BlackRabbit’s #CBR5 Review #7: Thunderer by Felix Gilman

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t read as much fantasy/scifi as I perhaps should. Maybe it’s a comfort thing; I stick with what I like, even though I always try to encourage others to experiment. Abraham Lincoln said “The things I want to know are in books; my best friend is the man who’ll get me a book I ain’t read.” Thunderer is one of the few books I’ve picked up purely by impulse, not someone’s recommendation or a review I’ve read somewhere. New author, new story, new world, and I did not regret it.

The central setting of the book is a massive city called Ararat, a place so gigantic that whole neighborhoods are the size of small towns. Entire families and small empires might live and die in a single district, and the outer walls are not even a pondered legend. Into this endless place comes Arjun, a neophyte worshipper in search of his own god, which has recently abandoned its holy place. Ararat is said to be a city with endless beings, sometimes appearing in the streets, and he thinks he might find his own deity there. In the meantime, he supports himself by offering to map the city, a hopeless task which nevertheless gains him a shabby job. He’s brought something terrible with him into the city, however.

Another character is Jack Sheppard, an orphan boy who has decided to escape his poorhouse prison and use the power of a returning god, the great Bird, to do it. Harnessing the flight of the being to get out, he becomes a symbol of hope to the poorer citizens who are crushed under the heels of the city’s countless warlords. Another ambitious player is the Countess Ilona, who wants to capture the Bird’s power into a new weapon: an airship named the Thunderer.

All of these characters (and many more) are combined and set against each other in unexpected ways. The city itself is a character as much as any of them; the coming of both the Bird and Arjun change it in important ways, and not for the better. The massive size of Ararat is well-described and it made me dizzy to consider how suffocating it would be; not just the lack of freedom but the lack of the idea of life without walls and buildings. People are stamped and molded by not just the people who raise them but also the places they grow up in, and the people in the Endless City are no different.

It’s the simplest ideas that often make the best stories: last child of a doomed planet, the foppish playboy who’s secretly a vigilante, the good and evil of men made into human form and running amok. Thunderer isn’t a new concept on that scale, but it’s a new setting, and that’s sometimes all you need for a good story. Perhaps I should spend more time outside. Or at the bookstore.

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