All of this is basically to say that Gilman--who is nominated for the Campbell award this year, and is certainly my choice for the win--is a very good writer, and wastes no time in proving it. Thunderer's first chapter is a panoramic introduction to the novel's main characters as they experience the event that sets each of them on their path throughout the novel--Arjun, a traveler arriving in the city of Ararat; Holbach,a scientist getting ready to conduct the most important experiment of his career; Jack, a teenager preparing to escape from the workhouse in which he's spent most of his young life; Captain Arlandes, about to experience the defining tragedy of his life--but it is also an intensely kinetic scene. The narrative swoops in and out of the lives of the different characters because it is following the Bird, one of Ararat's divinities which is gracing the city with a visitation. Holbach's experiment is an attempt to capture some of the bird's magic and use it to his, or rather his patron, the Countess Ilona's, ends--to raise her warship the Thunderer into the sky, thus cementing her dominance over the city. Gilman's description of the Bird's arrival and Holbach's experiment is suffused with motion and activity, and at points quite overpowering (it also put me in mind of several similar scenes in Miéville's novels, most particularly the capture of the avanc in The Scar).
The Bird curves itself in space toward the balloon, leisurely, as if curious about this bright clumsy challenger. Then it rushes suddenly forward, its presence sharpening into a line across the sky. The balloon leaps and the Countess's men are dragged from their feet and let the ropes slip from their burnt and bloody hands. Lucia shrieks. The Bird soars close past the balloon and the feathered cloud following the Bird engulfs it for a second. Half obscured by the flock, the balloon seems to turn itself inside out, and for a moment it becomes a great pair of wings, sixty feet of azure taffeta spread out on the wind. The wings beat once, then the fabric falls slowly to the ground, curling smokily in the air. The basket drops, not slowly. The little menagerie of birds in the basket takes flight, their wings whole again, and joins the god's flock.(It is perhaps worth noting that all of the characters mentioned here are men. Though there are women in the novel, they tend to stand out less. The Countess is more an éminence grise than a character. More central than her is Holbach's attorney Olympia, who is mentioned obliquely in this chapter but not introduced for several more. She, however, is the only main character without a trajectory of her own, and spends the novel advancing the agendas of others and getting caught in their wake.)
The main plotline of Thunderer reads very much like Perdido Street Station retold with Yagharek as the protagonist. A newcomer from a foreign culture arrives in the city looking for help--Arjun is a devotee of the god known as the Voice, whose presence has receded from the monastery at which he's spent his life. He's come to Ararat, the city of gods and a sort of gravity well for divinity, in the hopes of finding it again. To this end he approaches a scientist who is associated with a bohemian, freethinking set--Holbach's efforts on the Countess's behalf fund the Atlas, the definitive portrait of Ararat through which its compilers hope to expose the city's workings and spur its inhabitants to improve on them. This group is a target of the city's authoritarian rulers--in Ararat, mainly the censors who view any attempt at cartography as heresy, but also the ruling powers of the city who fear the change the Atlas might bring about. The scientist's investigations (or, in Thunderer, Arjun's pursuit of the leads Holbach offers him) inadvertently unleash a dangerous being into the city, which menaces its population and finally threatens its very existence, placing both the scientist and the newcomer at odds with the city's rulers even as they scramble to save it. A secondary plotline follows Jack after his escape and draws on a different literary source, as Jack, whom the Bird has gifted with the power of flight, becomes an emblem of freedom and gathers around himself a band of similarly lost boys who spend their days thumbing their noses at authority. The blatant Peter Pan reference seems to be the only reason for the existence of a third plotline, revolving around Arlandes as he captains the Thunderer and sinks further and further into depression following the death of his wife during its raising. Despite showing us Arlandes's growing detachment and his willingness to perform greater acts of cruelty on the Countess's behalf, his story ultimately fizzles out, and the character seems to exist mainly to act as the Captain Hook to Jack's Peter.
Of course the true main character of the novel is the city itself. Gilman has the knack of making Ararat seem not only believable--complete with different neighborhoods, each with its own flavor and social set, theaters and music halls, restaurants and cafes, businesses and warehouses, a vast array of temples and places of worship, parks, prisons, statues and landmarks--but incomprehensibly vast. This vastness is brought home by Holbach's Atlas, which, in its fourth edition and comprising dozens of volumes, still can't capture the true form of the city, which anyway changes faster than it can be described. Though most of the characters in the novel make some attempt to shape Ararat, the sheer size and complexity of the city means that their efforts have chaotic, unpredictable effects, and even the most powerful characters such as Ilona and her political enemies find themselves powerless before the mass of the city and its collective will. As in Perdido Street Station, it is Ararat's survival that is the novel's primary concern. The monster Arjun releases into the city--a demented river god who spreads disease and turns people into zombies--is a threat not because it kills people but because those deaths threaten to send the remaining population away, to turn Ararat into a ghost town. Like Perdido, Thunderer ends with its main characters dispersed, damaged, and for the most part frustrated in their goals, but the ending is nevertheless a satisfying one because Ararat has survived.
Gilman's one original touch in Thunderer is the god angle. Ararat is home to a thousand divinities, each with its own followers and places of worship, and each with its own irrational affect on the city--the Spider, whose followers receive cryptic instructions to change their lives according to a master plan they can't see; Tiber, a pillar of fire; The Spirit of the Lights, whose appearances blind some of those who see it, and leave others incapable of seeing anything "but colors and glitter and star-blaze." It is precisely this proliferation of gods, however, that leaves Ararat's natives intolerant of Arjun's single-minded devotion to a god who has abandoned him. They view it as a selfish obsession, an addiction, and Arjun himself begins to question his devotion after his encounter with Typhon, the river god he inadvertently infects with humanity and turns into a monster. The loss of self Arjun experiences with Typhon is so similar to his single, life-changing spiritual experience with the Voice that he begins to question his faith, and to wonder whether the gods aren't simply, as Holbach describes them, forces of nature, to be studied like the tides or the weather.
It's an interesting approach, but it feels underdeveloped. Though Gilman contrasts Arjun's devotion with Holbach's scientific approach, there's very little comparison between Arjun and believers within the city, so that the notion, raised several times throughout the novel, that Arjun is fundamentally different from a native of Ararat because he isn't accustomed to a profusion of gods is left unexplored. Gilman also doesn't do enough to distinguish the Typhon from any other kind of supernatural menace--for example, Slake Moths--and only introduces, but doesn't really explore, the idea that it's the touch of humanity that turns the god monstrous and makes it loathe its disciples. There are a lot of bald statements when it comes to religious attitudes--mainly Holbach, Olympia, and even Jack's belief that Arjun's faith is a selfish addiction--but very little explanation of them, or exploration of their subtleties. Ultimately, the religious theme is overpowered by the novel's plot. By the end of the story, when Thunderer's plotlines tie into one another and become the single story of Arjun and Jack's last stand against the Typhon, the monster's divinity feels almost incidental.
A sequel to Thunderer, Gears of the City, was published late last year. The brief excerpt from it which appears in Thunderer, and its plot description, give me hope that it both moves away from established Miévillian plots and does more with Ararat's unique characteristics--not only the proliferation of gods but what appear to be gateways to alternate dimensions or past and future versions of the city, through which Arjun learns to navigate. Whether or not it does, I think that Thunderer establishes Gilman as an author to watch. It is, despite being derivative, an excellent, exciting, and extremely well-written novel. Though I certainly hope that Gilman goes on to make his own unique mark on the genre, he's done enough to earn my attention and wholehearted recommendation.