I picked up 'Master of the World' before its predecessor, 'Worldshaper', by mistake but I loved the idea of it and the cover is fantastic, so I got hold of the first in the series and got heftily let down. I still liked the core idea that Edward Willett conjured up but I was frustrated by so much in that first book that I needed this one to be much better to want to carry on.
Fortunately, it's much better.
If you're reading along, you'll know that Shawna Keys was the Worldshaper of the first book's title, though she'd somehow forgotten that crucial fact. It means that she's living on a world she effectively created from the template that is the First World and changed, or Shaped, anything that she wanted to be different. She's real, but nobody else is. They're all either copies of a central template or changed copies because Shawna wanted them that way, even if she didn't know it at the time.
There's a lot of potential in that idea and Willett seemed notably reluctant to explore it. Instead, he brought in an Adversary to mess with it all, who, by the way, is called just that, the Adversary, and a guide, in the form of Karl Yatsar, who can explain to Shawna the rules of this game, while they're trying to escape from the Adversary and find a portal so they can escape the world Shawna created, as already lost, and check out the next one over.
And here's where things get better immediately, for a whole slew of reasons.
For one, the new world that Shawna finds herself in, sans Karl who got left behind, was clearly Shaped by a fan of Jules Verne. The island on which the portal existed on her world is the Mysterious Island in this new one. While it fades away into nothing, she's rescued by the wildly rotored flying ship of Robur the Conqueror known as the Albatross. Before long, it's attacked by autogyros, all very polite and very dangerous, and she's kidnapped/rescued, depending on your point of view, by agents of Prince Dakkar, better known as Captain Nemo. Oh yeah, I'm on board with this!
For another, which I didn't realise for a while, Shawna can't Shape anything or anyone on this world because it isn't hers. To do that, she would have to figure out who the resident Shaper on this world is, find her way to him and then either steal or borrow his hokhmah, the Shaper word for the design of a particular world. With that, she'd take on his powers and be able to change stuff. Without it, she's just another human being amongst millions, albeit a human being that the Shaper can't Shape. Make sense?
And I really, really liked that. One of my biggest problems with the series opener was that, even when Shawna was reacquainted with the rules that she'd forgotten, she was stubbornly reticent to Shape anything and, when she did, she tended to screw it up, so prompting her to want to Shape even less. Her relationship to her own world was very troublesome. Here, she has precisely zero relationship to the world, because it isn't hers and she has to do what the rest of us would have to do. Her cheat codes are gone.
For a third, Willett does start to ponder on some of the ramifications that leap out immediately about the universe he's created here, ramifications he ignored ruthlessly in the first book. For instance, the new Shaper, whoever he happens to be, is clearly a wargamer, someone who's set up his world in a constant state of conflict so that he can shuffle his people around like the soldiers in a world-sized wargame that they are. Is it immoral to slaughter people in outrageous numbers when you know for a fact that every man, woman and child is a figment of your own imagination, because you're God?
Shawna doesn't like that idea. They're all people to her, though we have to realise that because she can't Shape them on this world, they're absolutely people to her. She's horrified when she discovered a Bible re-written from what she knows to highlight how the Shaper is God. Yet, during her quest to figure out who the Shaper is and to get to him, she finds that she must play the same game, manipulating people and orchestrating events so that she gets what she wants, even if those events are deadly and those people die.
Another angle I really appreciated here was Willett making this new Shaper a lonely man. While his world is his plaything and he's having a blast playing his wargames (he's even rebooted the world to defaults at least twice), he's lonely. He's the only real human being on a planet of imaginary people that he can change however he likes, then, suddenly, enter another human being, a girl who he remembers from school back on the First World, even though she's unable to remember him in return. That's really deep.
And so, unlike the first book, this works and it works on multiple levels.
I enjoyed it as a Vernian adventure story, in which Robur the Conqueror, the Master of the World, faces off against Prince Dakkar, Captain Nemo, who aims to take the world back and make it a better place. There are some well drawn characters on both sides, most obviously some key women, Belinda on one side and Athelia on the other. We even get to travel to the Free City of Phileas, though we sadly never meet Mr. Fogg.
I enjoyed it as a deeper dive into the philosophy of literally running your own world. We don't go too far into dubious territory, but it's quite clear how too much loneliness in a Shaper can be quickly and easily addressed. If Willett isn't willing to answer all the questions we have quite yet, he does at least prove willing to answer some of them, so, if it wasn't a bad choice of words in a world that can be rebooted at whim, we find ourselves on much steadier ground.
And I enjoyed it as the second book in a series. The beginnings of such are always troublesome and 'Worldshaper' was more troublesome than most, but, if the series continues on like this, I'll be happy to continue on with it. The possibilities are, quite literally, endless and as long as Shawna stays one step ahead of the Adversary, who bored me to tears and who, thankfully, only appears on the fringes of this book, I'll be happy.
Willett's big challenge, of course, is to keep it all fresh. He can't simply rewrite this book in different fictional settings and think we'll stay with him. He needs to add something to each episode to keep we the readers, and Shawna too, learning about the bigger picture so we can think more and guess more and thrill more. The big mystery still hidden is why Shawna still has a loss of memory about the First World and the source of her power. Maybe that will start to be chipped away at in the third book, which I presume is due sometime this year. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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