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Thunderer
Felix Gilman
Bantam Spectra, 527 pages

Thunderer
Felix Gilman
Felix Gilman lives with his wife in New York City. Thunderer is his first novel.

Felix Gilman Website
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A review by Dustin Kenall

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Some books telegraph their secrets from the first pages, while others husband them like water rationed for a long desert journey. Thunderer is one of my favorite books of the last year in any genre because it manages to do both. It opens with the operatic spectacle of an entire city chasing after a giant white bird, a god of flight, that is like a Broadway musical number choreographed in breathless prose. Artists, prisoners, politicians, and one scientist dreaming of a flying warship, are all depicted in pursuit of this dream of freedom. The basics of the story -- a vast, ever-changing metropolis of indefinite bounds teeming with daemons of desire and their human pursuers -- are laid out in the first twenty pages. Its mysteries and meanings, however, are jealously guarded, the arc of the storyline imperceptible. Even halfway through the novel, I had no idea where first-time author Felix Gilman was taking me -- I just knew I wanted to go there.

And this city is truly its own world. As described by philosophe Nicolas Maine in his banned Atlas (an Enlightenment-inspired endeavor), Ararat is:

The sacred city, the gods' great perpetual work, the city of a thousand lords; but you know this. It's everything you may see from your window, and much that's beyond your sight, and more that is cruelly buried. Everything written here was written first in its streets, but here it is given meaning and order. Everything that is true of Ararat somewhere is a lie somewhere else.
Captain Arlandes, the officer charged with command of Thunderer, whose transfiguration into an airship resulted in the tragic death of his fiancéeacute;e, observes this from his aerie perch. "The streets below him that curled and twisted like warped timbers also shifted like waves. Like the folds and bloody lace of her dress, falling. So they said, of course. The gods shape us for their ends. They are always weaving.

Then there is Jack, an orphan snatched from the streets by a fire-worshipping religious order and imprisoned in Barbotin, a workhouse inspired by a Dickensian nightmare. He seizes the chance to be swept up by the white bird's flight and escapes, eventually joining a street gang of similarly "lost" boys.

Arjun, a musician from a monk-like order whose god "the Voice" will say no more, has fled his home far to the south of Ararat in the hopes that he will find his mute god somewhere among Ararat's many. His facility with ancient languages attracts the attention of Holbach, a scientist seeking to temper the frenzied faiths of Ararat through spreading a naturalistic understanding of the city's spirits in a new (hopefully) uncensored edition of the Atlas. But even his empirical revolution has its limits, as in the mythical Mountain at the border of the city. "The streets fold in on you, up there, and you end up lost in strange places. You can meet mirror-selves, strange new versions of yourself in foreign streets, and you get confused or stolen, and never come back."

The lack of a central protagonist contributes to the Borgesian style of the novel. Instead of advancing in a linear progression, the plot circles. But the tension never stalls. Gilman's attention to detail (his city's buildings shrug like the burly shoulders of a giant), his refusal to indulge in cliché (Arlandes, for example, does not fulfill a suggestive Byronic stereotype), and his genuine interest in his characters lives ensures that the novel never collapses under its own portentous weight. Somehow, though it is cobbled together from a dozen different influences, it feels completely fresh and original. With its gaslights, flying ships, proto-Industrial Age factories, and petty parliaments, Ararat is distinctively steampunk. Its macro-story, the battle between tradition in the form of the chthonic city gods and modernity in the form of Holbach's band of scientists and humanists, is reminiscent of Paula Volsky's reimagining of revolutionary France in Illusion. Others have spotted the outlines of Viriconium and Ambergris in Gilman's city, but it shares a mad Zeitgeist with Bishop's The Etched City, a fondness for child rebels with Stroud's Bartimaeus trilogy, and the pantheistic fatalism of MacLeod's The Light Ages. At times, Thunderer reads like a pastiche of the past 500 years of Western Civilization, written in the dissonant, beautiful music of intersecting, aimless lives.

The story is not without its lulls. Ararat is prone to riots, mob fights, and battle scenes that grow repetitive and uninspired. A couple times Gilman hides the deus ex machina in his deus ex urbis. The late middle of the story lingers, like a guest with no where to go. And, in a purely subjective, personal complaint -- the story begins as a triptych with Arjun, Jack, and Arlandes but then teasingly abandons the charismatic officer.

But these are mere quibbles. The novel's ending satisfyingly eschews a neat-and-tidy conclusion for a realistic culmination of events, in the manner of actual history. And Gilman has already produced a sequel, Gears of the City, which I look forward to reading with no preconceptions of what to expect. In the past few years, only a handful of works have appeared of such impressive construction and irresistible force as to merit designation as instant classics of the genre: for its booming entrance and bold execution, Thunderer deserves a wide audience and an enthusiastic round of applause.

Copyright © 2009 Dustin Kenall

Dustin Kenall is a lawyer working and blogging in DC. Accordingly, if at any given moment he's not reading or writing, it's probably because he's unconscious. His blog, readslikealawyer.blogspot.com, is always wide awake, though.


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