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The Revolutions by Felix Gilman

June 1, 2014 5 comments

The Revolutions by Felix Gilman

The Revolutions by Felix Gilman is slightly frustrating. It starts off like an express train. Some of the language is at a level of delight not even dreamed of by any other book I’ve read in the last twelve months. We’re recreating the world of an alternate history late Victorian London so the prose style borrows many of the stylistic touches of the period and updates them for modern consumption. If this had been done straight, it would quickly have grown boring. But Gilman has invested such wit into the language, his sheer playfulness carries us through the great storm, through the first meeting of our romantically entangled couple, and into the meat of the initial action. Unfortunately, we then get caught up in a less dynamic section of plot which, by comparison, falls rather flat. The best way to understand the problem is to see our two lovers. As is required by the social etiquette of the day, this is the Victorian version of Chaucerian courtly love with the couple falling in love with the idea of each other but not doing a great deal about it other than walk out together whenever they have the chance. So when Arthur gets sidetracked by an increasingly obsessional interest with earning enough to pay off his debts, he effectively cuts off Josephine. Out of desperation, she makes a monetary deal hoping to buy his intellectual and financial freedom only to find herself trapped “somewhere”.

To understand the problem, let’s briefly survey the situation. Lord Padmore is the British media magnate who owns all the major newspapers and represents the conservative forces, i.e. he prefers the status quo to prevail against the forces of revolution represented by Lord Atwood and his rather more cosmopolitan followers. There’s a nice joke that the newspaper owner turns his editors into mindless zombies who follow every command of their owner. This transient state is introduced by a ritual drinking of printer’s ink which has been spiked with the appropriate magic juice. In many ways this is typical of the patchy quality of the metaphors at work. Some ideas work well, but others fail to take off because the characterisation is thin. This makes the ideas rather more wooden than living. Put simply, the book describes a fight for political power between groups who believe magic is real. So when the great storm hits London, one side is convinced the other invoked the storm to throw off their magical calculations for astral projection to other planets. It’s possible Josephine really has been able to master astral projection and is genuinely stuck out in the spheres, or she was hypnotised and is now catatonic but dreaming. The editors really may be controlled by magic or value their jobs sufficiently to act like thugs when their master calls on them. In other words, for much of the book, there’s an ambiguity about whether the use of magic is anything other than self-delusion or a very strong group belief system. Only at times, e.g. the fight in the Savoy dining room, does the magic seem to be shown as real.

Felix Gilman

Felix Gilman

So let’s now assume the entire psychic science is real and the magic works. Where does this leave us? Well, through Josephine’s eyes, we get to see both of the moons of Mars in their post-apocalyptic state after a war of magic wiped out life on the surface of Mars. If we go back to the devastating storm that hits London in the first few pages and then imagine such climatic events endlessly repeated until civilisation is smashed into the ground, you have the right picture. As is usually the case, Mars the planet offers a cautionary warning of the effects of long-term war. In theory, this is what Lord Padmore is trying to avoid on Earth. Having read about the decline and fall of Rome, he’s aware empires can sow the seeds of their own destruction. He’s therefore out to prevent Atwood from pushing his revolutionary ideas of interplanetary travel. So this nicely encapsulates the problem with the plot because both are prepared to fight the war to stop each other. Now we could say this is a classic example of willful blindness, that neither side wants to consider the possibility their own actions may precipitate the end of Earth’s civilisation. Or it could be hubris. At an individual level, it never occurs to the leaders of either side that they cannot win the fight quickly and easily, i.e. they believe the war will do no lasting damage. Or raising this up to the level of humanity, each interested party from France, Germany, America, China and Britain assumes their own sphere of influence will be unaffected if there’s fighting. Unlike Rome, their empires will never fall. All this could be made to work if Atwood’s motives for wanting to explore strange new worlds was made explicit. Then we could judge the extent to which the fighting might actually have some real meaning. As it is, Atwood and Padmore seem to be disputing the right to freedom of action without consideration of the potential downsides. Atwood wants to push the boundaries of science to explore or, perhaps, because he’s a dupe. Padmore considers it his duty to prevent any extraterrestrial exploration. Quite how he might be aware of any dangers is unclear. The book would be greatly improved if we understood the point of the fight and could make an emotional investment in the outcome.

So there are some good ideas and some of the prose is spectacularly good but, somehow, the book fails to cohere. Because of the general lack of interaction between our couple, there isn’t quite the spark we would expect from a love interest. We understand why Josephine makes her bad deal and why Arthur feels driven to pursue her, but it lacks a real emotional connection. Some of the recreation of the science fantasy worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs and similar authors is fun, and there are odd moments of excitement as magicians duel. But, again, there’s a certain lack of tonal consistency. There’s great wit in the opening sections of London’s devastation, but the rest of the book is rather more serious. Overall, this means there’s much to admire about The Revolutions but, in the final analysis, it’s not quite as good a book as I was hoping for.

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

The Rise of Ransom City by Felix Gilman

November 15, 2012 Leave a comment

This review of The Rise of Ransom City by Felix Gilman (Tor, 2012) needs to start with one of the oldest jokes in the form of a riddle I know. It goes, “What’s the mystery about the idiom, ‘A fool and his money are easily separated’?” The answer, of course, is, “Where did the fool get the money from?” It’s the “ . . .upon their backs to bite ’em, and so ad infinitum.” wonder of where the first dollar originates so that it may work its way up through the layers of stupidity until it reaches the hands of the one clever enough to accumulate the biggest pile of loot. If I were to put this another way, I would be speculating on whether it’s possible to get something for nothing. In a capitalist market, only them as has the money can buy. There’s no profit in giving things away. But in markets with a more socialist inclination, there’s an acknowledgment that, where the poor are disadvantaged, you can redistribute commercial profit by discounting the goods or services to those in need or by the government taxing the profit and using the money for welfare purposes. Either way, the wealthy subsidise the poor. To regulate this fairly, you need a Social Apparatus that takes some input and then, so long as it’s safe, it runs itself, giving back to the poor. As a model, think of a player piano. Once you’ve invested the capital in building it, it can make music out of nothing for others, i.e. the machine is just a means to creating what others perceive as beauty in sound.

The only problem is that the workings of any such apparatus in this fictional half-made world would be next to magic. Even the inventors might not truly understand how these machines would work except that it certainly wouldn’t simply depend electricity. It would be an interaction between mechanical parts, a programming system and a power source. For many observers, it would be as if the machines had somehow achieved some kind of independent existence and that the best of them could transmit value instantaneously over wide areas, perhaps even distorting literal and metaphorical gravity in the process. This would make some rather dangerous, particularly if there were instabilities in the machinery. Perhaps they should only be put into use right out on the edge of the world where everything is being continuously remade and, if a little bit of this new land should happen to come unstuck from the rest of the world, at least the rest of the world would feel a little safer. Or perhaps these independent machines could only work where the laws of science no longer truly apply and imagination takes over.

Felix Gilman reminding himself what was in the first book

This blending of science fiction, fantasy and a little weird leads us to the war between the Line and the Gun which is the same animism but taken to a whole new level. When you have something as radical as an Apparatus based on the Ransom Process while there’s a shooting match going on between two supernatural/metaphorical forces, this is just one more variable in an already uncertain world. A steadying or balancing force is needed, and it may come through the people. There’s the inventor of the Ransom Process that powers the Apparatus and the apparently reliable Carver who, for a short time, joins the team and then moves on. Then there are the waifs and strays picked up on the road like the “Harpers” who aren’t who they say they are (like John Creedmore and Miss Elizabeth Alverhuysen). In due course, more than a hundred dreamers and drifters who are infected by Ransom’s optimism might join in as part of a crusade. Except that does not mean patriotism and the war. Whatever Ransom may think he has invented, he knows it should not be used as a weapon, but as a way of fighting for a better way of life. Except there’s nothing in this half-made world that says the Line or the Gun has to leave him alone. If there’s one thing that does not come cheap in this life, it’s change. People will always fight over ideas and defy the prospect of progress.

What makes the whole novel so fascinating is the picaresque style with disconnected autobiographical episodes from the life of the inventor, would-be entrepreneur Mr Harry Ransom, a man infused with the power of light while ill but not necessarily dying, edited for our consumption by Elmer Merrial Carson. He’s one of these Genius Jones type of men who are inspired by books to do great things, but aren’t entirely sure how to go about achieving them. This gives a slightly Micawber feel to their journeys of discovery, believing they will learn from their experiences and, in the end, hoping something will turn up to give the best result. In a world that’s making and unmaking itself at the edge, this is actually the perfect state of mind in which to travel across the landscape. For, surely, those who travel believing disaster will strike at any moment are likely to fall off the edge before too long.

The nice thing about this “sequel” is that it does follow on from the first, but only tangentially through a completely different point of view and with a radically different tone. In every way, it’s a delight to see the innocent Harry Ransom slowly learn about the world in which he lives and, to him more importantly, meet the man behind the book that so inspired him. The elegance in the irony of how that autobiography came to be written is just one more delight in a cornucopia of delights when you read this book. So watch as the hegemony of the Line fails. For all it has mass-production, organisation and ideology, it loses out to individualism. This is not to say capitalism has no place in the world when it has finished its initial burst of growth. There will always be a need for business and “profit” but it should always be subordinated to the needs of individuals. Think of it as a process of worship. Initially, the notion of capitalism or socialism seems so powerful, large numbers will uncritically worship. Other time, however, the worshippers begin to see flaws in the beliefs they hold. Their intensity waivers. Walls fall. Assimilation and integration occurs as the world slowly changes itself. But, of course, just as old beliefs fall from vogue, new ones replace them. Despite the centuries of human history, we’re still only half-made and there’s no end in sight. And that’s really the point of Ransom City. It’s the ultimately unattainable Utopia that’s always just within your grasp but never actually reached. It’s a metaphor for society’s holy grail with the quest described here as an allegory. As a final thought, this is a sequel and so you will not understand the real power of The Rise of Ransom City unless and until you have read The Half-Made World (and catch the simple elegance of the jacket artwork).

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

The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman

February 26, 2011 1 comment

In two recent reviews, I’ve been underwhelmed by an allegory (1) and a postmodernist novel (2), finding their execution without real meaning or purpose. In a single sentence, my objections would be: there was no internally consistent explanation of what was going on and why. The title, The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman, captures the problem in the construction of any allegory or metaphor. All authors of fiction send out their characters to explore an imagined “place”. Publishers impose limitations on word count. We readers only have a limited amount of time. The result? Authors exploring every last nook and cranny would bore us to tears with their attention to detail. With a limited number of words to describe this fictional “world”, the poor writers cover as much ground as possible offering mere hints and allusions. The best pick their areas of interest carefully and then ruthlessly explore them. As an example of the best in allegory, Smallcreep’s Day by Peter C. Brown gives us a factory as a simplified model of society with two or three clearly-drawn individuals as archetypes for major groups of people in the real world. The whole becomes a microscope through which to view the world.

In this book, Felix Gilman offers us a world that, at its Western edge, is literally still being made. This is a physical process with land being created out of “nothing”. The idea that something is not yet complete tempts us to believe there cannot be a consistent explanation of what is happening. Yet, even with everything unfinished, we can look beyond the physical process and see underlying principles at work.

However, since this is another duology like Thunderer and Gears of the City, we have to wait for part two to see exactly what Gilman says has been happening and why. This review is therefore provisional just in case I need to be wise after the event when I get to the end.

For now, I take the central metaphor to be that all cultures and subcultures are works-in-progress. Societies are dynamic and continuously evolving as different factions and groups compete for dominance. Underpinning this process are the forces of the mind. Both consciously and unconsciously, we are driven by primal emotions. Fear of attack by outsiders encourages unity. Love of an idea like “democracy” or “libertarianism” drives political movements. Jealousy of others’ success leads to ghettoisation and pogroms. As Gilman explains, the volksgeist or spirit of the people creates reality out of these emotions.

“We made Gun out of our spite, and Line out of our fear, and this poor thing out of our sorrow.” p. 233

This is a parable about America. It began life on a small, and so manageable, scale in the North East. But, when explorers reported a wilderness in the West, the “country” was thrown into a ferment. It has been continuously remaking itself, trying to integrate all the different contending forces into a single nation. The railways physically opened up the wilderness by enabling rapid transport across vast distances. The lines symbolised progress and a commitment to future expansion. Settlements were founded and the discovery of mineral wealth encouraged further Western migration. Industrialisation began to accelerate the growth of wealth. Capital relies on freely available labour with just enough education to serve its ends and no more. Knowledge for its own sake is unnecessary and potentially encourages labour to be dissatisfied with its lot. Slavery and indentured labour maximise profits. And the gun has major cultural significance. It’s the means of independence, having driven out the European states that would have continued their old dominance in the New World. With the development of the revolver and winchester, one man could have the firepower of a small army. It was also the means of suppressing the aboriginal inhabitants as settlers demonised the Red Indians, scapegoated and then exterminated them.

So which is the best system? The order imposed by a Republic, the communal or hive-like social structures surrounding resources or factories, or the rugged individualism that explores new territory? Think of the Luddites who burnt down mills and destroyed the machines. The movement grew out of the discontent of the English working class in seeing the destruction of its lifestyles and enslavement in factories. It only takes one or two agitators to tap into this anger and you have an army. Maverick individuals like John Creedmore will always be a destabilising force, undermining the structural hierarchy that best supports the capitalist system. They are usually idealists who become focussed on defending themselves from the organised world and, in their own self-interest, defending others from exploitation.

Lowry has been socialised into a world of work. You might expect him to show symptoms of alienation or anomie, assuming Marx, Durkheim et al were correct, but he’s determined to fit in and get ahead. Even though he knows the system expects depersonalisation and the subordination of self for the benefit of the owners, the practical reality is that the owners need people who can think for themselves and show initiative when the unpredictable happens. Worse, the owners expect their operatives to be ruthless in suppressing, if not exterminating, the cause of any problems. So Lowry is monomaniacal within the structured environment of the stations. Send him into the field and he has no conscience when it comes to collateral damage, destroying whole towns and communities. He’s even prepared to lead from the front in a little hands-on torture. This is the ultimate soldier, prepared to read the Riot Act and lead his troops in a killing frenzy when faced by unarmed civilians. But what happens when he is pitched into an environment where technology does not work? Strip away his lifeline of communication with the owners and deplete his troops, what are we left with?

Our third principal is Liv. She comes all unworldly from the ivory towers of education, full of presumption to believe her knowledge can reshape the as yet unmade social world. When she finds a rump of the old Red Republic, she’s told, “There in the old North, the world is long since made and ordered, and perhaps you may take it for granted.” (p 364) In the dynamic world being remade, the fixed political structures of the Red Republic were a hindrance. What holds back progress must be pushed aside by those with the wealth and power. Think about a modern banking system out of control, ignoring the political structures and wrecking a country’s economy in the pursuit of private profit at any cost. Equally, there may be others with a different political philosophy who fight against the order and structure of big government. Their fears and suspicions fuel a desire to dismantle the apparatus of a state, to return to a simpler version of life in which people can be more self-sufficient.

Psychology can take a mechanical view of the mind, defining it in terms of different cognitive functions, or it can be skewed towards behaviour and the interpretation of how people interact. While in the House Dolorous, Liv meets different archetypes who see the conflict outside as merely the product of their own imagination, or whose behaviour becomes so autistic that they cease all interaction and, when they tire of the world, they will themselves to die. People are the sum of their life experiences and, as groups, they are socialised into conformity with the prevailing norms of society. If this means “leaders” can convince the group they are being stalked by terrible beasts, their fears will make those beasts seem real. They will modify their behaviour accordingly. Perhaps a major symbol from the past, like an old General, long thought dead, could rekindle interest in reforming the systems in play. Before the half-made world is finished, it might be nudged into a more benign form, say, through a process of death and rebirth.

The Half-Made World is completely fascinating, cloaking some very sophisticated ideas in a reimagined version of the Wild West. The hidden hands of wealth and power are represented through animism — engines and guns are the physical presence of supernatural agencies that dispute control of the land and its people. Our three leading characters (plus the General) come together in the partly made land, leaving everything to play for in the concluding volume. Judging by Gilman’s performance so far, each book has been an improvement on the last. I am hopeful he will prove to be one of the best of the writers of what we might call fantasy shading into weird. I had the same hope for China Miéville, but that’s not looking so good these days. Gilman may avoid Miéville’s self-indulgence and become the more reliable purveyor of edgy and thoughtful fantasy.

Jacket artwork showing an evocative ornithopter by Ross MacDonald.

For reviews of other books by Felix Gilman, see:
Gears of the City
The Revolutions
The Rise of Ransom City
Thunderer

(1) Meeks by Julia Holmes.

(2) The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer.

Gears of the City by Felix Gilman

July 9, 2009 1 comment

As age has taken away the essential vitality that used to encourage me to action as an entrepreneur, I have turned to this strange new virtual medium. I come from an antediluvian world of publishing in which typesetters were the masters of hand compositing. Their work was the essential precondition to the printing of physical copy. In those days, we all knew the costs of what we did at every stage of the process of snatching words from the aether and transforming them into text. Now, with an amused detachment, I watch the accretion of millions of my words in this paperless environment. For my commercial output, I know who commissions and buys my words, and I understand how their business models work. But the economics of free sites like this puzzle me. The costs of the servers and bandwidth cannot be absorbed out of altruism. Yet, in sites like this, the masses have access to a virtual publishing system with no apparent costs. It’s as if we have suddenly strolled from a real world into a metareality where different rules apply and the machinery of commerce works in a counterintuitive way.

The Gears of the City by Felix Gilman is a sequel to the Thunderer and I confess to some trepidation when I picked it up. Having been less than enthusiastic about the first, you may raise an eyebrow in surprise that I should even bother with this second volume. But, despite its flaws, I had seen enough in the quality of the writing to hope that Gilman would rise above the episodic and overwritten recycling of old plot devices.

To my surprise, Gilman has returned with a seriously good book. Gone is the insistence on extravagant gestures. There are no giant birds capable of sharing their power of flight with escaping boys. Pestilence does not literally walk the streets. Instead of juxtaposing set-pieces, he adopts a carefully understated form of narrative in which the development of events is more natural and flows more coherently from the initial proposition.

It seems that our primary character from the Thunderer, Arjun, has ben able to penetrate the defences of the mountain in search of his lost God of music. This was a distant and enigmatic peak, always somewhat out of focus in the first volume. Since he could not find his God in the city, the mountain would have been the next logical place to search. Yet he has not only lost his memory, but he is also pursued by implacable enemies — presumably guardians of the mountain. From this starting point, a taut plot operates as a form of mirror image of the first book. In Noises Off, Michael Frayn leaves the proscenium arch in place but allows us to see behind the scenery and reveals the mechanics of a stage production — see it in a theatre and avoid the ghastly film version. In some respects, Gears of the City has a similar metafictional aim because, having seen the big magical bird in the first volume, we are now given theories as to what it and the other “Gods” may be and possible explanations of their function. As the title suggests, the author is disassembling the engine that drives the city so we can see more clearly how it works.

Although we have yet to meet the original builders of the mechanisms that power the mutability of the city and provide the opportunity for magical beings to exist, there is a clever exploration of the tendency of both real and metaphysical systems to degrade. This is not, strictly speaking, entropy because the city and its machinery might have the capacity of a Phoenix: out of destruction might flow the energy to create new possibilities — a kind of big bang. Alternatively, the machinery and its current operator may have reached a point where age brings an end to everything. For example, if the city was no more than the dream of a dying man, it would cease to exist when the man died. You may justly find this notion confusing. How could the characters in a possible dream affect the direction of the dream? Some day, you must ask an author whether the characters of the protagonists in a work of fiction determine the narrative arcs involving them or set the ending of the novel.

Thus, this book is on a mission to rescue the excesses of the first in what could become a successful series. More clearly rooted in a dystopic version of the city sited in the foothills of the mountain, Gilman is exploring the idea of how we perceive the world around us. In the real world, there is a structural layering of tangible and intangible values. Neighbourhoods vary in the physical quality and amenity of their local environment. The commercial values of the properties reflect the desirability of living in each area. Cultural and class boundaries overlay the physical structuring. Yet the majority of citizens remain largely oblivious to all the socio-cultural rules that restrict their freedoms. This gives the few who “see” their surroundings clear opportunities to transcend the rule systems. This may result in manipulation to preserve the status quo or represent a form of rebellion. How much progress in any direction a given group of activists makes is determined by their strength of will.

The main characters in this novel are archetypes including an organiser who builds for the future, a senior police officer who believes the end of stability justifies all means, a debauched man who seeks insight through excess, a pilgrim in search of his God, etc. Each character represents a virtue or a vice and it’s through their interaction that a satisfying conclusion is reached. With this second book, Gilman demonstrates a better command over the craft of writing and deserves watching in the future. It’s a shame you have to wade through the first to get the greatest enjoyment out of the second. But that’s all part of the cost you have to pay to get to the metareality.

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

Thunderer by Felix Gilman

June 30, 2009 1 comment

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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