Angry Robot Books Review #3 – Flex – Ferret Steinmetz

(Originally posted on The Fantasy Book Collector)

Flex

Ferret Steinmetz

Angry Robot Books

I cannot recommend this book strongly enough. In fact, unless something else comes along that does such an impressive job of combining brilliant writing, deeply interesting and detailed world-building, and the first protagonist that I think I’ve ever actually empathised with, I’m going to go ahead and call this my Book of the Year 2016. Even though it’s not even the end of February – it’s *that* good.

As a reader, I am deeply biased towards science-fiction, fantasy and grim-dark. I am also unashamed to admit that I am a bureaucrat, and that I love the bureaucratic process, and paperwork in particular. I may live in the UK, but it’s an undeniable fact that bureaucrats, bureaucracy and paperwork have just as bad a reputation as in the United States – particularly in the NHS, where I work. There are headlines almost daily that bemoan ‘middle managers’, ‘paperwork madness’ and the evils of bureaucracy in general. The profession as a whole really couldn’t have much of a worse reputation, particularly in the field of Health & Safety that I now work in.

I was therefore greatly surprised to pick up Flex and be presented with a protagonist who is not only a bureaucrat, like myself, but whose powers were actually paper-work based. My partner can readily testify that, even before I actually started reading Flex, I would declare that I had found a book that actually understood me and my profession; these declarations would only increase in fervour as I actually read the book itself.

The protagonist, Paul Tsabo, is an insurance adjustor who suddenly develops superpowers (known as ‘Mancy’ in-universe), as a result of a near-death experience that disfigures his daughter. In the Flex universe, ‘Mancy develops as a result of a person’s obsession with a certain activity, hobby or personality flaw. In his case, Paul develops the ability to magically control and manipulate paperwork – he can control it physically, but he can also create and amend paperwork just by imagining it. He can adjust insurance paperwork, create inspection permits, change job rosters and a million other things. However, in doing so, he attracts the attention of both the authorities (SMASH, a disturbingly fascist-like superpowered FBI amalgam), and an extremely powerful ‘Mancer determined to cripple society and throw it back to a literal Stone-Age.

This is a fantastic universe, which is extremely well-realised and written. The background lore is some of the most interesting I’ve read about in a long time; the US is practically a dictatorship, with a population fearful of ‘Mancers and the powers they wield. Quite rightly, given that fighting between Allied and Nazi ‘Mancers during the Second World War turned Europe into a demon-haunted ruin. In the present, ‘Mancers are either hunted down and killed, or brainwashed/lobotomised into a disturbing zombie-like state called Unimancy. The idea of a ‘Mancer who could do good, independently of SMASH, is unheard of and terrifying to the general public.

Okay, so the writing is great, the universe well-realised and the characters interesting and three-dimensional. This describes a lot of books – so why the effusive praise? Because this book, for the first time I can think of in years of reading, actually affected me. Got to me. Whatever you want to call it. I know it’s common to cite ‘the book that changed me’ or something just as clichéd; I can say this has never happened to me before. But Flex did. Because in Paul Tasbo, I found a character who also believes as I do – that paperwork HELPS people. It may be maligned, bashed and sneered at, but paperwork is the lifeblood of modern civilisation, and it IS a force for good, as Paul shows. It helps people, protects people, empowers them; when I complete a risk assessment for staff, I’m not doing it because I’m some mythical bureaucrat making paperwork for the hell of it – I’m filling out those papers to try and make someone’s life better – easier – SAFER.

And Flex gets that…

In a way I’ve never seen another book do so before.

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