by Felix Gilman
Thunderer is a thick book, and the first in a series. It’s very good. The story is a fantasy about a traveller and a city: a man looking for a lost god comes to Ararat, a vast and labyrinthine city filled with gods. But it’s more than that. This is a fantasy in the spirit of Iain Sinclair or Peter Ackroyd; it’s an urban romance, a fever-dream of an unreal city. It’s about the people that our traveller, Arjun, meets; it’s about the streets he wanders, the neighbourhoods he passes through, the artistic cabals he joins, the powers released into the streets of Ararat. It’s about the way those streets shift, are unknowable, unmappable. It’s about the way the city expands the deeper into it you get; how the more you learn about it, the more you realise there is to grasp.
There are bits and pieces of a lot of different cities, real and imagined, in Ararat. Overall, it has the feel of the eighteenth century, with one character more-or-less explicitly based around a legendary English criminal, and an association of scholars equally apparently based on the Encylopédistes. But there are bits of technology beyond that, and no real form of central government (Ararat is effectively made up of several countries). There are hints that the city is in decline, that it is fallen from what it once was, just as at the same time it is evolving from a more primitive state to a future which cannot be determined.
As a novel, the most impressive thing about Thunderer is the way it improves as it goes along. It opens with an appearance by a God, which is nicely-written; then it seems to settle down into a swift, simple story playing out through a number of narrative strands. Stylistically, although competent and smooth and clever, it doesn’t seem particularly exciting. But: the further you go into it, the more you realise that every character in the book has their own voice. Not only the point-of-view characters, not only the supporting characters they play off. Every character, from shrewish landladies to cadgy old bookmen to teachers recalled in a single flashback. All of these people — all of the people of Ararat — have their own voice, their own diction, their own vocabulary. It’s one of the truest evocations of a city I can think of; you come to know Ararat, not as a place, because it is too vast for that, but as a conglomeration of people — its controversies, its wars, its spirits.
This is the first book in a projected series, though it really is complete in itself. Arjun ends the book as a different person than he began it, but his involvement with the matter of Ararat is only beginning. Without meaning to say to much, by the end of the book he’s become a kind of ultimate flâneur; almost the incarnate equivalent of an Iain Sinclair book, connecting times by the walking-out of place. It’s a tantalising place to end, and I’m eager to read the next book.