Despite a somewhat slow and haphazard beginning, I thought Felix Gilman’s Thunderer was one of the best debuts I read in 2007 and couldn’t wait to get my hands on the sequel. Alas, Gears of the City was a bit disappointing in comparison, but still a very good book.
I think the biggest issue I had with the book were the characters. Simply put, I just didn’t care about any of them, which was a little surprising considering that returning protagonist, Arjun, was fairly compelling in Thunderer. In Gears of the City, Arjun’s goals are still the same — he’s searching for his lost god — but Arjun himself is changed, twisted by what he’s seen and experienced in Ararat, and he’s not always likeable. Plus, as the other characters are introduced and as the story progresses, Arjun’s importance seems to diminish. Of the others, Ruth Low is central to the novel because of her connection to the Mountain, the mysterious Shay, and the Beast — as well as an unconvincing romance she develops with Arjun — but she lacks in the personality department. Brace-Bel on the other hand, has a very colorful personality and narrative voice, but since he’s quite mad, it’s kind of hard to root for him. Inspector Maury also has a distinctive narrative voice, but I felt his POV was kind of pointless and would have better served for one of the more interesting supporting characters like the Beast (Felix’s version of a dragon), Ivy (the youngest of the three Low sisters), or Shay himself. And arguably the most fascinating character from Thunderer, the city Ararat, just wasn’t as intriguing this time around. Overall, the characters in Gears of the City are an eccentric lot but not nearly as memorable or charming as Jack Sheppard and company in Thunderer.
Another issue I had with the book was the story. After a wonderful prologue that beautifully sets the stage for Gears of the City, the novel slows down considerably and meanders some before buckling down for the final book: The Final Expedition. Additionally, some parts of the story weren’t executed as well as they could have been such as the revelations towards the end which lacked an element of surprise. Also, there was a notable shortage of heart-pounding action in the book.
Now just because I had problems with Gears of the City doesn’t mean that it’s not any good. On the contrary, Gears of the City is a very good book, distinguished by Felix’s outstanding prose and imagination, some really superb dialogue — some of which is quite witty — and a thought-provoking plot that makes up for its deficiencies in pacing and execution with its unpredictability. Then there were the excellent stories-within-stories which I thought were some of the best parts in the novel. Besides all that, fans of Thunderer will want to read Gears of the City to discover the answers to the Mountain, its connection to Ararat, who Shay/Lemuel/Cutter is, and whether or not Arjun ever finds his god.
Felix Gilman has, after only two novels, already established himself as one of the brightest new voices in speculative fiction. I expect great things from Mr. Gilman and can’t wait to experience the author’s next creation.