by Felix Gilman
Review by Benjamin Wald
Spectra Mass Market Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780553591101
Date: 30 September 2008 List Price $6.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Imagine a city awash in gods. The manifestations of these inscrutable powers appear randomly around the city alternately blessing, cursing, or ignoring the cities inhabitants. Now imagine the city itself; an endless warren of streets presided over by quarrelling political factions and bizarre cults. This seems impressive enough, but now imagine that the city that is seen is only one tiny aspect of a fractal pattern, cities embedded within cities, continuing on infinitely and all of it shaped by the incomprehensible actions of the cities myriad gods. This is the city of Ararat, the setting for Felix Gilman's impressive debut novel Thunderer.
The setting in this book is both plot and character, with the slow discovery of some of its secrets being almost as interesting as the action which takes place within it. Even among the impressive annals of fantasy cities, from Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast to China Mieville's New Crobuzon, Ararat holds its own. Luckily, the rest of Gilman's book lives up to this setting.
The novel follows two main characters. The first is Arjun, who comes to Ararat seeking a lost god. The second, Jack Sheppard, is a dark fantasy re-imagining of that classic fantasy hero, Peter Pan. However, far from an idyllic eternal childhood, this Peter Pan inhabits a harsh world in which he must use his band of lost boys in deadly earnest. There are also numerous other memorable characters; this is a richly peopled novel. All of the characters are skilfully drawn; even the best of them have their flaws, and even the worst evoke moments of pity.
The novel begins with the arrival of The Bird, a god of freedom and flight. One of the scholars of the city manages to trap The Bird's power in the hull of a warship, the Thunderer, and cause it to soar above the city. This new weapon tilts the balance of power within the city, leading to the events of the novel. The pacing is relatively slow, but there are always enough new mysteries to explore and carefully rationed moments of action to keep the readers interest. The one weakness is that the various events of the plot never seem fully connected. Parts of it read like gorgeous, fascinating vignettes, but not all of these come together into a single plotline at the end. If you love tightly plotted novels, this may not be for you. However, the writing style, setting, subtle characterization, and gradual unravelling of the cities mysteries more than made up for this in my mind.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who has ever been enthralled by a fantasy setting. This is one of those books I could read for hundreds of pages even if nothing ever happened, just to immerse myself in language and setting. The fact that Gilman has wrapped this in a complex and moving story, complete with moments of pulse-pounding excitement and sober philosophical reflection, is just icing on the cake.