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The Skill of Our Hands
by Steven Brust and Skyler White
Tor, $25.99, 348 pages
Published: January 2017

The Incrementalists are a small group of humanity with unusual abilities. They use an odd set of skills to influence others to be better, to accomplish more good than they might otherwise be or do. One of their oddest abilities is to seed their memories, their awareness, so that when they die (or are killed, as sometimes happens when they meddle with volatile political messes), their awareness can be transferred to a willing recipient – that is to say, to a Second. Some of them are fairly new to the game, but some of them have been at it for centuries, even millennia.

Being human, they sometimes fail miserably, either because personal issues blind them, or personal agendas drive them, or they misread a situation, or events have too much damn momentum.  Sometimes they choose the wrong methods, the wrong pivots, or they fail to act at the crucial moment. Or they get killed before they can.  

Memories of past failures have pushed Phil, the most enduring of all the Incrementalists, to meddle with current events that bear a disturbing similarity to past histories that devolved into wars, genocide, and incalculable harm.  When he is murdered, the others must solve the murder to prevent its reoccurrence. The narrative alternately follows their efforts in the present timeline and flashbacks to when Phil was trying, unsuccessfully, to prevent a war.

So what will it take to prevent another? 

To understand what drove Phil, his friends have to revisit old memories. They also have to find a new Second for him. That last is complicated by the fact that Phil was in love with and loved by Ren, their latest recruit. Ren is devastated by loss and frantic to get Phil back. But who can she accept on all the levels she and Phil shared?

One of the most extraordinary components of this story is the depiction of different kinds of love.  Characters are drawn towards each other, resonate with each other, choose – sometimes with the most exquisite delicacy – to act on or to refrain from acting out what they feel for each other.  These are some of the most memorable, and moving, passages of the whole book.

IMO, there have only been two occasions when a secondary series was as splendid as the one it interrupted while being utterly distinct. The first was when Lois McMaster Bujold, to postpone the inevitable tragedy requisite for Miles Vorkosigan’s development, wrote The Curse of Chalion and its sequels. The second is this collaboration of Brust and White; only writing as good as this vindicates the wait for another tale of Vlad Taltos.

Multilayered and viscerally raw, by turns devastating and sublime, The Skill of Our Hands can set you laughing one minute and gasping the next.  I especially appreciate that the authors provide the source of the title, and the source of Phil’s various names. There is also the nifty trick of having Oskar periodically comment of what is going on; this adds a whole other dimension, almost a melodic counterpoint, to the actions.  It is also worth noting that the collaborative nature of the writing is, essentially, and Incremental act itself.  So is that invitation, that challenge, at the end for real? God, I’d like it to be.  ~~ Chris Wozney

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