Thunderer is Felix Gilman’s debut novel. Gilman chronicles the quest to understand the divine and the challenges involved, even when the divine is plain to see. One man’s journey to find his God and return Him to his people, with no idea what awaits him in the Holy City of Ararat; one group’s clandestine mission to undertake a work of such staggering hubris and ambition, that their lives are forfeit if the wrong people discover their plan—through these two stories and their surrounding subplots, Gilman shows that anything can happen in the City of the Gods, even the completely unexpected.
A Sweeping Metropolis
The primary action of the novel takes place in the city of Ararat—readers may know of the Turkish mountains of biblical fame—and these kinds of allegories to existing real-world mythology and spirituality are common throughout the novel, adding to the epic sweep and feel of the work. The city of Ararat is so huge that even people who have lived there for years don’t know how large it is. The presence of the divine warps the streets; there are no accurate maps of Ararat. The scope of the city pulls you in and keeps you interested in the ways the various characters move throughout the city and interact. A deep mythology permeates every corner and cranny of the massive space, and the path of discovery taken by several of the characters is fascinating enough to make a novel in itself. For everybody who has read and enjoyed the massive world-building exercises of Jordan or Tolkien, the depth and degree of this city—which is still simply a city and not a world—is staggering. I hope that Gilman turns his elaborate designs to yet larger scales.
Of Gods And Men
The presence of the divine in Gilman’s world colors every aspect of the plot. Our protagonist is a young man who has come to the city in search of his God, completely unprepared for the size and complexity of the geography, the politics, and the philosophy at work in the great city. Traveling there from a small jungle community, for whom the size and sprawl of the city is as much myth as fact, he is overwhelmed by the sheer breadth of Ararat. Trying to fit in while finding the theologians and priests who might help him track his lost Deity, he ends up discovering more than he bargained for. He falls in with a group of men who have undertaken an extremely dangerous and blasphemous project: a comprehensive atlas of the city. In a place where the Gods walk the streets and leave those roadways changed simply by their passage, such an atlas is the height of heresy. Every project is secret, every person brought into the endeavor is an added threat to their safety, and they risk the umbrage of the Gods themselves.
It’s a debut and it shows
As engaging as the storyline is, problems with flow and pacing show this book to be the author’s first. Gilman takes some time to get into the meat of the story, and some of his word choices leave a little to be desired. I came somewhat close to putting it down in the first 50 or 60 pages, but decided to stick it out on the strength of its potential. Gilman finds his rhythm by the mid-point, and from then on, the book becomes much more enjoyable. Still, the novel reads very much like the author is unsure of himself and is experimenting with different writing styles. I have no doubt that once he settles into a consistent style, he’s going to be producing many books with very engaging stories.
Why should you read this book?
While it starts out a little shaky, taking longer than necessary to find its feet and start off running, this is an enjoyable story in which the characters grow increasingly engaging as the novel progresses. Gilman has created a very deep and extensive city—a design that allows for a whole host of later works. I really do hope to see future novels from Gilman that take place in Ararat.
The novel also conveys a lot of interesting ideas about religion and the nature of faith. Those of a more philosophical bent will find that the interactions between the secular and divine inspire intellectual thought. The storyline involving the effects of an atlas of the city especially speaks to the idea of faith as a construct versus faith in beings which are obviously present.
All in all, if you’re willing to suffer through a new author’s inexperience, this is a very enjoyable read, with a great deal of potential for the future.