Review of THUNDERER by Felix Gilman (see his website)
Spectra, December 2007
When the god he worships, Voice, vanishes from Gad, Arjun comes up with the idea of searching for Voice in the great city, Ararat. In Ararat, gods are abundant and it would be easy, he reasons, to for one more god to lose his way in that city. After traveling for months, he arrives in time to see evidence of those gods--a huge flame that continually lights the city, and a bird flying overhead that showers its powers down on the inhabitants of Ararat, temporarily gifting a few of them with the ability to fly.
Jack Sheppard has waited for the arrival of the bird and uses its passage to speed his own escape from a workhouse. Once free, he joins up with a group of other feral children and schemes to free more. Ararat teems with workhouses and prisons, and Jack embarks on a quest to free everyone. While the power the bird gave most of Ararat fades, in Jack, it seems to grow.
Scientist Holbach has predicted the return of the bird and convinced one of the city's nobles, the Countess Ilona, to invest in a balloon that will, Holbach believes, permanently capture a bit of the bird's power that would otherwise disperse into nothing. The experiment is a success, but at a cost, and the balloon, named Thunderer, becomes a part of the Countess's arsenal. While Holbach dreamed of using it to continue his vast survey and Atlas of the seemingly limitless city, the Countess plans it to be a weapon, allowing her to threaten her rivals without fear of retribution.
Author Felix Gilman shows huge promise in a fascinating and complex world where gods walk the streets, continually transforming the city behind them, where a few humans seem to have abilities that defy explanation, and where disease and corruption never lies far beneath the surface. The city of Ararat is really the primary character in this story, with Jack, Holbach, Arjun and the others serving mostly as opportunities to peer into other parts of the city, to see new sights and new dangers.
THUNDERER is Gilman's first novel and, despite its promise, it's not without flaws. The Thunderer itself never really plays an important role in the unfolding plot. The mysterious spider god shows incredible potential (and a number of pages are dedicated to this god) but soon fades and never really plays a role in the plot, either. As several people point out to Jack, his plan to spring workers and prisoners from their workshops and prisons is clearly doomed--if the escapes are successful, the newly freed prisoners have nothing to do, no money, no food--yet he seems incapable of doing anything else. Even Arjun seems to wander through the city rather. Only in the last fifty pages or so, when Gilman wraps things up, does Arjun develop goals and start to plan rather than react.
The best fantasy develops wonderful worlds that somehow reflect and shine lights into our own universe. But Gilman, in THUNDERER, seems to forget that it's necessary to have compelling characters and plot as well. There's a lot to like in this book and Gilman certainly shows huge promise. But that promise is only partially filled in this first novel.
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