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Flex
By Ferrett Steinmetz
Angry Robot, Paperback, $14.99, 429pp
Published: March 3, 2015

Ferrett Steinmetz’s debut is a thrilling blend of urban fantasy and Breaking Bad without Walter White’s sociopathic character development.

Magic, or ‘mancy, is a way of changing the direction of the universe, and ‘mancers are the people who are able to shape it. Each ‘mancer’s practice is specialized depending on their interests – illustromancers manifest their power through art, gamemancers through video games.

‘Mancy has been illegal since World War II, when it was used to help the Allies win, but turned Europe into a wasteland. Because for every action there is a reaction, and the universe doesn’t like being bent out of shape. So ‘mancy causes a reaction, “flux”, which can be incredibly destructive. ‘Mancers need to learn how to control the flux, but most are unable to and end up recruited by the government for a special ops team and subsequently brainwashed.

‘Mancy’s scarcity and danger has also created an underground market for illegal magic. Flex is magic distilled into a powdered drug, giving any person the ability to shape their world, but often with a strong flux backlash.

Flex follows Paul Tsabo, a former cop turned insurance adjuster. Tsabo’s job is to investigate insurance claims to verify if ‘mancy as it is called, was involved, but he holds a secret.

Tsabo himself is a ‘mancer. A bureacromancer to be precise. His magical power is to impose order to cut through the red tape, allowing him to change society with properly filled out paperwork.

And when the flux reaction from a kid high on Flex destroy’s Tsabo’s apartment and leaves his daughter Aaliyah horribly burned, he must use his powers to uncover the source of the drug, a terrorist named Anathema.

And find a way to pay for the expensive reconstructive surgery that his daughter needs. Sure, he could use his bureacromancy, but the flux would be cataclysmic.

Teaming up with Valentine, a gamemancer and part-time Flex-cooker, Tsabo uncovers the secret of making pure Flex, uncorrupted by flux. But where Walter White would use this to build his own criminal empire, Tsabo is able to step back from the brink. Indeed, Tsabo is, in many ways, the opposite of Heisenberg, using his power and skill to protect his family with no concern for his own ego or his perceived slights.

He also uncovers the secret of Anathema leading to a final climactic showdown when the terrorist paleomancer tries to destroy civilization, starting with New York.

There’s so much to love about Flex. Steinmetz’s writing is playful, filling his magical police procedural with plenty of humor. Tsabo’s ‘mancy appears incredibly mundane, until he starts summoning rental cars out of thin air and purchases a house through his power of paperwork. Valentine’s power often involves summoning video game icons, from Bowser to Portal guns, and medkits and extra lives as necessary.

The victims of Anathema’s Flex have a certain black humor as well, from the wannabe merc who briefly becomes the ultimate warrior to the bodybuilder who magically juices his body to unbelievable portions in an effort to become a superhero.

But the best part is the humanity that Steinmetz injects into his characters. Neither of the protagonists are particularly heroic, Tsabo is a paper-pusher while Valentine is a chubby goth loner more in tune with her gaming consoles than real life. And both Tsabo and Valentine’s relationship with Aaliyah is handled wonderfully, Steinmetz writes the little girl, struggling between her fear and hatred of the ‘mancers who disfigured her with her love of her father and his friend. And the fact that there is no obligatory romance between Tsabo and Valentine is also refreshing.

And while the apostrophes get tiresome quickly, Flex is still a weird, funny alternative to a crowded urban fantasy field overpopulated with vampires, werewolves and wizards-for-hire. ~~ Michael Senft

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