The Incrementalists, by Steven Brust and Skyler White

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Steven Brust’s website | Skyler White’s website
Publication date – September 24, 2013

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) The Incrementalists—a secret society of two hundred people with an unbroken lineage reaching back forty thousand years. They cheat death, share lives and memories, and communicate with one another across nations, races, and time. They have an epic history, an almost magical memory, and a very modest mission: to make the world better, just a little bit at a time. Their ongoing argument about how to do this is older than most of their individual memories.

Phil, whose personality has stayed stable through more incarnations than anyone else’s, has loved Celeste—and argued with her—for most of the last four hundred years. But now Celeste, recently dead, embittered, and very unstable, has changed the rules—not incrementally, and not for the better. Now the heart of the group must gather in Las Vegas to save the Incrementalists, and maybe the world.

Thoughts: I had such high hopes for this book. The plot sounded fascinating. A murder mystery, an odd kind of reincarnation, a secret society that had been influencing decisions in all cultures and locations pretty much since the people started to group together and form societies themselves. What’s not to love?

Unfortunately, the concept behind the book was roughly where it peaked for me. The story itself was, I admit, fairly interesting. The minds and memories of the people in this secret society are, upon death, collected and dumped into the mind of a willing participant. I won’t say volunteer because it’s so very easy for people to be influenced into doing something they may not otherwise do, so participant or host actually seem the most accurate. May the stronger personality win. And then these people go on to exert their influence over people, mostly in small ways, working for the improvement of humanity. But when one of them seems to be in multiple minds at once, and working to her own goals rather than group goals, things get violent, complex, and tricky to handle. Mix with Las Vegas and a little romance, and you should have a recipe for success.

Unfortunately, the success didn’t happen. While the story was interesting, it was hidden under piles of overly-complex actions and underdeveloped characters. About 4 characters got any development: the 2 main characters whose point of view we follow, the antagonist, and the possible romantic rival. That’s less than half of the named characters. The rest are mostly names with vague descriptions and even vaguer relevance to the story.

As I mentioned, the story was told from the viewpoints of Ren and Phil, switching off viewpoints at intervals as the story progresses. Both of these viewpoints are written in first person, with most of it being dialogue and very little narration. Given that the two characters are often in the same place at the same time, participating in the same conversation, it was very easy at times to forget just which “I” was saying something. Coupled with unmarked dialogue that would occasionally go on for pages at a time, it became very tedious to read.

The lack of narration, and thus description, made scenes very difficult to envision. People would be discussing things (endlessly) in hotel rooms, hotel restaurants, someone’s living room, someone else’s living room, and you have no idea what these places look like. I’m not asking for every detail to be explained, but some detail would be nice. An argument could be made for this being the limitation of a proper first-person viewpoint, because when we’re looking through our own eyes, we’re not thinking necessarily about the pattern on the curtains, the smell of cooking food, or if there are flowers in the yard, unless these things catch our attention. But the exclusion of so many details made for poor reading.

The romance was contrived, both in terms of actual plot and just the presentation. It was insta-love, which is one of my major turn-offs. There was a plot-related reason for this, at least; both of the main characters were manipulated to find each other attractive and so fall for each other quickly. But here’s the thing: there’s a difference between love and attraction. A very big difference. And there was no dividing line. Where the characters kept saying they loved each other, even after coming to know they’d been meddled with, it wasn’t believable. Attraction, I could see, but it was mostly physical, with some emotional elements mixed in. I felt no love. I barely felt affection. But I could see plenty of attraction, and it bothers me when that gets treated like love.

It’s a shame that there were so many stylistic problems with this book, because without them, I could have even tolerated the romantic situation and the complicated plot. But between the book’s 75% dialogue, the undeveloped cast of characters, and the constant discussions of poker (which might have been interesting to poker-playing readers, but it made little sense to me), I found myself struggling and ultimately couldn’t really enjoy this.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)