The Skill of Our Hands is subtler than your average conspiracy novel. There’s suspense and tension to spare, certainly, but the followup to Steven Brust and Skyler White’s The Incrementalists plays things slower and softer, which is only logical for a novel about a secretive group of immortals trying to change the world through subtle influences over centuries. Instead of the flashier approach, the book steps behind the curtain and focuses on the ancient conspiracy at its core, showing how they deal with the loss of one of their own, and how their own internal conflicts can have far-reaching implications, especially when the affairs of mortals are at stake.
The Incrementalists are a secret society of 200 undying devoted to changing the world “a little at a time” through “meddling,” shifting bodies (and sometimes personalities) every time they die. During a botched operation, Phil, the closest person the Incrementalists have to a consistent fixture, ends up on the wrong end of three bullets. While this isn’t a problem in the long run, as Phil’s consciousness can just get loaded into the next host, the meddling Phil started with Arizona’s corrupt cops and the state’s unjust immigration laws is particularly time-sensitive. With enemies and Phil’s rivals closing in from all sides, and a group of tampered-with mortals along for the ride, it falls to Phil’s friends and fellow Incrementalists to find a suitable host for his consciousness and get his schemes back on track.
The greatest strength of The Skill of Our Hands is the way it handles internal conflict, from Ren’s grief-stricken decision to seed her emotions into the memory garden, to Irina’s rash decision to counter-meddle with Phil’s work to correct a glaring flaw she sees in the group’s social dynamics. Even the decisions that initially put Phil in the path of those (temporarily) fatal bullets have their grounding in his own internal struggles with guilt and learning from his past mistakes. By exploring the characters’ emotions and their impulses to intervene rather than communicate, Brust and White ground their story in a real emotional core, giving their exploration of loss and the desire to learn from the past serious weight, something necessary for a book tackling such a serious social issue as the immigration crisis.
What makes the book shine, though, are the characters. The Skill of Our Hands takes time to develop each Incrementalist, from their methods in meddling with mortals, to the shape their version of the shared “memory garden” takes (a standout is Matsu, whose garden runs entirely on abstract symbolic concepts), to the way their past memories inform how they operate. As the story progresses and the heroes have to plan around various spanners in the works (some of which they tossed in themselves) the extra dimensions add depth to how each Incrementalist wants to proceed.
The dialogue is amusing, peppered with callbacks, in-jokes, and stories that subtle build out the history of this enigmatic, world-altering organization. (For example: Phil once shot Irina. She still hasn’t completely forgiven him.) There’s a lot of the fun to be found in way the members bicker, and lob good-natured insults at each other. These are people who have known each other for millennia by the start of the book; they carry on like old friends actually would. It creates an inviting atmosphere, a must for a book that favors contemplation over slam-bang action. More importantly, it underlines the fact that the Incrementalists really do care about each other when everything goes sideways.
The Skill of Our Hands a slow-burning, utterly engaging read, grounded by a relevant moral conundrum and populated by a memorable cast. With skill worthy of an ageless secret society, it goes to work on you in the background, changing you where you aren’t looking. Before long, the world looks different.