What if magic could be distilled in drug form so that everyone could experience its benefits? That’s the concept that drives Ferrett Steinmetz’s “Flex” ($14.99, Angry Robot).
Unfortunately, the magical crystal Flex also comes with Flux, the downside in Steinmetz's world – the counter to the magic that causes bad, often disastrous things to happen.
That is, until Paul Tsabo comes along. Paul is an ex-cop, who now works for an insurance agency, tracking down magic users, called ’Mancers. He’s legendary as the only mundane ever known to have killed a ’Mancer, but he lost a foot in the process, and is still haunted by what he did.
Now, going through a divorce, he’s discovered a secret about ’Mancers – that while the consequences of their magic can often be devastating, they’re also capable of great beauty. They’re broken people whose ‘mancy is fueled by their own obsessions: video games, music, art, even bureaucracy – Paul’s specialty.
Though he’s tried to keep his ‘mancy a secret, he’s pulled into the open by an attack from the ‘Mancer terrorist known as Anathema which burns his daughter horribly and almost kills her. In his quest to take the terrorist down, he discovers that he’s capable of brewing pure, clear Flex, free of Flux, free of consequences. But that ability only makes his life, and the fight against Anathema, more difficult.
If you’re looking for a hook to pique my interest in a book, there are few things that will do the job better than an interesting magic system, and Steinmetz delivers a great one for the modern world.
It’s a magic of broken people, who retreat into the things they’re obsessed with and unlock magical talents. For everything they do, though, there’s a response in their world. It could be something as simple as a hangnail or stubbed toe, but depending on how far they reach with their magic, it can be and often is disastrous. That’s the primary reason ‘Mancers are loathed and hunted, sent to reconditioning camps to be brainwashed and become part of a one-minded team that hunts its own kind.
While there’s a lot of urban fantasy out there, I think “Flex” might be the one I’ve read that best captures the spirit of the real world. It’s part “Breaking Bad,” part social commentary and part magical tale with all of the confusion and ambiguity of our times. While the attitudes of the people who hate ‘Mancers are often despicable, so are some of the actions of those magic-users. There’s right and wrong on both sides, as with the real-world, and even Anathema, for all her mad destructiveness, has our sympathy and understanding at one point.
I do have to say that there was a point near the end of the book where I had a difficult time suspending my disbelief, but ultimately the story worked as a whole.
It’s rare that I can say that I can review a book and say that I’ve never quite read anything like it, but that fits with “Flex.”