Summary: 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.
Thoughts: Flex probably has the most interesting take on magic that I’ve seen in a long time. In a nutshell, when you get obsessed over a thing, really obsessed to the point of pretty much making your life about something, that something starts playing back. Your obsession can grow so powerful that it actually bends reality, allowing you magic and the ability to shape reality to your whims. Until, of course, reality starts pushing back and whatever you change comes with a price, a karmic balance of give and take because the universe has its own rules that it likes following and doesn’t like it when busybodies come along and change things. Sometimes it pushes back to far, bends so far that it breaks, and rips a hole through reality into a realm of demons and chaos.
This is the world of Flex, an alternate reality in which obsession creates magic, better known as ‘mancy. Paul Tsabo is a man known for killing a ‘mancer, becoming almost a hero is public eye, because ‘mancers are seen as scum and dangerous and worth killing because their obsession can potentially destroy the world. Imagine how Paul must have felt, then, at discovering he was, in fact, a beaurocromancer, a man whose obsession with regulations and paperwork has allowed him to break the bounds of reality and shape things as he wants using the power of forms and rules. If it sounds less than glamourous, well, it is. It’s not meant to be. Paul doesn’t have flashy powers with lightning bolts shooting from his fingertips. But he does have the power to reach through the papertrail that connects just about everything in the modern world and access information or affect the outcome of somebody’s application. Not dramatic, but wide-reaching.
So when his daughter gets badly burned in a fire and the insurance company he works for is dithering about paying for her care, Paul finds himself in a lousy spot. He could just submit the paperwork and use his ‘mancy to make sure everything goes smoothly, but it’s such an obvious breach of protocol that he risks being found out, captured and indentured to the hive-mind military organization known as SMASH, a group of brain-burned ‘mancers who have been linked to use their ‘mancy only to bring down and recruit other ‘mancers. Or he could get money another way, and learn more about his ‘mancy in the process. He chooses to seek out another ‘mancer, a videogamemancer named Valentine, who can teach him to make Flex, distilled magic in crystal form, sold as a street drug and at the heart of a growing terrorist threat by a mysterious person known only as Anathema.
It’s an interesting and fine line that Steinmetz walks with Flex, really, or at least it was so with me. I consider myself a bit obsessive about certain things. My reading, for one. It was with more than a touch of envy that I read about people whose passions ran so deep that they could affect reality, however dangerous that was, and I think that’s the very effect Steinmetz meant to create. There’s a huge theme of balance that runs throughout Flex, and the reader feeling a bit of envy while simultaneously wishing they didn’t seems to be par for the course. Nobody has that depth of passion without being a bit damaged, either because of it or because of what created the passion in the first place.
Paul himself occupies an interesting place in literature: the devoted father. In my experience, at least, men who want to be good parents and will sacrifice everything for their children are considerably less common than women who’ll do so. Often it seems that men who want to be good caregivers are awkward and bumbling at it, doing the best they can and disappointing all the while. So it was good to see a male protag who’s devoted to his young daughter and may not be the perfect father, but he does try his damnedest and generally is a good parent.
For my part, I loved Valentine. She was the character I could relate to the most, given her love of video games and the way she used them to hide from the crappier parts of reality. I did that a lot as a teen and in my early 20s, disappearing into pixellated fantasy worlds where I could become stronger and defeat whatever stood in my path and where there was always – always – the ability to do things over. Her obsession was instantly understandable to me, and I found it interesting how she could affect almost anything given her vast experience with games, but still had to follow the rules of the games to make it work out right. Using video game logic wasn’t a “get out of jail free” card, because every game has its universe and its own way of working things out. I love that Steinmetz threw that in there and stuck to it.
(Though I have to wonder if Valentine ever played the Shin Megami Tensei series, or whether she avoided it completely given that the premise of those games involves summoning demons and that’s what happens when a person’s ‘mancy goes entirely out of control… Too much threat there, or a possibility of controlling breaches?)
This is a world I would love to see more stories set in. This part of Paul’s story may be over, but Aliyah’s is just beginning, and she’s got a long road ahead. Anathema may have been stopped, but that doesn’t mean the threat of ‘mancy has ended. There’s an exciting world out there with dozens of possibilities, and I’m curious about so many things that if Steinmetz wrote anything else set here, I would pick it up in a heartbeat!
Flex is a fast ride with fascinating characters. Some you don’t really end up caring about, are mostly a means to an end and were there too long, such as Gunza, but most were incredible and I loved reading about them. The writing is tight, the plot intense, and the story wonderfully creative. Definitely a book for those who enjoy strong visuals and who want a book that inspires creative questioning, introspection, and who like a little wondering about the relation between reality and ourselves. Highly recommended for obsessive folks like myself!
(Received for review from the publisher.)