The Incrementalists by Steven Brust and Skyler White is the five thousand piece jigsaw puzzle that you dump onto your kitchen table and convince yourself that there’s no way the pieces are going to come together to make anything resembling an understandable image. Of course, you’re wrong, and the picture at the end is beautiful and well worth the frustrating stumble through fitting the first few bits together.
It’s difficult to articulate my thoughts on this book because it’s not a simple story and neither are my opinions of it. Most easily put, the parts that I loved about it I really loved, and the parts I didn’t love so much were distracting. Maybe I should list the things that I liked and didn’t like separately, because I can’t find a way to give an overall impression of the book with the two of them together.
Things I Loved
1) The Garden. Conceptually this was beautiful. The collective memories of humanity shared among a small group of people and all stored in a lovely, individually tailored metaphor. I’d jump at the chance to be an Incrementalist just for this single feature. Furthermore, the rules for entering, and the rule bending for invading other people’s gardens were magnificently well thought out, and despite these scenes technically being entirely metaphorical, they felt the most real.
2) The intrigue. The who did it and why circling about through the entire book kept me grinning and happily frustrated throughout. Every time I thought I had pegged down whose motives were what, the story spun off laughing in another direction. It was a nice, sorely needed reminder that good, non-linear writing still exists.
3) Oskar. He was my favorite character, especially near the end when he seemed angry enough to table flip. I was waiting for the table flipping.
4) The use of memory and emotional triggers. I think this is the best use of subtle, semi-magical manipulation I’ve ever read. I was struggling before with the definition of magical realism. I’m not anymore.
5) The interplay between Ren and Celeste. Arguable this goes into my previous point about intrigue, but I think the power struggle between Ren and Celeste was it’s own special machination. The complicated relationship between them, combined with the concept of the fight for dominance between Second and stub (which I also really loved) salvaged Ren’s character for me.
6) The massive jumble that organizes itself neatly at the end. Yeah, I’m definitely going to need to read this book again.
7) The use of Fibonacci numbers. Damnit, now I’m doing it!
Things I Didn’t Love So Much
1) Phil and Ren’s romance. It was all syrup and no pancakes. Through most of the book I was waiting for something more substantial than “I was falling for him/her” to make it believable, and while at the end it is tied up and explained along with every other mystery in the story, I think it came a little too late for me. It was just too distracting and at times I felt too out of proportion alongside the other events in the story.
2) The humor. Sometimes it was so dry that it just wasn’t funny anymore. Maybe that was the joke and I’m just thick.
3) The ending. I loved how everything between the characters was tied up and concluded. I didn’t like the final inclusion that the amnemones (I think this is the only term I’m still confused about in the book) needed to be informed about the Incrementalists and their work. It seemed very out of place as a conclusion, as there isn’t a great deal of weight put into the rest of humanity for most of the book, at least, in my mind, not enough to justify this as the final flavor of the story.
All in all, this was a very difficult book to rate. In the end, I gave it three stars, but it’s probably closer to 3.5. It is a book that I can certainly recommend, but not for a casual read. The story demands concentration and consideration. It’ll make you think, and for me at least, it left me feeling very satisfied, and revived my confidence in modern literature.