Flex is an urban fantasy novel by American author Ferrett Steinmetz and is one of the first round of publications from the newly re-alive publisher Angry Robot, who pride themselves on pushing the traditional boundaries of SFF. With Flex, we’re introduced to ‘mancy, a magic system built around obsession and karma. I’m a sucker for original magic, so this really worked for me once the ground rules started to become clear. A well-paced sometimes serious, sometimes zany mission to save the world from a mass murderer, with some moral dilemmas mixed in for spice, Flex was an enjoyable read that ended up somewhere close to Breaking Bad by way of Scott Pilgrim versus the World.
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.
I make it a habit, perhaps foolishly, to glance over other existing reviews of a book before I sit down to write mine. I always have my points in mind, but I find it useful to make sure I’m not either just making the obvious point everybody else did, or that I utterly misunderstood something that I was about to comment on and look like an idiot. I’m glad to see that I wasn’t the only person who got a strong Breaking Bad vibe from this. Right up to the character of Valentine standing in for Jesse: Assumed to be the expert since he’s already been doing this, but actually a bit of an idiot when it comes down to it. Where this turned away from the Breaking Bad motif (which worked out great because I stopped watching Breaking Bad because they didn’t do this) is that Paul actually still has real and moral reasons to ‘stay in’ where Walt just becomes a full-on villain because he likes it. I have no problem enjoying a good anti-hero or protagonist turned antagonist, but it wasn’t what I signed up for. So that’s a point to Flex. It definitely starts to diverge after a while, but if you get visions of Walter, you’re not alone.
Really, the main thing to be talking about with this book is ‘mancy. As magic systems go, I could only have wished this book existed back when I wrote my articles on ‘Novel and Interesting Magic Systems’ Part 1 and Part 2. The basic idea is that somebody who is sufficiently obsessed with something will start to be able to manipulate reality with regards to that obsession. Whatever it is will be attached to ‘mancy. So a properly crazy cat lady might develop felinomancy. What this lets them do could be anything from attract more cats, to cause plagues of rats for the cats to hunt. It seems like the only real limits are the imagination. More proactive obsessions can of course be slightly more problematic. A felinomancer might just stay in their house and lure cats until they die, but a pyromancer, a huntermancer and so on, maybe they cause more issues. The balancing force for ‘mancy is that the laws of the universe don’t take kindly to getting screwed around with, and tend to push back. This is when your ‘flex’ runs into the ‘flux’ which is essentially a karmic debt for making things work the way you want them to. How that debt expresses itself depends on your own thoughts about how things could go bad. Use Paul’s bureaucromancy to make it so that rental car was in his name all along, and when he lets the flux go, he blows a flat tire.
I really dig this system specifically because of how the blowback is managed. It balances what would otherwise make ‘mancers basically arbitrarily powerful. Valentine’s videogamemancy (which caused me to reference Scott Pilgrim versus the World up in the intro) would give her far too much power if there weren’t consequences for using it. In one or two of the reviews I looked over before I wrote this, a few people found the magic system to be arbitrary and have the rules change on them, but really, I found it quite comprehensible. Everything you do is tied to your ‘mancy including the limits on that mancy. The power is out to a building, and Valentine’s videogamemancy can make it so power can be restored by flipping one of those stereotypical giant switches you see in games all the time, but, just as in those games, the rules must be obeyed and that switch will be many rooms away behind puzzles and enemies. You don’t get to just do ‘whatever you want’, you have to do it within the confines of the rules of your system. Her magic is very fast. Sometimes a power-up is just behind a wall. Paul’s magic is slow. Paperwork can move a mountain, but everything takes time to be processed and filed. Breaking those rules is what builds up your flux debt bigger and faster and makes horrible things happen to you. It’s a system which is actually bound by very tight rules. The problem is all the people who break the rules being the focus of the story.
One other point I want to address is one which I also saw brought up in a review by somebody who put the book down without finishing it, the idea that Valentine serves Paul as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. My issues with the proliferation of this term aside, this deserves addressing. For the uninformed, a ‘manic pixie dream girl’ is a female character in a story whose sole purpose is to sweep into the male protagonist’s life, teach them to have fun and take risks, and then swoop on out again, having served their purpose. They don’t develop as characters, because they are a plot device, not a character. Ordinarily I’d just say ‘I disagree’ and not even mention it, but then I made multiple references to Scott Pilgrim, whose character Ramona literally skates in and out of his life after enabling him to make the needed changes.
Valentine, conversely, is just as much in need of learning from Paul as he is from her, they balance each other out nicely, and both grow as people. She’s also still there throughout the story, and while she certainly helps Paul recover his lost love of action and excitement, that’s very far from her only purpose in the story. In fact, with the implications of her troubled past and succession of shallow relationships, you could argue just as strongly that Paul is some sort of stable dwarf reality boy for her. God that phrase better not take off. Regardless, there’s a lot more to Valentine than at least one reviewer was prepared to give her credit for, so if you find yourself groaning the first time Paul thinks how much better his life is now that he’s off adventuring thanks to her, give it some time. They’re both fully developed characters who change and grow and have relevance to the story.
Altogether, I enjoyed Flex. I often find a lot of urban fantasy to be a little tiresome since it feels bogged down under the weight of being in the ‘real’ world, but there was none of that in Flex. Interesting characters who didn’t fall into the glum tropes I would have expected them to, a really novel magic system I could sink my teeth into, and some really touching moments between Paul and his young daughter. Steinmetz has done some great work here, and I look forward to seeing more from this still fairly new author.
Dan received an Advanced Review Copy of this book from Angry Robot via Netgalley/