Locus Magazine's Faren Miller reviews Felix Gilman
from Locus Magazine, April 2008
Thunderer, Felix Gilman (Bantam Spectra 978-0-553-80676-2, $24.00, 438pp, hc) January 2008.
Felix Gilman's debut novel Thunderer takes place in the city of Ararat, a vast conglomeration of neighborhoods of varying historical flavors, with children bound to workhouses, nobles smoking cigarettes and scheming, multiple temples worshipping multiple gods, and some of those gods arriving at unpredictable intervals to foment change in everything from the layout of streets to modes of transportation.
That last change is only one result of the Bird-God's passage, which takes place just as outlander Arjan comes to the city. Bringing "the gifts of flight and freedom," the god infuses a workhouse boy with the ability to fly, frees an ocean-going ship from the pull of gravity, and makes many of the natives restless (though its effect on Arjan is less obvious).
The captain of that ship, Thunderer, still serves a devious Countess and mourns a lost love, so rather than marvel at his new opportunities he tends to brood on the sudden uselessness of his hard-won skills. It's different for his men:
One-eyed scar-faced grizzled old hands suddenly catching themselves laughing, giddy as serving maids on carnival. Perhaps it was the lightness of the air, or the nearness of the sun. Perhaps it was that the city they inhabited was so different: no alleys, no filth, no beggars, no shadows; only rustling flags, and weather-vanes, and the golden spear-tips of the spires; and more often, there were only clouds and birds.
While the poverty and decadence below remain, just the sight of the new airship inspires a kind of fever in those who see it.
There are many ways to feel that fever, many forms of hope and anger. One band of street boys, the Chaste Flame, are a kind of junior Taliban intent on scourging the city of its moral impurities by burning down inns, whorehouses, theaters and the like. Their ranks are growing, since "There's a lot in this city want to see others' pleasures burn," as one character says. Jack, the boy with the gift of flight, establishes his own band (the Thunderers) and his own quest, less vicious than Chaste Flame's but nonetheless driven by a grand ideal.
Arjan the newcomer, haunted by a fragment of pattern and melody he calls the Voice, falls in with a creative, dissident group. These are the people whom Captain Arlandes dubs "queers and intellectuals and subversives," savvy enough to move beyond popular idealism and share what he has come to realize: both he and Thunderer could become very dangerous.
Gilman creates a rich stew of allusions, from quasi-Dickensian workhouses (and one woman reminiscent of Madame DeFarge, here a devotee of the Spider god) to a Peter Pan made street-tough, in "interesting times" that evoke elements of Revolutionary France, the Sixties, and a world transformed by something like new technologies and armaments though initiated by a god, rather than human ingenuity.
If Jack's quest seems too messianic for your taste, Arjan and his associates can counter that with their endeavors, while the Captain becomes something of a tragic villain. The various plot threads lead to a powerful series of denouements that could serve as both endings and beginnings, extending beyond the city and deep into its heart. Whether or not Gilman returns to some of his surviving characters in future work, I don't think we're in danger of any cookie-cutter sequels from this talented new fantasist.
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