It seems lately that a lot of books have come out where setting plays as large a role as character. I’m thinking of Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris, China Miéville’s New Crobuzon, Gregory Frost’s Shadowbridge, and Jay Lake’s Mainspring. Books that haven’t simply created a new world, but whose world itself is an integral part of the story, rather than just the physical part the story moves across.
Felix Gilman’s Thunderer certainly falls into that category — more successfully than some and less so than others. The setting is the city of Ararat — seemingly infinite in size and “peopled” by a plethora of gods. The opening scene, in fact, is the return of one of those gods, the Great Bird, whose swooping flight over the city sets in motion much of the events to come. Though typical of Ararat’s gods, the Bird itself seems utterly unaware and/or indifferent to the results of its fabled return.
One of the witnesses to the Bird’s flight is Arjun, a young man who has traveled to Ararat from far away in search of his people’s lost God (The Voice), believing that it, like so many other gods, has been drawn to Ararat. Another young man, Jack, imprisoned in a Dickensian workhouse for most of his short life, uses the magic left in the Bird’s wake to escape. Also making use of the Bird’s magical leavings, is the Countess, ruler of this small section of the city. Her advisor Professor Holbach has used the Bird’s magic to lift one of her warships — the Thunderer — so it becomes an airship. Captained by the tragically grieving Captain Arlandes (his fiancée was killed in the Bird’s passage), the Thunderer becomes a one-of-a- kind weapon that other rulers cannot defend against.
A lot happens in that opening scene, maybe too much, though the chaotic sweep was exhilarating. The book soon settles down as the characters move into their respective roles. Arjun tries to find his way in this city beyond comprehension and accidentally falls foul of one of its newly awakened to sentience gods. His attempt to avoid its murderous intent is one major plot. Jack frees other boys and girls and grows into a crusading leader of a band of freedom fighters, though more in a trickster/mischief-maker/Peter Pan role than as any true political rebel. And the Countess begins a systematic pummeling of her rivals into submission via the Thunderer, to the dismay of Holbach who had hoped to use the airship as his tool to map the city for the Atlas — a subversive piece of work that threatens the political landscape and is also considered heresy by many. As one might assume, eventually the three strands of plot intersect.
Thunderer is a rich mix of styles and technologies and magics — guns and potions and telescopes and trains, Lovecraft and Dickens and Mieville and Wells. There are some wonderfully mythic images, such as the flame god’s pillar rising up from one of the city squares. The shifting point of views and the characters’ evolution, especially Jack’s, are strengths. And of course there is the city itself — whose every corner seems to offer up something else to fascinate.
But while there is a lot to like, the book felt curiously flat whenever it stuck to plot and character. As if all the plot events and the multitude of characters and allusions ended up diluting their individual effect. I found myself wanting to spend much more time on the throwaways, such as the iron machine on rails, the brief descriptions of gods, the descriptions of the city, than on what was happening with the characters. It was as if Gilman had created this wonderfully evocative haunted house with nooks and crannies and then put a few accountants on the porch and left us there with them. That’s an exaggeration, but it did seem that the characters paled in interest compared to the setting and that the plot tried to make up for that with a lot of action that never really felt gathered into purpose. The Countess’ war, for instance, felt completely abstract. And its consequences didn’t seem to matter in a city that we were constantly being told was “infinite”.
Too much of that infinity was left unexplored, especially given that tool of the airship. Though perhaps that’s coming. The ending of the book resolves much — it certainly stands on its own as a full story. But it also clearly leaves room for a sequel. Or more than one. I’d certainly love to see more of Ararat, if not of its people. Thunderer is a solid debut book that could have actually been improved by less plot and more atmosphere/setting. The plot, while not particularly compelling, will hold your attention, but don’t be surprised if you wish a character had continued just a little bit farther down an alley or round a corner. Which is partially a criticism, but more a compliment and testament to the originality and potential of the city Felix Gilman has built. Here’s hoping we can spend more time in it next novel.
Felix Gilman‘s debut novel Thunderer is set in the city of Ararat — a name well-chosen for a place where gods are manifest. Not just a god, but many, many gods: gods evil and gods benign, gods appearing once in an eon and gods constantly present, gods changing the shape of the city and gods changing the shape of a life. The city itself is the real subject of the book, as I find to be the case with most New Weird fiction, a place of never-ending fascination.
But perhaps the description of a city alone cannot be a tale. Gilman does not leave us without plot, though there are times in the novel when it seems he’d like to endlessly explore the byways of the city without returning to his characters, who are often less interesting. Arjun is a young priest of the Voice, a god who has left its rural congregation; Arjun’s theory is that the city has called to the god, who has become lost there. He has come to Ararat to seek the god. In the course of his search, Arjun incurs the wrath of another god, the interest of a group of philosophers, and, ultimately, some secrets left largely unexplored here.
A parallel plot involves Jack, a boy trapped in a particularly brutal workhouse until a god and his own cleverness work his release. His freedom fires his blood with a wish for the freedom of others, and he begins a crusade that threatens to swallow the city. When he joins forces with Arjun and the philosophers to rescue their leaders, Ararat itself seems to tremble on its foundations.
Ararat is too wonderful a place to be contained in a single book, which makes me happy that Gilman wrote Gears of the City as a follow-up. Thunderer explores a very small portion of the city, little of its politics, and almost nothing at all of the great mountain at its border. Gilman succeeds at an author’s most difficult trick: causing the reader to cry, “More, more!”
Thunderer — (2007-2008) Publisher: In this breathtaking debut novel by Felix Gilman, one man embarks on a thrilling and treacherous quest for his people’s lost god — in an elaborate Dickensian city that is either blessed… or haunted. Arjun arrives in Ararat just as a magnificent winged creature swoops and sails over the city. For it is the day of the return of that long-awaited, unpredictable mystical creature: the great Bird. But does it come for good or ill? And in the service of what god? Whatever its purpose, for one inhabitant the Bird sparks a long-dormant idea: to map the mapless city and liberate its masses with the power of knowledge. As the creature soars across the land, shifting topography, changing the course of the river, and redrawing the territories of the city’s avian life, crowds cheer and guns salute in a mix of science and worship. Then comes the time for the Bird’s power to be trapped — within the hull of a floating warship called Thunderer, an astounding and unprecedented weapon. The ship is now a living temple to the Bird, a gift to be used, allegedly, in the interests of all of Ararat. Hurtled into this convulsing world is Arjun, an innocent who will unwittingly unleash a dark power beyond his imagining — and become entangled in a dangerous underground movement that will forever transform Ararat. As havoc overtakes the streets, Arjun dares to test the city’s moving boundaries. In this city of gods, he has come to search among them, not to hide. A tour de force of the imagination, and a brilliant tale of rebellion, Thunderer heralds the arrival of a truly gifted fantasy writer who has created a tale as rich, wondrous, and captivating as the world in which it is set.