Thunderer by Felix Gilman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Thunderer is a complex novel about an enigmatic, labyrinthine city with unknown boundaries; the bizarre, indifferent gods that flood its streets; and a cast of characters navigating this maze, foremost among them Arjun, a priest seeking his lost god of music, the Voice. And the list really should be in that order: it's first and foremost a book of setting, and everything else cascades from there. It's been a long time since I've read a book where the world was so perfectly integrated into and necessary to the plot. That aspect of the book is phenomenal, and leaves the reader with intriguing questions: how aware are the gods of their worshippers? Are they free-willed beings, or do they follow mechanical rules? Can the city be measured? What else lies within its walls?
Unfortunately, there were some ambiguities in the setting that detracted from it. I was never quite clear on the tech level. Sometimes, it seemed Victorian; other references seemed downright modern. Mostly, this was a matter of word choice.
Outside of the setting is where this story falters. The primary "romance" in the book is emblematic of much of the decisions the characters make: an accommodation of convenience, not love, not even lust. Only Jack seems to put his claws into a goal and go for it wholeheartedly; the other characters stumble through, letting themselves be detoured because they can't see a clearer way to their goals. This keeps the emotional timbre of the book low throughout, with one major spike near the end ... after which it drops off to attempt a second, lesser climax.
On the positive side, I enjoyed the way the characters didn't quite intersect or interact, but rather passed each other - or rumors of each other - on the vast streets of their tiny corner of the city. When they finally do collide, they do so with powerful literary momentum, and the result is the most satisfying section of the book.
Ultimately, this book was interesting and impressive, but left me cold. I don't know that I care enough about this absorbing setting to read the sequel.
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