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Monday, December 22, 2008

“Gears of the City” by Felix Gilman (Reviewed by Robert Thompson)

Official Felix Gilman Website
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Review of “Thunderer
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s Interview with Felix Gilman

ABOUT GEARS OF THE CITY: In this stunning follow-up to his acclaimed debut, “Thunderer”, Felix Gilman’s brave hero returns from one thrilling and dangerous quest only to confront another. In a magical landscape where time is meaningless, reality precarious, and countless selves work toward countless possible futures, one man must seek a city’s truth—and rediscover his own:

Imprisoned with a prophetic half human, half beast, the lost man learns his name: Arjun. Slowly the terrible memories emerge, and at last he remembers where—and when—he has been . . .

In the last days of the once great city of Ararat, Arjun is just another ghost lost in the shadows of the Mountain. To some, the Mountain is a myth, to others, a weapon. Above all, it is a dark palace leaving its seekers to wander the city below. For no matter how far one walks, the Mountain never draws closer, and time itself becomes another trap.

Rescued by two sisters from the mindless Know-Nothings who erode what’s left of the city, Arjun volunteers to retrieve their long-lost third sister from a ghost like himself: Brace-Bel, another man out of time. It will require a perilous trek through ruins to a decadent mansion—one surrounded by traps and devices that could not possibly exist yet. And what awaits Arjun inside is something he could not possibly have imagined.

As he struggles to recover the lost girl and piece the fragments of his life back together, Arjun knows he must finally return to the Beast to hear the rest of its prophecy. But each step is more treacherous than the last . . . and the Beast who knows his fate may pose the most deadly trial yet…

A spellbinding novel of imagination and intrigue, “Gears of the City” will propel you into an adventure like no other, in a world like no other…

CLASSIFICATION: Felix Gilman’s debut was almost impossible to describe, and while “Gears of the City” is a little easier to classify, it’s still not your typical fantasy novel. In a nutshell, “Gears of the City” firmly falls in the category of ‘New Weird’, right next to books by China Miéville, Jeff VanderMeer, and M. John Harrison. In other words, you can expect fantasy, science fiction, horror, mind-bending surrealism and much more all mixed up together into unusual configurations. In addition to this, the book also exhibits some steampunk characteristics and brings to mind Catherynne M. Valente and Gregory Frost for its story-within-story elements. All labels aside though, “Gears of the City” is recommended for readers who like their fantasy imaginative and unpredictable.

FORMAT/INFO: Page count is 464 pages divided over twenty-eight chapters, a Prologue, and three ‘Books’. Each chapter is titled with hints about what to expect in that particular chapter—Example: “Darkness-Naming-Wounding-Flight”. For about the first 90 pages, the book follows the third-person POV of Arjun, but after that the novel alternates between the POVs of Arjun, Ruth Low, Brace-Bel, and Inspector Maury. Technically, “Gears of the City” is a follow-up to “Thunderer”—complete with references, continuing plotlines and such—but it’s not really necessary to read “Thunderer” first because the new book is mostly self-contained. Plus, with Arjun losing most of his memory in the novel’s prologue, “Gears of the City” does a good job of recapping what happened in “Thunderer”. As far as another novel set in the world of Ararat, that possibility is not completely out of the question, but “Gears of the City” does wrap up things satisfactorily.

December 30, 2008 marks the North American Hardcover publication of “Gears of the City” via
Bantam Spectra. Cover art provided by Stephen Youll.

ANALYSIS: Despite a somewhat slow and haphazard beginning, I thought Felix Gilman’sThunderer” was one of the best debuts I read in 2007 and couldn’t wait to get my hands on the sequel. Alas, “Gears of the City” was a bit disappointing…

I think the biggest issue I had with the book were the characters. Simply put, I just didn’t care about any of them, which was a little surprising considering that returning protagonist, Arjun, was fairly compelling in “Thunderer”. In “Gears of the City”, Arjun’s goals are still the same—he’s searching for his lost god—but Arjun himself is changed, twisted by what he’s seen and experienced in Ararat, and he’s not always likeable. Plus, as the other characters are introduced and as the story progresses, Arjun’s importance seems to diminish. Of the others, Ruth Low is central to the novel because of her connection to the Mountain, the mysterious Shay, and the Beast—as well as an unconvincing romance she develops with Arjun—but she lacks in the personality department. Brace-Bel on the other hand, has a very colorful personality and narrative voice, but since he’s quite mad, it’s kind of hard to root for him. Inspector Maury also has a distinctive narrative voice, but I felt his POV was kind of pointless and would have better served for one of the more interesting supporting characters like the Beast (Felix’s version of a dragon), Ivy—the youngest of the three Low sisters—or Shay himself. And arguably the most fascinating character from “Thunderer”, the city Ararat, just wasn’t as intriguing this time around. Overall, the characters in “Gears of the City” are an eccentric lot but not nearly as memorable or charming as Jack Sheppard and company in “Thunderer”.

Another issue I had with the book was the story. After a wonderful prologue that beautifully sets the stage for “Gears of the City”, the novel slows down considerably and meanders some before buckling down for an excellent finish in Book Three: The Final Expedition. Additionally, some parts of the story weren’t executed as well as they could have been such as the revelations towards the end which lacked an element of surprise. Also, there was a notable shortage of heart-pounding action in the book.

Now just because I had problems with “Gears of the City” doesn’t mean that it’s not any good. On the contrary, “Gears of the City” is a very good book, distinguished by Felix’s outstanding prose and imagination, some really superb dialogue—some of which is quite witty—and a thought-provoking plot that makes up for its deficiencies with pacing and execution with its unpredictability. Then there were the excellent stories-within-stories which I thought were some of the best parts in the novel. Besides all that, fans of “Thunderer” will want to read “Gears of the City” to discover the answers to the Mountain, its connection to Ararat, who Shay/Lemuel/Cutter is, and whether or not Arjun ever finds his god…

CONCLUSION: Even though I didn’t enjoy “Gears of the City” as much as I did “Thunderer”, I was still really impressed with the book, particularly its imagination, unpredictability, skillful writing and how different it was from its predecessor, all of which goes back to Felix Gilman who, after only two novels, has already established himself as one of the brightest new voices in speculative fiction. In short, I expect great things from Mr. Gilman and can’t wait to experience the author’s next creation…


Liviu said...

I enjoyed Gears of the City a lot though indeed it is a somewhat different kind of book than Thunderer, falling clearly into the New Weird side, while Thunderer was more on the border with more traditional epic fantasy.

However the style and tone of the book reminded me most of Gene Wolfe' Long Sun tetralogy with Pater Silk, the invisible Gods and the artificial but full of sense of wonder setting, than any of the classics of New Weird mentioned in the review.

Overall I had extraordinarily high expectations after Thunderer and Gears of the City met and even exceeded them.

Robert said...

I'm interested to see what other people think of "Gears of the City", especially those who have read and enjoyed Thunderer...

SciFiGuy said...

Sounds intriguing. Haven't read Thunderer either and it seems I missed out. Will check these out.


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