Since the beginning of humankind, the Incrementalists have been meddling in human affairs by attempting to make the world a better place, small increment by small increment, “meddling” with the right people at the right time. They are a secret society of about 200 people who more or less live forever by transplanting their memories into new bodies of willing hosts who accept their part in helping out humanity. Together, the Incrementalists share the memories of those who have lived and access them through what is more easily defined as a virtual location.   

Phil—one of the oldest Incrementalists, whose identity has been around for the past 2,000 years—is trying to find a new host for Celeste, a recently deceased Incrementalist, someone he has loved and fought with for centuries. Renee is their first choice as Celeste’s successor and the perfect holder for Celeste’s personality. When Phil and Renee have their first meeting in Las Vegas, they are instantly attracted to each other. Then, Phil explains what they do and what they want from her and Ren says yes immediately, weirdly with not a lot of questions asked.

But it’s not until it becomes clear that there is something wrong with Ren’s memories and the way they are not working as they should, that the Incrementalists start to wonder if there isn’t something afoot. It might be that Celeste has been meddling with the process and with the group. And if that is the case, the group must find out why.       

I love the idea of The Incrementalists much more than I loved its execution.

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Part Fantasy, part Mystery, The Incrementalists, by Steven Brust and Skyler White, hits the ground running with no time for exposition, as the reader is dumped in the middle of a story that has been happening for a while. Trying to parse what exactly is going on is part of the reading experience, and it soon becomes clear that the narrative itself is wholly unreliable, since the two viewpoint narrators (Phil and Renee) have obviously been meddled with. The construct of the narrative as utterly unreliable, the way that there is no handholding and the thoughtful ways that the story addresses the issues of memory and love for example are positive aspects of the novel.  

But there was something that was...off with the story. Inasmuch as I love the lack of obvious exposition and of lengthy explanations about the Incrementalists, I also think that this served as a way out for not having to expound on details of the worldbuilding too much. This is a problem in the way that things are not defined and seem more…magical than logical. I am the type of reader who wants to know the “why” and the fact that I never truly understood why the world is built as it is, why it needs the Incrementalists to “meddle,” and they are so important for the functioning of the world, were huge problems. We rarely see them actually “meddling,” and most of the story is focused on their petty internal quarrels and with bickering between immortals. That is not a problem in itself as bickering immortals can be fun or illustrative of a larger issue. But we are told that the stakes are really high and I never felt that urgency or that sense of danger beyond the immediacy of the plot.

I also had other important questions that were not addressed in the narrative with the depth that I think they deserve. The premise tells us that this is a society of immortals who manage to transplant their memories into the bodies of new people whose personalities are then "integrated." So, for example, Phil has been "Phil" for 2,000 years (but jumping from body to body). This is a bit of conversation when he tries to explain how this works:

“Two thousand and six, yes.”

“Same personality?”

“Same basic personality. It alters some with the body you’re put in. My personality in a woman’s body is subtly different, and things like sexual orientation are, in part, wired into the brain, so that changes. But I’ve thought of myself as Phil for, yeah, about two thousand years.” 

“You’ve been a woman?”

“Several times.”

Going back to my need to understand the “why” and the “how”: How does this work then? What is this telling me? Phil has been the same “Phil” for 2,000 years and as far as I can tell he identifies as a straight man? So what does it mean when his personality is put in the body of a straight woman? How is that not a huge problem both for the woman but also for Phil? Why would the Incrementalists choose the body of a woman to be integrated with the memories of someone who identifies as a man? This raises several potentially problematic issues of gender identity and sexual identity that I felt where treated superficially at best.    

It doesn’t help that it was hard to tell the two narrators apart as they sounded exactly the same to me:

Character 1 excerpt:

I checked our forum and added some noise to an argument that was in danger of acquiring too much signal. Then I watched some TV because I was too brain-dead to read, and much too brain-dead to graze. The Greek unions were striking, Correia beat the Blue Jays in spite of Encarnación’s two homers. I hadn’t recorded the game because no one cares about interleague play except the owners. When I felt like I was going to fall asleep in front of the TV, I turned it off and went to bed.

Character 2 excerpt:

I couldn’t get the wi-fi in my room to work, but I had a nice apology gift certificate from Liam for the hotel café, so I went downstairs with my netbook and nooked into one of the high-backed booths. I ordered matzo ball soup because I thought it was funny to find it on a casino menu, but I worried about it as soon as the waitress left. Theirs might be good. Maybe even as good as my nana’s, but it didn’t stand a chance against my memory of hers. I flagged the waitress down and changed my order to a veggie burger, which would have offended my grandmother to her beef-loving soul. Then I opened Google Reader.

And I think ultimately it is this lack of definition that is The Incrementalists’ greatest flaw. It doesn’t make it a terrible book but instead one that could have been much better. And I truly have all the sads about that. 

In Book Smugglerish, a half-hearted 5 out of 10.

Thea James and Ana Grilo are The Book Smugglers, a website for speculative fiction and YA. You can also find them on Twitter.