the Little Red Reviewer

The Incrementalists, by Steven Brust and Skyler White

Posted on: August 28, 2013

The Incrementalists, by Steven Brust and Skyler White

Available Sept 24th, 2013

where I got it: NetGalley

you can read an excerpt over at











In a garden as old as humanity, disguised memories become the seeds of change. The residents of this garden archive the smell of your grandmother’s soup in the curve of a vase, or the feel of your first kiss in the color of piece of yarn.  Memory is a funny thing, you don’t even remember what happened until the smell of a particular white wine brings it all back like a flaming spike to the head.

A genre-bending cerebral thriller masquerading as a mainstream novel, The Incrementalists enchanted me in the first chapter, and in return I devoured the rest of it. I read this book in one day. Like Bastian in The Never Ending Story, I ignored the world, skipped the pop-quiz, hid in a corner and climbed right into the lives of Phil and Ren, and Celeste and Irina and Oskar and Jimmy, staying very quiet so they wouldn’t notice me listening in on their conversations. And I am still listening, because they told me where to look.

Who are the Incrementalists? A secret society of nearly immortal people who make the world a better place,one tiny change at a time.  No pay, no thanks, no credit in the history books, their work is as invisible as a fading dream. They are the ones in the garden. And when their human bodies die, someone new must be found to carry on the work, and carry around the personality of the recently departed Incrementalist.

It’s been a few months since Celeste’s old body died, and her ex-lover Phil thinks he’s identified a good Second for Celeste’s stub.  He approaches Ren with the offer, and unlike most  Seconds who take at least a week to make up their minds, Ren agrees almost instantly that this is what she wants. She doesn’t give Phil a chance to tell her it’s a painful experience. She never gives him the chance to warn her that once she’s accepted Celeste into her mind, there’s a good chance Celeste’s personality could completely subsume Ren, effectively killing her.  Ren says Yes, Phil says OK, and from that moment on the chemistry between them is palpable.

What the Incrementalists do, it’s not done through simple persuasion. It’s done through “meddling”,  a magic of sorts, using your personal switches to make you feel more comfortable, more trusting, more able to accept what Phil or Ramon or Celeste are doing to you. You’ll never even know something odd has happened, and that’s exactly the point.

By the way, Steven Brust recently had a blog post about how he doesn’t give the reader a lot of information to work with at the beginning of his books. It’s quick, you should go read it, especially if The Incrementalists is going to be your first Brust.  Huh, I just realized I’m not giving you much information to work with in this review. interesting. Anyway, back to the review:

What’s a switch? An obvious one shared by much of the western world is that when we hear sad music, we want to spend money to fill the void in the singer’s heart. How many shirts have you got hidden in the back of your closet because there was sad music playing at The Limited? A switch is a little like that, but it’s something that is personal and private to you. Something no one else could know about, because it’s buried so far in your subconscious that you barely know about it. No one else could know, unless of course, they were an Incrementalist. Not a physical thing that can be seen or touched, “it’s metaphorical”, as Phil puts it. And holy shit did this book hit my switches (certain foods, a particular poet, and a later found easter egg were only the ones I noticed).

Told in alternating first person point of views of Phil and Ren,  we get Phil’s somewhat jaded thoughts on being an Incrementalist, his justifications and arguments with Celeste, and Ren’s excitement of developing her own mental garden and exploring Celeste’s memories. Even though she never stopped hurting him, Phil never stopped loving Celeste. Maybe this time he can finally get it right, give her what she needs to be happy. It would make everything a lot easier if he wasn’t falling in love with Ren, and if Celeste wasn’t, well, if I told you that would be a spoiler.

For those of you who are all like “ugggg.  first person POV that switches between characters?” or “ewwww, romance?”. Read this book anyway. You can thank me later. A quick word of warning, for those of you who are interested: this is not a book for younger readers. Salty language, steamy sex scenes, and plenty of mature situations that wouldn’t interest a younger reader.  If you’ve never had your heart broken or been betrayed, that’s a sign you are too young.

I adored everything about this novel, everything from Brust’s signature dry and rapid fire dialog, to the metaphorical garden paths, to the parts that felt painfully autobiographical. Steven Brust’s  subtle prose combined with Skyler White’s gift for the sensual create a recipe for literary intoxication of the best kind.

If you’re interested in reading what could very well be the best speculative fiction novel of the year, get yourself a copy of The Incrementalists as soon as you possibly can. Do not pass Go, do not collect two hundred dollars, go directly for The Incrementalists. Because books like this? They just don’t show up that often.


18 Responses to "The Incrementalists, by Steven Brust and Skyler White"

Great review! I’ll pick up a copy.


thanks! I do hope you pick this one up, as you can tell, I thought it was just wonderful.


I was already excited about this book because I’m a fan of Brust’s work, and I was at a con where White was on several panels, and she was delightful and thoughtful.

But this: “Steven Brust’s subtle prose combined with Skyler White’s gift for the sensual create a recipe for literary intoxication of the best kind.”

Sounds so totally awesome. I can very much see the combo as being amazing.


If you like Brust already, you will LOVE this. it’s funny (at least to me), because some scenes were so him, and other scenes I knew someone else’s hand was in there. btw, I just discovered a Dzur short story he did on way back when. wonderfully entertaining, as usual.

That’s so cool that you got to see Skyler White at a Con! which Con was it? I’d love to meet her, and I hope The Incrementalists helps her career take off.


Awesome review. This was already on my list, but now I know to bump it up. I don’t mind alternating first person POV as long as I can always tell who’s up to bat. 🙂


it did surprise me a little bit,that it jumps back and forth so often, but it gives a good dynamic. there are few scenes that we see through both character’s eyes, which is the best, because they’re both interpreting things completely differently.


I already quite fancied this but I think your review has definitely sealed the deal!
Lynn 😀


you HAVE to read this, because I want to discuss it with you, i think this is something you will really enjoy! get to it whenever you happen to get to it, because I’ll happily read it again.


Cool! I will get a copy and we will chat!


I was already planning to, but this may push it up a few spots on the list. I’ll take your recommendation and give you one back, Fiend by Peter Stenson. Were I a faster reader I would have finished it in a day.


Fiend sounds wow, creepy. but hey, i like me some creepy! thanks for the recommendation!

Tweet me when you’re reading/have read this, so we can discuss!


I need to stop reading your blog, because about twice a month you add something new to my Must Read Right Now or the World Ends Horribly pile.
No idea how I will respond to this book.


Ha! Well, since I can’t have traditional mochi, like *some* people I know, I just have to get back at them somehow. 😉

I am really curious to see what you think of this, because I don’t think it’s like what you usually read. Go read the excerpt on Tor, see if it grabs you. then again, Brust is one of my favorite authors, so if you don’t read this, the world could very possibly, end horribly.

I got the ARC off of NetGalley, and I’ve just discovered something awful about using NetGalley. I can’t lend the ARC to someone after I’ve read it. that sucks.


Brust is the Vlad Talos (or something like that) guy? Those are on the less urgent Should Check Out Sometime pile. Should I read one of those before picking this up?
This is absolutely not what I usually read, though I am more than just a Hard SF dork. (I have a soul, somewhere.) We may end up with dueling reviews. Regardless, I think it will be fun, even if “love” appears to be a major part of this story.

And I won’t belabor the point, but we’ve had Japanese food almost every day this week. Tomorrow is a luau, so I’ll think of you when they bring out the roasted pig with an apple in its mouth.


yup, he’s the Vlad Taltos guy. I have some of those books reviewed in my index, if you’re interested. This new one is a complete stand alone, nothing to do with the Vlad books or anything else he’s written in the past.

LOL, forget dueling reviews (although those are tons of fun), you and I need to have dueling recipes. luau, schmuau, if I wrap apple slices in bacon, does that count? 😉


[…] one of my favorite books of the year?  For some background, check out Skyler’s website, or my review of the book.  Ok, have you done that? Cool! Let’s dive into the […]


[…] The Incrementalists by Steven Brust and Skyler White (2013 )- Secret societies, multiple personalities, sublime prose, metaphysics, unexpected romance, characters that rip each other to shreds.  What more could you possibly want? I got meddled with, my switches got hit, and I never wanted it to end.  Just go read it already. Everything about this book was spot-on perfection for me. […]


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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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