What if God got a C- in Universe Building 101? This is the question posed by The Universe Builders: Bernie and the Putty. Readers are transported to a world where our protagonist, his friends and his opponents are all deities. Their lives and culture revolve around building universes, with the best of the best getting showered in accolades and achieving celebrity.
Bernie is a young man just finished with school and starting out in the business of universe creation. Life hasn’t been plain sailing up until now, though. He’s the only child of a single working mother, his father having walked out on them after achieving fame for his universes. Despite being absent, his father’s shadow is quite large; he’s the only god to have ever won three awards for universes that he’s created. As if all this weren’t enough, Bernie is one of those gods cursed with a powerful Cloud – a chaotic force, much like a poltergeist, that vents his subconscious frustrations out on the world. Despite all these odds against him, working for The Business may just be the opportunity he needs to prove himself to his father and give his mother the life she deserves.
Events don’t go as planned, however, and working soon turns out to be plagued by the same sort of problems that occurred at school. It turns out that his first commercially constructed universe is not only plagued by problems with his technique, but that an old school rival is actively sabotaging his efforts. Due to his rival’s seniority and his own problems with authority figures, Bernie is forced to try and undo the damage on his own. So begins a guerilla war between gods to destroy or save a just-created planet. The stakes get upped when Bernie discovers the unthinkable: intelligent life has flourished on his world, without him creating any or even setting events in motion for life to flourish by itself. He’s no longer just fighting to save his family’s future, but also the lives of thousands of thinking, breathing bronze-age beings.
LeBel’s style is fluid and sleek, making it easy to devour this page-turner. Bernie is a likeable underdog protagonist and manages to attract a cast of outsiders and free-thinkers to his cause that are each as well-developed as he is. Lenny is an old school friend who has a fascination with the technology and superstitions of the civilizations the gods create, and is always seen carrying a primitive charm or piece of advanced technology to give him an edge. Then there’s Alcandor, one of the people on Bernie’s world who correctly works out that there’s a powerful being trying to protect them. He manages to contact Bernie, and together they make plans to save Alcandor’s world.
Another of Bernie’s allies is an old school friend, Suzie. She is the personal assistant to the head of human resources, and uses her charm to get Bernie as many second chances as he needs to succeed. She has a passion for worlds that challenge the inherent patriarchy in the Gods’ societies. Unfortunately, Suzie and the other female characters in the novel feel as though they exist solely as motivations for the protagonist or to further romantic subplots. Despite that, they’re still given defining traits and stay within character.
No mention of characters would be complete without talking about Billy, Bernie’s rival. He’s a cruel god who takes pleasure in inspiring his creations to war with each other, treating their lives and worlds as games for his own amusement. Bernie’s cloud left a scar on his face when they fought during school, something he’s never forgiven Bernie for. His uncle is Bernie’s departmental head, a fact that’s earned him many cronies. Even with all his friends at his side, Bernie has his work cut out.
The action is exciting and fast-paced. The narrative alternates between Bernie and the other gods, and the lives of the people on his besieged world. This helps establish a context to the consequences of Billy and Bernie’s actions. It makes for fascinating reading, and succeeds in making you wonder whether or not we have our own Bernie. If you’ve ever played any simulation or strategy games, it also makes you hanker to get back into one of those while simultaneously making you question whether or not all the soldiers you send to their doom had families and lives outside of your dictates.
The plot experiences minor repetition towards the third quarter of the book. By then we’ve seen Billy create problems, and Bernie fix them several times. There are enough new developments along the way to keep the story fresh, but this point in the plot is a no-man’s land between old and new developments, where we see much of the same thing happening.
Even with the above, this is a read that’s sure to please and guaranteed not to disappoint. If you’re looking for a great new indie book to sink your teeth into, it’ll be this one.
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