BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Arjun arrives at the foot of the Mountain at the end of the life of Ararat, still seeking his God in a world deserted by all gods.
PROS: Full of dark, haunting, horrific imagery, Gears of the City grips the imagination and doesn’t let go.
CONS: While Gears of the City is stronger on plot than was Thunderer, plotting is still Gilman’s weakness.
BOTTOM LINE: Gears of the City is a wonderful achievement that extends the promise of Thunderer, but we have not yet seen the full flowering of Gilman’s talent.
Felix Gilman appeared on the fantasy scene in late 2007 with Thunderer, a novel with a ridiculously generic cover but a fascinatingly unconventional setting: Ararat, a city of gods. This was a book written in jewel tones, with silk and polished wood in high places and lacy spider webs and glowing lamps in low. The city Gilman created was a place of endless wonder, filled not only with wondrous gods of all sorts, but with people who chose which god to follow based not only on whim, but on personal, actual, real interaction with one or more of those gods. And into this complex world came the naïve Arjun, searching for the god of music who had deserted his rural congregation for the bright lights of the big city. The story followed Arjun as he attempted to weave his way through the unmappable Ararat to find his god and take him home.
Gilman’s palette for Gears of the City is entirely different: industrial black, the gray of dust, dirty yellow, sickly green, and the dark rich red of fresh blood. Rather than returning to explore Ararat at its height, Gilman has surprised his audience by choosing to travel to the late days of Ararat, a time when the gods have all left the city for reasons unknown. The remaining neighborhoods are gathered at the foot of the Mountain, a mass that rejects visitors bodily. These people return out of time without knowledge of their identities, soon to wander off from what remains of civilization, presumably to die; they are called “ghosts,” for they know nothing of what has happened to them or why, and have forgotten their pasts.
Arjun is such a ghost when Gears of the City opens. Luckily, he has fallen into the hands of the Low sisters, Martha and Ruth, who take in such waifs and nurse them back to health. Ruth usually falls in love with them; Martha usually hopes to get some favor from them. The Low sisters live on Carnyx Street, near the Museum, a remnant of a past age when the city was filled with wonders. The Museum still houses those wonders, but it is closed and guarded, and the factories run the world. Life is grim and much is forbidden: musical recordings, maps, virtually anything that would add pleasure to a day. There is little point to life save survival.
Arjun recalls that he had a quest, but he cannot remember what it was. He begins to unravel every thread he can grasp in this mysterious city to try to recall his past, to remember the city, and, ultimately, to find his god. He tries to find the missing Low sister, Ivy, which means he must invade the debaucheries of the rich and privileged and seemingly eternal Brace-Bel. He tries to find the Beast who promised to tell him his future, and ate two of his fingers as payment. He remembers, finally, the evil Shay, who caged gods and taught Arjun to traverse space and time through melody, and tracks him down to his lair, in Shay’s many guises.
Perhaps because the setting and characters are so filled with strangeness, the plotting is confused and chaotic, and bears a resemblance to a nightmare. This may well be precisely the effect that Gilman is going for: this is Arjun’s life, and it is the life of the city. Ruth Low is the voice of reason in the book, the character who tries to make sense of it all, who tries to sort things out, but mostly she must simply endure and hope to make sense of what follows when everything finally unravels. The narrative seems to follow the path of a dream, as well, with events not always following a sensible or logical progression, and the reader is forced to wonder if Gilman seems so entranced by his city and his characters that he writes in an episodic fashion, with an overall plot seemingly only a distant perspective. Ultimately, one does see the final objective, but getting there is more a conglomeration of episodes than a smooth journey. Frankly, it is hard to care, because every page brings a new, ever stranger sight, an odder person, a more terrible relationship, a more frightening revelation.
Few young writers have offered the promise of Felix Gilman. As he hones his craft and learns to manipulate the tools of his vivid imagination, we can expect great things from him. Gears of the City is a wonderful achievement that extends the promise of Thunderer, but we have not yet seen the full flowering of Gilman’s talent.