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Monday, December 17, 2007

"Thunderer" by Felix Gilman

Official Felix Gilman Website
Order “ThundererHERE
Read An Excerpt HERE

Is it too early to be discussing the Best Fantasy Debut of 2008? Not necessarily. There’s already a pretty strong buzz surrounding Orion/Gollancz’sThe Red Wolf Conspiracy” by Robert V.S. Redick, Jonathan Barnes’The Somnambulist” is making its US debut in February, and there are a few other titles starting to build their cases. Into that mix I’d like to throw in Felix Gilman’sThunderer”. Though technically a 2007 release (December 26th), the novel will probably get its strongest marketing push in the New Year and deservedly so.

Before expanding on that, I’d like to thank Jeff VanderMeer for the heads up on Mr. Gilman’s debut—not only did Jeff mention it on his website
HERE and conducted the author’s first-ever interview HERE, but he also praises the book pretty generously along with fellow writers Brandon Sanderson, Tobias S. Buckell, Drew Bowling and David Keck. One caveat Jeff mentions though is the cover art. In my opinion, the artwork is somewhat generic and doesn’t really help the novel stand out from other fantasies, but before you judge the book by its cover alone let me just remind you that it’s what’s on the inside that counts ;)

Another thing worth noting is how the book opens. To put it briefly, Felix Gilman tries to kick off “Thunderer” with an exciting flourish, introducing readers to the legendary city of Ararat just as the Bird-God is making its long-awaited return, bestowing its magical gifts throughout the city. Unfortunately, the execution is a bit clumsy as the narrative jumps from one point-of-view to the next with haphazard glimpses of the book’s main players before culminating with the mighty warship Thunderer capturing and harnessing the power of the Bird-God for itself. From there, the story takes a little detour, revisiting the past of Arjun Dvanda Atyava and explaining his reason for journeying to Ararat in the first place. It wasn’t until about page 40, that Felix really started to find his groove as a writer and from that point on, it was nearly impossible to tear myself away from the pages. So just a warning—“Thunderer” may suffer from a somewhat rough beginning, but once the story gets going readers will be duly rewarded.

On that note, what an interesting concoction Mr. Gilman has conjured up! First, we have the aforementioned Arjun—a devout member of the Choristry which served the Voice through song and music—who has come to Ararat in search of their missing god, and in the process, unwittingly unleashes a damaged deity that could spell doom for the entire city. Then there’s Jack Sheppard who uses the Bird-God’s return to escape from his workhouse prison, returning to his former life as a street-kid where he discovers that he’s been blessed with amazing powers and starts up a gang—the Thunderers—in the name of freedom. Arlandes meanwhile, is serving Countess Ilona as the captain of the most powerful weapon in the city, but his promotion is marked by the death of his young bride Lucia who was killed during the Thunderer’s awakening. In addition to these main narratives, we also have supporting characters Professor Holbach and lawyer Olympia whose roles are important in tying together the many different subplots, which also includes an Atlas, censorship and revolution. Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, there is Ararat—a sacred city of a thousand gods and a thousand lords whose very fabric is ever-changing. It is a city that is unmappable and some say, infinite. And for me, it was easily the most fascinating character in the book blending Victorian influences (guns, typewriters, gas lighting, chapbooks, noble politics, et cetera) with astonishing mythology such as a thousand-year old pillar of fire, a spider god whose servants worship a lottery, the Iron Rose mechanical prison, and a man who sells imprisoned gods. There’s much more to Ararat than that but readers will definitely want to experience the city for their own.

In addition to the Victorian-like setting and chaotic menagerie of gods & religions, an assortment of other flavors can also be found in “Thunderer”. For instance, during Arjun’s narrative the book sometimes delves into Lovecraftian gothic-horror territory when dealing with the river-god Typhon. At other times, “Thunderer” adopts an adventurous spirit akin to H.G. Wells or Jules Verne and even ventures occasionally into the realm of ‘weird fiction’ (China MiĆ©ville, Steph Swainston). When reading Jack’s POV, it’s impossible not to see the Peter Pan references and the Dickens theme is also recognizable. And towards the end, I was reminded of Neil Gaiman and such anime movies as “Spirited Away” and “Howl’s Moving Castle”. In short, there’s a bunch of different parts that make up “Thunderer”, but the first-time author is skilled enough to not only make it all work, but delivers the book with an impressive blend of detailed worldbuilding, unconventional plotting—several times I was surprised by the direction Felix took the story; a memorable cast of characters, and wonderfully polished prose.

About the only thing I can see going against “Thunderer”, aside from the cover and the weak beginning, is that the book is hard to classify. I mean is it epic or high fantasy? Urban fantasy? Weird fiction? Gothic horror? Dickensian? To be honest, I’m not sure how I would describe Felix Gilman’s novel but I think that’s a large part of its appeal. Because if you give the book a chance, you’ll discover more than just a living, breathing world full of marvelous and horrific wonders at every turn; a plot that is at once familiar, yet unpredictable and entertaining; and characters that dramatically evolve right up to the novel’s triumphant finish. What ”Thunderer” offers is an experience that’s not quite like any other fantasy novel out there, and for those that take the plunge, I think you’ll agree with me that Felix Gilman’s first novel deserves to be included in the debate for Best Fantasy Debut of the Year, whether it’s for 2007 or 2008…

NOTE: I’m not sure if there will be a sequel to “Thunderer”, but the novel’s finale definitely leaves room for future installments and I believe that Mr. Gilman signed a 2-book deal so I personally hope that the author will revisit Ararat!


Tia Nevitt said...

Great review! I have three debuts coming out on the 26th. I guess it's the date the publishing industry wakes back up?

Speaking of which, I thought you were closing your blog? Oh, that's right. You wrote all this ahead of time. You are downright inspiring!

Robert said...

Tia, thanks! Personally, I don't think the 26th was a good time to be publishing books, especially a debut, but hopefully they'll make up for it in early 08 because the book definitely deserves some attention...

Andrew said...

I picked this book up for 1$ at a dollar tree store, and what a treasure it is!

Liviu said...

I agree completely about all 3 novels of the author so far. This was the great start.


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