I'm not certain if it is a new trend or the peak of a rising and falling trend in genre fiction, but cities are suddenly vogue. Between the New Weird's urban settings—especially those of Mieville—and fantasies like Scott Lynch's Locke Lamora series and Jay Abercrombie's First Rule series, cities are becoming central to the stories currently being told. And the cities that are being written about are described in ways that permit people who talk about the stories to describe the cities as "characters" as I have I a number of recent posts. At the same time, I have felt the need to equivocate a little, because certainly the cities don't act; they are just extremely powerful settings.
And then along comes Felix Gilman's Thunderer.
The city most of the story takes place in, Ararat, has an evocative name, though I can't find a good tie between the name and the role the city plays in Thunderer. Ararat is the largest city in the unnamed world of the novel, and it is huge, apparently eclipsing such modern cities as New York and Tokyo; so large, in fact, that most of the action of Thunderer takes place in a few neighborhoods that appear to approximate the size of more famous fantastical cities like Leiber's Lankhmar. There are constantly hints about other regions of Ararat, including the mountain the springs up out of the center, and about which no one knows very much but many stories are told.
What gives Ararat a personality beyond the sheer size is that Ararat is the city of gods; deities dwell in Ararat and interact regularly with the citizens who live there, whether those citizens are worshippers or not. The opening scene of Thunderer epitomizes this interaction: the protagonist, Arjun, arrives in Ararat just as a god known as The Bird manifests over the city. The Bird is a giant white bird of no named species that flies over the city causing miracles in his wake. Not only is The Bird trailed by more mundane birds of all species as it moves above the city, but people in its wake feel lighter and are able to jump higher. One boy, who eventually earns the name of Jack Silk, escapes from a factory school by leaping off the top of his factory in The Bird's wake and finds himself able to move supernally faster than other humans and also able to fly, even after The Bird disappears from Ararat's sky. In addition, a researcher, Professor Holbach, under the employ of the local ruler, somehow captures some of the essence or power or just magic of The Bird's flight and is able to use it as propulsion for a warship, the Thunderer. The ship lifts itself out of the water and becomes the most powerful weapon in Countess Ilona's arsenal, stoking pride in the inhabitants of her demesnes and fear in the hearts of her rivals.
The rest of the novel intertwines the effects of the passage of The Bird in the lives of Arjun, Jack Silk, and Arlandes, the captain of the Thunderer. And though widely disparate, the stories do come together, in a fashion that would not be possible outside Ararat herself. Arjun himself is from a small town far to the south of Ararat and has been sent by his town's authorities to search for its lost deity, The Voice. Surely, they think, if a deity is to go anywhere, it would go to Ararat to live with others of its kind. Once there, Arjun must first learn how to live in a city of such size, and then I a city where the gods walk the street and play in the everyday lives of Ararat's inhabitants. Arjun, reeling with the loss of his own god, finds it hard to believe in any others, even though he witnesses The Bird in flight. But he interacts with their believers, and so gods like The Spider and The Flame—which he can see far away on the horizon at its home in Ararat—become more real. And then, as his search for The Voice leads him to the mysterious Shay, who claims to be able to capture gods, Arjun angers Typhon, a river god that wallows in filth and disease and begins to hunt Arjun and all those he comes in contact with. Suddenly Arjun believes as he watches the destruction Typhon wreaks across the city even while the broken balance of power that Thunderer represents causes war to break out between rival rulers.
What causes Ararat to become so much more of a character than with other books is that in many ways, the gods that inhabit the city ARE the city, driving its weather and geography. Streets move without warning, creeks become rivers, and neighborhoods disappear. The inhabitants of Ararat accept this as normal, but Arjun, as our proxy, has difficulty handling the paradigm shift especially in the face of the other issues he faces. And eventually, when Arjun catches up to Shay again, he discovers even greater dimensions for Ararat than he could have imagined.
Thunderer is a rich and vibrant work, capturing the imagination of its readers easily and propelling them through the plot much as a traveler visiting Ararat. It took me to unexpected places, and I hated putting the book down for things like food and sleep. Though not as explicitly innovative as Mieville's New Crobuzon (Ararat's mortal inhabitants are human after all), it has similar depths and style. I'm very happy to have found this book and I look forward to proselytizing it nearly as much as I did Perdido Street Station. I also look forward to Gilman's latest, Gears of the City, with the further adventures of Arjun and his new found knowledge and skill.