Terry Weyna wrote about Thunderer on Reading the Leaves, so when I was in Copperfield’s Books a few weeks ago I picked up a copy. We’ve become so habituated to fantasy trilogies, tetralogies and dodecologies that we now need a term to differentiate a story that finishes up in one volume. That term is “stand-alone.”
Thunderer, Felix Gilman’s first novel, is a stand-alone. Even though he has created an elaborate city, Ararat, as a backdrop, and given us complex characters with competing needs, he wraps up this story in one book (the nerve of him!)
Ararat is an unmapped city filled with gods. There is Tiber, the flame, deity of justice and punishment, and the Key and the Chain, partner-adversary gods who rule the labyrinthine prison called the Iron Rose. Followers of the spider-god engage in a strange lottery ritual, while actors and performers worship Lavilokan, god of reflections.
Arjun is a newcomer to the city, pursing his own people’s vanished god, the Voice. His arrival coincides with the return of another deity, the Bird. Magical power flows in the wake of this entity. In another part of the city, one of the city’s aristocratic rulers, Countess Ilona, uses a ritual devised by her tame scientist-philosopher, Professor Holbach, to siphon off some of the Bird’s power to drive her magical weapon, the flying warship Thunderer.
With her enamel-thick white make-up, her fascination with sailors, and her intricate, cruel plots, the Countess seems like a very, very very bad version of Queen Elizabeth I. The Chairman, one of her rivals in the city, has the control and resources of a Mafioso, to the third power. These city rulers function independently of the gods, at a higher echelon than the characters we follow.
At ground level, we see Arjun on his quest, which brings him into the range of Professor Holbach for a while. We also share the adventures of Jack, an orphan escaped from a workhouse, who has absorbed some of the Bird’s power. Arlandes, the embittered captain of the Thunderer, also has a part to play. There is another character, the enigmatic Shay/Lemuel, who may travel through time and who in interested in the nature of the gods.
The gods of Ararat are real. One of them, damaged to the point of madness by Shay’s experiments, begins a supernatural war against the citizens of Ararat. Arjun must work with Jack, the flying boy, to stop the god and save the city. While a humanly-engineered civil war rages around them, Arjun and Jack try to find the key to defeating the maddened god.
Gilman describes the city in snatches, by building, by neighborhood, the way a stranger might come to know it. Arjun is a decent man, brave but not fearless, intelligent but not brilliant, devout in a city whose believers range from fanatics to skeptics. He is forced to violate his personal code at times, but he never does it lightly, and remains, in the end, a good man and a true spiritual seeker.
Arjun saves the city and continues his quest for the Voice. Because the metropolis of Ararat convolutes both space and time, I wondered whether, with the song Arjun introduced into the city early in the book, he had in fact planted the seed that would grow into his own god.
Thunderer is a stand-alone, but Gilman is writing another novel set in Ararat. It look like the elusive Shay/Lemuel has inveigled another person into a strange and dangerous adventure.