Reading Time: 2 minutes

Something I’ve often wondered is why so many great or classic fantasy stories are set in a real or fictionalized Europe. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, Robert E. Howard’s Conan series, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, The Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire, Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell… the list goes on and on. And it can’t just be chalked up to European fantasy authors being more popular, since some of the authors of these series are American themselves!

Europe has its advantages, I grant. It has a diverse variety of climates and terrains, a lot of small-ish countries with different cultures (so plenty of opportunity for Adventure Towns), and rich veins of old mythology for writers to mine. It’s a successful template for high fantasy, I can’t deny that, since I have to cop to doing it myself in my Caliel series.

Still, it’d be interesting to see more novels set in a fantasy version of America. There are a few, like Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, which I thought was just OK, not great. But there’s at least one other that I enjoyed and that perfectly captured what a fantastic version of America could look like, which is ironic since the author isn’t American himself.

Felix Gilman’s The Half-Made World and its sequel The Rise of Ransom City are steampunk fantasy novels set on a vast and unnamed continent. In the East there are old cities and principalities – in short, civilization – but beyond them lies the West, a huge frontier wilderness sparsely dotted with rough-and-ready settlements. The further West you go, the less normal and less reliable reality becomes; go far enough, and the laws of physics cease to hold altogether. Scattered throughout the West are strange beings called the Folk, the magical and wild first inhabitants of the land, who often wind up dispossessed or even enslaved by human settlers.

Between the cities of the East and the chaos of the farthest West, the land is under the rule of two eldritch powers. One is the Line, a ruthless and voracious railroad empire that turns all the lands under its dominion into dystopian wastelands of oil, smoke and steel. The other is the Gun, a band of colorful, violent drifters and desperadoes with superhuman powers whose only goal is destruction and chaos. The Line and the Gun war endlessly, with human beings caught in the middle. What’s worse, according to rumor, both the Agents of the Gun and the Engines of the Line are immortal, driven by demonic spirits that merely return to earth in new form if slain or destroyed.

The first book in Gilman’s duology concerns Liv Alverhuysen, an innocent doctor who becomes entangled with John Creedmoor, one of the fearsome Agents of the Gun, sent by his masters to track down a rumor of a weapon that can permanently destroy both Gun and Line. The second, which I liked better and read first, is the story of Harry Ransom, an eccentric inventor and showman with grand ambitions, a true Mark Twain-esque figure and a quintessentially American character. He has an invention that just might change the world – a free-energy motor – if he can ever get it to work properly, that is. (Ransom’s apparatus is a much more realistic depiction of the difficulty and the danger of such an endeavor than John Galt’s.) The second book is told in his voice and benefits immeasurably from it.

Don’t forget, you can follow me on Goodreads.

Avatar photo

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...