The Incrementalists by Steven Brust & Skyler White
The Incrementalists is collaboration between authors Steven Brust and Skyler White. I was more familiar with White going in, having enjoyed her trippy novels and Falling, Fly and In Dreams Begin. My experience with Brust’s vast catalogue was sadly limited to having read The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars many years ago while obsessively collecting the FAIRY TALE SERIES. In The Incrementalists, Brust and White team up to create a millennia-old secret society dedicated to making the world better… incrementally.
The novel follows two points of view: Phil, a longtime Incrementalist, and Renee (called Ren), whom Phil has selected as a new recruit. Ren accepts, for secret reasons of her own, without the lengthy consideration that is more usual. But before she can do much meddlework — as the Incrementalists call their attempts at world-improving — she and Phil are caught up in a mystery involving Phil’s recently deceased ex-lover Celeste. She may have killed herself, or may have been murdered by another member; the society must figure out both whodunit and why.
Skyler White’s books often touch on the topic of identity, and The Incrementalists is no exception. The members practice a sort of reincarnation that threatens to erase Ren but also gives her a unique perspective on what Celeste is up to. This reincarnation aspect, as well as the metaphorical Garden in which the Incrementalists hang out, and the questions regarding whether it’s our memories that make us us, are all brain-tickling and original. Along with the spare exposition that demands your full attention, this book will keep you on your mental toes.
I did wish we’d gotten to see a little more of the meddlework. We see a few scattered scenes of this, as well as some stories of what was done in the past, but a lot of the Incrementalists’ doings are just vaguely alluded to. The romance between Ren and Phil also could have used some more development, or maybe just some more time in which to unfold; they go from zero to serious in an incredibly short period of time. There are some in-story factors that influence this, but it does make it harder for the audience to buy in.
But while The Incrementalists doesn’t achieve everything it potentially could have, one has to give it credit for ambition, and it’s thought-provoking and suspenseful and will tug you along until you find out what’s going on. I hope Brust and White explore this universe further, and the exploits of the secret society would make great material for exploration — either in our own time or in the form of prequels. Brust has written a story called “Fireworks in the Rain” which can serve as a short prequel. I hope to take a look at that soon.