March 01, 2009

THUNDERER and GEARS OF THE CITY by Felix Gilman Review

by Chris Hsang

[Editor's Note: Thanks to intrepid customer/reviewer Christopher Hsiang for the following. This review was previously published by the awesome folks over at - Jude]

M. John Harrison has inspired a fantasy tradition of strange, shifting cities by authors like Neil Gaiman, China MiƩville, Steph Swainston, Jeff VanderMeer, Ian R. MacLeod, and Jay Lake. The New Weird influence of Harrison's VIRICONIUM can definitely be seen in the first two Ararat novels by Felix Gilman.

In THUNDERER (2008, Bantam Spectra, Mass Market) a young monk, Arjun, is on a mission to find his God. For untold ages the Choirmen of Gad have worshiped the Voice, an invisible deity living in the uppermost spire of the Choristry, inspiring the faithful with its perfect wordless song. Now the Voice is gone and the Choir may disband in apathy. Arjun convinces his superiors to let him set out North to distant Ararat. A city of unthinkable size and age, divided into myriad warring fiefdoms, Ararat has no borders to the East or West. On the far northern horizon one can just make out the immense black Mountain said to be the center of unimaginable power. Thousands of gods walk the endless streets of Ararat. Surely if Arjun cannot get his beloved Voice back he can find a replacement deity for the Choristry.

As Arjun arrives, there is a theophany of the god known as the Bird. Some of the Bird's essence is captured to fuel the Thunderer, a flying warship designed to serve the expansionist aims of Countess Ilona, ruler of this portion of Ararat. The Bird also blesses an imprisoned orphan named Jack, allowing him to escape his masters, giving him new purpose and an insatiable taste for freedom. As Arjun finds his bearings, he attracts the attention of Professor Holbach, the scientist behind the Thunderer's launch. In exchange for aiding in his quest for the Voice the Professor recruits Arjun for the Professor's cabal of eccentric savants and adventurers working on an Atlas of the vast city where maps are forbidden. Arjun also acts as the Professor's catspaw against a sinister figure sometimes known as Mr. Shay, who claims to be able to capture and manipulate not only the gods, but time and space as well. Arjun is repeatedly sidetracked in his quest by: a corrupted sewage god terrorizing the night; a guerrilla band of super-powered juvenile delinquents; clashing religious zealots; and by the Countess' continuing War on Everybody. Gilman's fertile visions owe inspiration not only to earlier New Weird authors but also a dash of Peter Pan, and animes like "Princess Monomoke" or "Spirited Away". Some of the more interesting districts of Ararat resemble the surreal dreamlike cityscapes in Clive Barker's IMAJICA or Italo Calvino's INVISIBLE CITIES, but most of the action takes place in sooty Dickensian settings all too familiar in much recent Urban Fantasy.

In the sequel, GEARS OF THE CITY (2008, Bantam Spectra, Hardcover), a terrified man flees the unknown powers of the Mountain, losing his memories in the escape. He encounters an imprisoned reptilian Beast who claims to have the gift of prophecy and certainly has a skill for treachery. The Beast give the fugitive back his name: he is Arjun, and the loathsome Mr. Shay is behind his current predicament. Arjun finds himself in a bleak, gray district of Ararat at the foot of the unscaleable Mountain, untold ages after the last book. The gods are long gone, the streets drained of hope and inspiration. Grubby little industrial Combines rule, supported by jackbooted thugs called the Know-Nothings. There have been other victims of the Mountain: broken souls muttering of a terrible war. They're called ghosts and are treated with pity tempered by a cautious kindness. Two locals, Ruth and Marta Low, nurse Arjun back to health. They convince him to rescue their third sister from the clutches of a deranged libertine who has connections to Arjun's past. As he learns more about himself and the Mountain, destruction looms, and it becomes certain that Shay, now more powerful than any god, lies behind it. GEARS OF THE CITY is a much darker novel than THUNDERER, with a hefty helping of paranoia and hopelessness. Not recommended reading if you've just lost your job, your significant other, or it's been raining all week. Trust me on this.

There's a cool political feel to the plots. Many of the characters fight for social change, or at least Stick It to the Man, by defying the conformity whatever systems — local or global — demand from them. Sometimes their struggle brings down the oppressors, but with sobering predictability whoever occupies the power vacuum often turns out to be just as bad. New Flag, same old Bastards. I think Gilman wants to remind us to always look out for the rights of the individual and keep a critical eye on those leaders who claim to be fighting for the people, even when that leader is you. Not a revolution in revolutionary thought to be sure, class struggle is a common theme in most novels with these urban settings — China MiĆ©ville anyone? But Gilman fights the power and keeps it real.

Shay and some of the other characters posses the skill to “Break Through the Metacontext” and step into to any neighborhood in any era — sort of like using the TARDIS without the blue box. This makes Ararat not just impossibly huge, but bloody infinite! Often Ararat is too vast to make any sense. A few times in THUNDERER a character will wonder where all the food to feed the city comes from; the answer is never really pursued. There is only the reason and logic of dreams.

The narrative jumps around a bit in both books, especially at the beginnings. Felix Gilman's imaginative writing often leaves a lyrical waxy buildup that could have been tempered by his cast of dozens of creatively flamboyant or frightening characters. Unfortunately, most of them are so driven by their own particular obsessions that they come off as rather flat. Gilman may have tried to cram too much into these novels. There's a lot of “weird for weirdness' sake,” and too many of the plot threads and Big Secrets have predictable resolutions. However, Felix Gilman has a great deal of vision. Certainly, we will see better and more focused work from him in the future.

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