The premise of Steven Brust and Skyler White’s The Incrementalists, as described on the cover, is that there’s a secret society of quasi-immortals who have been subtly guiding human history in order to make it slightly better than it would otherwise be, to push for incremental changes and improvements.

It’s a bit of a cheeky concept; you can imagine the writers coming up with it over drinks, and then saying, “You know, there might actually be a story in this.” And there might be. Because that premise immediately brings questions to mind: What happens when they disagree about “better”? And wouldn’t quasi-immortals naturally tend toward a sort of conservatism that could be counter-productive? And you can see how a book could follow this society through the centuries from its inception, telling a secret history while tracing the evolution of the society and its members, watching seeds of dissent turn into an all-out conflict, ultimately addressing big questions about the desirability of change and radicalism and free will.

Instead, we got a book about a kind of love triangle (to avoid detailed spoilers), which takes place entirely in the present, and which barely even glances in the direction of these questions (and even there, mostly just in characters giving each other background, not in any way that matters to the story, really). And yes, it’s bad form to criticize a book for not being the book I wanted it to be. But even ignoring the possibilities of what it could have been, The Incrementalists, as actually written, is a book about a handful of not-very-sympathetic characters doing mostly pretty boring things in a boring way.

It’s not a bad book; but ultimately, if I keep wanting to clarify that it’s not a bad book, it becomes obvious that neither is it a very good one. There’s probably something else you’ll enjoy reading more, and you should read that instead.


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