a crime punishable by a brain-wipe and military conscription, and to save his daughter Paul must risk losing everything he has left.
The story starts off strong right from the start by explaining how Mancy, Flex and Flux work straight-forwardly and setting the tone for the rest of the story by showing both the wonder and danger of magic. Where this novel differs from the majority of urban fantasy novels is that the protagonist is as unfamiliar with how magic actually works, and what the few people who can actually use it are like, as the reader is; over the course of the novel Paul finds himself learning more and more about the real mechanisms behind magic and how magic manifests differently in each mancer, a theme that is not disrupted by him suddenly becoming an expert, Tsabo grows by learning and trial and error. I particularly liked that the story was ultimately a personal one, it’s about a man who has had a “gift” thrust upon him and is trying to do nothing more than save his daughter from a single poor decision. But as the story goes on it begins to open up further, introducing the Big Bad and the other main plot of the novel, that plot that intersects with Paul’s efforts to save his daughter and understand his new powers. Though the drug-dealing aspect of the plot falls by the wayside a little easily, the resulting plot around Anathema and Flex makes up for it in my opinion, though I would have liked to see a bit more about Flex dealing. The novel feels like it could stand on it’s own, however it is the first in a trilogy, and tells a story that could either be the start of something bigger or just a single novel that gives you an ending with just enough leeway that you can imagine what might come next.
The characters were one of the best parts of the novel. Right away the reader will see that Paul Tsabo is not like other urban fantasy protagonists, i’m talking Harry Dresden, Alex Verus, Felix Castor and the like; he’s a paper-pusher who has suddenly developed incredible powers in a form that I cannot recall ever seeing or reading about in another novel or series. Yet despite this he remains an understandable and relateable character, he loves his daughter and wants to use his magic to protect her from the dangers of the world, but also he is just as amazed by his magic as a real person would be; magic is after all wondrous and Paul’s love and amazement of what he can do now can be seen in a lot of what he does, says and thinks. The other key character Valentine DeGriz was absolutely brilliant, and provided most of the novel’s comedy moments with her video-game based magic powers, her pop culture references that ranged from the recognizable to the obscure (she wears Invader Zim pajamas! That’s just awesome!) and yet has hidden depths and a past that is only hinted at, but implies that there is a very complex woman underneath her gothic ensemble and Metal Gear Solid obsession. The other characters include Tsabo’s daughter Aliyah who felt like both a real prepubescent child with all the drama that entails and a complex character in her own right, Tsabo’s friend Kit who hates mancers and offers a rather interesting take on the psychology of doughnuts, and the drug dealer Gunza whose obsession with Flex and poor crime management showed how dangerous brewing Flex can be even when you don’t take into account the army and it’s conscripts. Each one of Steinmetz’s characters feels like a real person with depth to them that many novel characters do not have, giving this novel a strength that is backed up by the engaging story and well designed magic.
The system of magic in Flex is very nicely built, rather than go for the typical kinds of magic normally seen in urban fantasy novels, Steinmetz has gone for a rather imaginative route that results in a world with wizards that can manipulate anything from video games to death metal music, bureacracy, paintings, books and perhaps even polka. Yet magic does not fit into the natural order and the ever-present threat of Flux, the magical blowback that extracts payment or doles out punishment for the use of magic keeps the incredible reality-bending powers that each mancer possesses in check and keeps them from feeling overpowered. I would personally have liked to see a few more mancers rather than just reading about past mancers that Paul has seen or heard of, and I would also have liked to see a bit more about SMASH and the Unimancers who seemed very interesting yet did not play a central role in the story, though admittedly this will likely be explored in the next novel in the series. One particular element of the magic that I really enjoyed was how referential Valentine’s magic was, with famous video game characters appearing in cameos and one actually being a real character in the story for a few scenes, this helped cement that despite the presence of magic this is still our world with all the culture that the real world possesses and that all the magic is rooted in things that we can see every day; plus it was just bloody funny seeing some of the most recognizable video game characters in the world actually appearing by name in the book.
The pacing of the book is quite well done. Split into two parts the book is a 3rd person novel that focuses on Paul Tsabo as the POV, though one or two chapters show minor one-shot characters in order to show the “rules” behind the book’s system of magic or to foreshadow what is to come by offering an alternative POV on an event that hasn’t occured yet in the main story, or to offer a look into the mind of the Big Bad in order to better understand that character’s motivation and goals. At 423 pages of story the book reads quite easily, each chapter is entertaining and really pulls you into the world, I could barely put the book down and finished it the day after I started it, I just had to keep reading one more chapter until there were no more chapters left to read and I had finished the book. The book’s pace changes based on what is currently happening, slowing down in the moments between crises and speeding up when things go wrong and the book edges closer to the finale.
My favourite quote, definitely the following;
“I’ve always wanted to say this. Minions, kill.”
The ending was very good, wrapping up the story while at the same time leaving a few plot strands open tp be continued and explored in another book, but one that would have it’s own story that follows on from Flex rather than continuing the story begun in the first book like some series do. I quite enjoyed the state that Paul, Valentina and Aliyah find themselves in at the end, it’s a heartwarming and interesting place to end the book, and there of course is plenty of material left with these characters that I look forward to seeing in book two, Flux. The teasers to what could come next also grabbed my attention, Steinmetz makes sure to offer hints that there is far more to the world of magic than Paul has grasped even with his growth throughout the novel and that those undiscovered aspects will likely become a big problem for the Bureacromancer and his family down the line. Overall the ending is an enjoyable closer to the story while also giving the reader hints of what could be coming in the future.
For a great story that had me hooked on every page, characters that I truly enjoyed reading about and found genuinely interesting and often very funny, and a system of magic that offers an unlimited range of possibilties for powerful, wondrous, terrifying or just outright hilarious magic, I give Flex a score of 9.3/10. This is a novel that I would urge strongly you to read if you are a fan of fantasy, it is a wonderful debut novel that not only promises a great series but perhaps also Ferrett Steinmetz as a new name to know in fantasy. I enjoyed this novel so much that I will definitely be getting ahold of the sequel, and keeping an eye out for anything that Steinmetz comes out with. If fantasy isn’t your cup of tea then I can’t say you would enjoy this book, but if you are undecided I would definitely suggest picking up a copy of Flex as it might just get you hooked on magic like quite a few of the characters in the book, though hopefully with healthier results.
That’s it for this review. Thanks for reading, until next time;
AVE DOMINUS NOX!