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Thunderer by Felix Gilman

I have written book blurbs. It’s a mildly diverting game to capture the essence of a book and sell it to potential customers in the shortest possible number of words. The trick is to reassure potential readers that their money will be well-spent. So every book becomes the latest novel channelling Tolkien, Enid Blyton or some other literary heavyweight. As a recent experiment, I asked a question on LinkedIn, “If The Waste Land is a below-par gardening manual and Portnoy’s Complaint is about a diner who gets a poor meal in a five star restaurant, which works of literature do you find inspiring?” It was intriguing to find that half the answers were serious recommendation of favourite books. Obviously, any descriptive reference to a work of literature is potentially true and people “trust” what they see in print.

Most recently, I observed the adjective “Dickensian” rolled out in support of Thunderer by Felix Gilman. Perhaps it’s a reaction to time spent in school when I was forced to read him as a literary giant of the Victorian Age. Coming to an author out of choice always predisposes you to think better of him or her (until the reality of the reading overcomes initial optimism). As a rebellious teen, the well of resentment rose with buckets of scorn to pour over the teacher’s choice. As a social commentator, I concede that Dickens was reassuringly preoccupied with the problems of his age. But his prose style was often overwrought and the narrative shaped to the dictates of episodic publication. Although stated simply, the plots and their characters achieve some degree of timeless universality, they are mired in the language and sentimentality of his times. I have enjoyed some of the more modern BBC television adaptations. But, as someone to read with modern sensibilities, I do not recommend him.

Coming to the Thunderer, the plot may be stated simply. A man on a quest to find the voice of his god comes to a great city and, after some difficulties, manages to save the city from a great danger and, incidentally, stays hopeful that he will ultimately find what he is looking for. This takes some 527 pages. Let’s clear the decks for action. I am not against long books. All I ask is that the length is used constructively for driving the narrative forward. Thus, if a work is full of incident, I am prepared to accept a reasonable amount of background information to offer colour and context for these excitements. But this book is full of the worst kind of padding. We have a multiple point-of-view narrative structure with sequential chunks of text devoted to each major character. This is standard and the usual convention is that time starts to run at the first page and then continues sequentially or with some overlap until the last page when some or all of the characters have met and served their purpose as fixed by the author. In Aristotelian terms, this gives us unity of time and place as the author moves towards a logical (and, sometimes, moral) conclusion.

In this case, the primary protagonist is called Arjun and the first chapter enjoys unity of time as key players react to the arrival of a magical bird over the city where all the significant action occurs. Except the second chapter is largely Arjun’s backstory, simply dropped into the middle of the narrative as a lump of exposition. All of this content could have been slowly drawn out of Arjun as he meets different people in the city and explains why he has come. But this sets an unfortunate trend. Whenever we meet someone new or visit another part of the city, we get these information dumps. In the “good old days”, we praised most world builders, making exceptions for the obsessives like Tolkien whose interminable ramblings have been immortalised in uncountable numbers of posthumous books capturing his notes. But this modern drive to satisfy the apparent desire of readers to get “value for money” is leading to grossly overwritten texts. It is a reversion, but of the wrong type. The reason why Dickens put in so much background is because he had a word target to meet for each episode. So rather than rushing the plot to its conclusion (killing Little Nell had to be delayed as long as possible), he dallied in the descriptions and so maintained his income stream over the maximum possible number of instalments. The bean counters in charge of modern publishing houses also want the maximum number of words for the buck, regardless of the quality of those words.

The result is a book that could have been interesting if an editor had hacked away the unnecessary text. It is a work of metaphors. The city is mutable, shifting and changing its nature through space and time. At any one location, one might meet people out of time or from the future. It all depends on how you look. In this unmappable city lurk supernatural beings and those who would exploit or benefit from their power. Jack becomes a symbol of anarchic freedom. Arlandes becomes a symbol of raw oppression invested with tragic impotence. Then there is Holbach whose intellectualism marginalises his access to power and Shay whose various machinations destabilise the existing order of things. Among all these cyphers walks Arjun who vaguely follows the dictates of his quest until he is diverted by the appearance of a pestilent threat to the city. Frankly, I didn’t care very much what happened. The threat uncoils slowly and without much sense of menace. It kills people in increasing numbers, but that is it. It is perfunctory, a mere plot device because there must be something for Arjun to confront as a delaying tactic in the pursuit of his grail. The resolution is neither victory nor defeat. It is an ending in the sense that a cul-de-sac is an ending and so brings us to the end of this first instalment of journey in what will turn out to be a trilogy or more. Dickens would have approved of this device as a means of selling more books.

For reviews of other books by Felix Gilman, see:
Gears of the City
The Half-Made World
The Revolutions
The Rise of Ransom City.

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  1. June 1, 2014 at 12:30 am

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