I had to wonder as I read Felix Gilman’s novel Gears of the City (the follow up to his debut novel, Thunderer) if he is an obsessive writer. He must be. The sheer density of the world he creates in both landscape and in movement through that landscape, is immense. The word that kept coming to me as I was reading his work was “thick.” Some writers populate their stories with lots of space and diversity, with intricate and twining storylines coming at you from many angles. Gilman does this as well, but in a very tight, almost claustrophobic way, that works incredibly well in his tale of a potentially infinite city, and the mysterious and impenetrable mountain that rises and rules above it.
In Thunderer, we met Arjun, a traveler who had come to the city Ararat in search of the musical god that had abandoned his people after centuries of singular worship and adoration. His journey was obvious – the City is a place of gods. Detached and aloof, they move through or reveal themselves within the City as forces that impact the inhabitants but are either completely unaware or uncaring as to the effect that they have on those inhabitants. Arjun hopes that the Music god of his people has for some reason migrated to the realm of the gods, although that hope is faint and born out of desperation.
Arjun does not find the god he seeks, but he does find the shadowy figure of Mr. Shay (who offers fragments of the gods themselves for sale or barter), and learns how to move between different aspects of the City – between sections of the City, between ages, and even between possible iterations of the City, by using doorways that appear when he follows the everyday music of his current location; bird song, funeral dirges, the whistle of the wind through pipes. While Arjun does not know where those doorways will lead him, he is able to retrace his steps once he has passed through, thus learning a kind of pathway through aspects of the City.
He also meets (and re-meets, again and again) a motley assortment of like minded travelers, obsessive and competitive, always moving through the City in an attempt to find the objects of their obsession that are evidently located on the elusive and dangerous Mountain that looms above the center of the City. Some believe the Mountain holds great wealth or ultimate power, others believe it contains the greatest beauty and most glamorous opulence. But the Mountain has its own defenses; all the doorways leading to it are locked, and those who have attempted to scale the Mountain have either returned mad and raving, or have not returned at all.
Okay, that’s the prologue – ready to start the meat of the book? (Maybe you’re getting an inkling of what I meant by “thick” now.)
Having escaped the immediate dangers of Thunderer, Arjun again sets out in pursuit of his missing god. Along the way, he loses all memory (perhaps from an assault on the Mountain?) and finds himself in an unfamiliar aspect of Ararat at a time that feels like the end – although the end of what (the City itself? the presence of the gods? the tyranny of the Mountain?) is unclear. Trapped in the deepest, dankest basement of the Museum of History and Natural Wonders, along with a caged Beast of indeterminate age and intelligence who speaks and claims to be able to tell fortunes, Arjun only escapes after being bitten in exchange for knowledge.
Arjun is then taken in by Ruth, one of three Low sisters born to an eccentric man known as The Dad who long ago abandoned the girls, leaving them in a house full of strange outdated machines, rusted and perplexing gadgets, somewhat bizarre taxidermy attempts and various other strange and sundry items of forbidden value (like books and vinyl records). The youngest sister, Ivy (the “smartest” and the one most like The Dad – his favorite), has also disappeared, although Ruth and Marta know where she has gone – or was she kidnapped? They simply cannot breach the daunting and lethal defenses of the decadent traveler Brace-Bel, holed up in his mansion of opulence and debauchery.
It is in this setting that Arjun determines to make his stand, and to fetch Ivy back from the Brace-Bel compound. Agents from the past attempt to recruit him for their campaigns against the Mountain, and hollow men pursue him for reasons he cannot wholly remember, but in Ruth he has found an anchor; in her struggle to endure he can pause long enough to cement a sense of purpose and to establish a determination to repay the kindnesses shown him by the two Lowe sisters. And although nothing ends up being what he anticipates, and even though all of the stories his life has passed through end up being even more intricately entwined in Ruth’s singular story than he ever could have conceived, he is still able to hold on to that one thread of tangible reality.
Gilman is a master of setting the stage and tone of his City, (not always bleak), and has an uncanny ability of pulling the reader through all the iterations of the City, succinctly and without overtly romantic overtones but with deep, underlying emotion, carefully restrained and practical – just like his characters. Life is desperate for many of these people, and is a huge, dangerous game for others, and the element of discovery is sweeping for all of us.
Characters mentioned in Thunderer become players in Gears of the City, and major characters and incidents in Thunderer are often mentioned in Gears of the City, tying both ventures together, but Gears of the City is really its own story, far more focused than Thunderer with a much more dire outcome (end of time, anybody?). But still, the incidental weaving of the two stories helps to ground Gears of the City in a bigger universe than is evident in the single work alone. One of my favorite crossover moments is when Arjun enlists the help of some freakish birds that we find are actually a deconstruction of characters from the first book:
The birds began to scatter and regroup. The dirty air was full of wings and cries of alarm and hate. They gathered jealously around the heaps of rubble in which they’d hoarded their treasures of thread and silk and bright metal. Some of them landed with a thud in front of Arjun’s feet and hopped forward shouting. Others lifted their shiny keepsakes in their claws and took to the air, weaving nervously back and forth between empty towers and broken windows, looking for safe hiding places.
It’s not necessary to know the evolution of those characters, but knowing does make the continuing story more precious, and gives Gears of the City a weight that is not necessary but is very satisfying.
Many people have created worlds for their characters to inhabit, and others have built amazing cities that populate their work, but never before have I read the work of an author who so intricately has wound city and characters and story into such depth. Never have I read a work where the different layers of reality and pathways – real enough pathways – where the characters walk have been so thick with history and possibility, and yet been so coherent to everything within. These books are to savor. Like I said at the beginning of this review, I worry that Felix Gilman may be an obsessive author to have come up with such a world. But if indeed he is, then we are the ones that benefit from it.