Bantam Dell/Spectra, 2008
In this breathtaking debut novel, one man embarks on a thrilling and treacherous quest for his people’s lost god—in a labyrinthine Dickensian city that is either blessed . . . or haunted.
Arjun arrives in Ararat just as a magnificent winged creature sails over the city. It is the day of the return of that long-awaited mystical creature: the great Bird. As it soars across the land, as the city’s mapless streets are transformed, as the great river changes its course, as the territories of the city’s avian life are redrawn, crowds cheer and guns salute. Then comes the time for the Bird’s power to be trapped—within the hull of the floating warship Thunderer, now a living temple to the Bird, and a terrible new weapon to be used, allegedly, in the interests of all of Ararat.
Hurtled into this convulsing world is Arjun, who will unwittingly unleash a dark power beyond his imagining—and dare to test Ararat’s moving boundaries. For in this city of gods, he has come to search among them, not to hide.
I will admit to initially having a hard time getting into Felix Gilman’s first novel, Thunderer. It’snot that it wasn’t evident from the first page that Gilman is a gifted writer, and that the pages to follow would be full and imaginative. I honestly think it’s because I was a bit misled from the onset – the title and the cover art made it seem like Thunderer was going to be the story of an airborne war vessel, and while the ship definitely is a major development and ushers us into Gilman’s world, there are so many more catalytic forces in this complex and involving novel.
And what less would you expect of a novel that is, in part, about gods? Or rather, the effect of gods on the societies that are caught in their wake: transforming when they appear, decimating when they disappear, terrifying when they become aware. (Lest anyone be wary that Thunderer is an ecclesiastical parody, it is not. The religions that abound in this book do not appear to be in parallel with their counterparts in our world, nor are there modern conclusions drawn from them to apply to our own.)
Thunderer follows the actions of four (major) individuals in the massive city of Ararat, whose lives are drastically changed on the day that the great white Bird god appears, bringing with its presence the inherent gifts of flight and freedom. Arjun is a foreigner from over the sea, who has come to the city in search of the music of the Voice, the one god of his people that has inexplicably withdrawn from them after generations. Stories tell that the great city of Ararat is the place of many gods, so Arjun travels there in the faint hope that perhaps the Voice has joined the other gods in that teeming metropolis. He arrives on the momentous day that the Bird god returns to the city, unaware of how drastically this occasion will affect his quest and his life.
Jack is a young boy who has grown up laboring in the dreaded silk mills of Barbotin House located in a squalid corner of the city, seldom seeing the light of day, with no future and no chance of escape. Except for this day, when the glorious white Bird returns, and Jack takes a desperate (yet covertly planned for) leap of faith from the roof of the concrete and stone workhouse, changing his life – and the life of the city – forever after.
Holbach is a scholar in the employ of one of the most powerful rulers in the city, the aging Countess Ilona. Smooth, plump and genial, it is Holbach who has predicted the Bird’s return, plotting it to this very day, and who has engineered the intricate workings of a massive balloon attached to the frigate Thunderer, “pride of the Countess’s small fleet and veteran of a decade’s campaigning out in the far reaches of the Peaceful Sea”. If Holbach’s calculations are correct, the gift of the Bird god will raise the Thunderer airborne (and raise his political profile), for the benefit of all of Ararat and of science; but just how blindly does he turn his eye from the potential it has of being the most powerful weapon ever seen?
The dashing and noble Captain Arlandes, pride of the Countess’s forces, beloved commander, doting fiancé – he is the one poised to command the Thunderer once it has taken to the skies. He will be the figurehead of this new wonder, and will lead it through uncharted elements. But even at the moment of this grand accomplishment, before he can face any glory and acknowledge any triumph, he is forced to behold a tragedy that will mark him forever, and make a mockery of the honor bestowed upon him.
Yet the most pervasive “character” in Thunderer is not a person, but the city of Ararat itself. It is immense, even infinite perhaps, at the foot of the mysterious Mountain that no one has explored (for any who make the attempt either return mad, or else do not return at all). The city is an enigma; shifting, changing, non-chartable, with depths and heights full of gods both ancient and new. Dickensian in environment and temperament, the city is squalid, gritty and mean, and is overrun with competing factions both political and sacred. The plethora of gods who inhabit the city do not interact with their worshipers, but burn or surge or inhabit not only unconcerned for, but unaware of, the humans who prostrate themselves before the god’s effects, who sacrifice to them or build structures and establish orders in their honor. The humans worship in an effort to draw from the gods any scrap of their inherent influence or power, or to band together under a banner of parochial unity and protection. The effluence of the gods is real, but is not always substantial – when it is not consuming.
There are many, many imaginative layers to this story, and many, many more characters that populate and weave in and out of the city and the lives of those four I have mentioned, but to go any farther would simply complicate an explication that would better unfold by a reading of the book itself. Thunderer, transcendent of its title, is not a quick read, nor is it one that will stir great waves of emotion or passion, but it will clutch at your imagination and lead you into a world of back alleys and grand schemes, despair and hope, and will transport you to a land where the very fabric of society is decayed and flimsy, but still woven very, very tightly. The narrative may start slowly, but by the time you turn the last page you feel you have not read a story, but gained a world.