Published by Bantam Spectra
City novels are something of a subgenre their own. Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris and even the dark world in Veniss Underground, China Miéville’s New Crobuzon, M. John Harrison’s Viriconium, Jeffrey Ford’s Well-Built City trilogy and even a very recent novel like Gregory Frost’s Shadowbridge are fine examples of the subgenre. Into this fray enters Felix Gilman, with his debut novel Thunderer. Gilman starts with the vast city state of Ararat, which is alive with a sense of magic and religion. This may be the strongest aspect of the novel and Ararat can indeed be seen as a character in and of itself.
The novel fully begins when the Bird-God passes over Ararat. In the religion/mythology of Ararat, the gods are visible and much more physically proactive in the lives of people. In the case of the Bird-God, it comes at uneven intervals and rains magical blessings down upon the populace. At the outset, it seemed Gilman was attempting to convey what a chaotic event this was. Unfortunately, for me the narrative itself was too chaotic and the pacing was not entirely smooth or polished.
Many viewpoint characters move the narrative along, including a young man named Arjun from outside Ararat who has journeyed in hopes of restoring the source of worship (The Voice) to his brethren (The Choristry). His journey and interaction with one of the gods, Typhon, of Ararat proved to be intriguing. Jack Shepherd, perhaps the Jack of all Tales, undoubtedly fits the trickster mold and his path from criminal to the leading freedom fighter of the Thunderers was also an intriguing plotline. Both of these character’s journeys have a nice mythic resonance. The title of the book, in addition to being the name of Jack’s group of freedom fighters, also happens to be the name of a magical airship that has taken more than its share of magical blessings from the Bird-God. The captain, Arlandes, is uncomfortably serving the seemingly mad Countess Ilona. These are the most prominent characters, but Gilman populates the novel with many more supporting characters.
Reading the early parts of the novel, I had difficulty catching any kind of rhythm to the narrative. I hoped the chaos caused by the appearance of the Bird-God was a parallel to Gilman’s stylistic narrative approach. This wasn’t the case as I found the majority of the novel (at least to the point where I ceased reading, just about the midpoint of the novel) extremely cumbersome to read. Here’s one example from page 49:
And also belatedly present, arriving just as the Observants, their mirrors dulled by gore, were finishing up their work, were seven men and three women in white and off-white robes or long loose smocks, each of them wild-haired and dirty, each whining and pleading and moaning as they shoved forward through the crowd.
Not to completely rip into the writing here, but starting a sentence with “And” is just bad form. Here’s another lengthy example from page 207:
Sometimes Arjun went down to the waterways. He never had to walk too far in any direction before coming to a canal, a reservoir, one of the ornamental lakes of Faugére, or on of the shallow marshy ponds that formed on condemned ground north of Fourth Ward — and the River itself, had he ever been brave enough to face it, would have been only a few hours’ walk to the east
The above are just two examples of the type of prose that comprise the novel and why I was unable to finish reading the book. There was no real cadence to the narrative because it seemed every statement was interrupted by a comma or a hyphen, changing the flow of the sentence with varying degrees of bluntness. I couldn’t determine whether Gilman was obsessed with commas or there was a poor copyedit, but when I began to count the commas and hyphen breaks in each sentence rather than enjoy the story for what it was, I realized I could read this novel no longer.
This is really a shame because Gilman does have ample imagination and some nifty ideas sprinkled throughout the novel. Very few people go into the experience of reading a book looking for disappointment, myself included. Unfortunately, that is what I found with Felix Gilman’s debut novel, Thunderer. This was especially frustrating considering the praise I’d seen heaped on the book from readers whose opinions I trust. I wanted to like this book, it had a sense of magic to it and mythic resonance that often clicks with my reading sensibilities. If there was just some more polish to the narrative or maybe a stronger copyedit, I would have been able to read straight through the book. Ultimately, the book’s style resulted in a frustrating disappointment for me, but a reading experience others may enjoy more or be able to appreciate.
© 2008 Rob H. Bedford