Thursday, 14 July 2011

Novel Review - Gears of the City

Imprisoned with a prophetic half human, half beast, the lost man learns his name: Arjun. Slowly the terrible memories emerge, and at last he remembers where—and when—he has been. . . .

In the last days of the once great city of Ararat, Arjun is just another ghost lost in the shadows of the Mountain. To some, the Mountain is a myth, to others, a weapon. Above all, it is a dark palace leaving its seekers to wander the city below. For no matter how far one walks, the Mountain never draws closer, and time itself becomes another trap.

Rescued by two sisters from the mindless Know-Nothings who erode what’s left of the city, Arjun volunteers to retrieve their long-lost third sister from a ghost like himself: Brace-Bel, another man out of time. It will require a perilous trek through ruins to a decadent mansion—one surrounded by traps and devices that could not possibly exist yet. And what awaits Arjun inside is something he could not possibly have imagined.

As he struggles to recover the lost girl and piece the fragments of his life back together, Arjun knows he must finally return to the beast to hear the rest of its prophecy. But each step is more treacherous than the last . . . and the beast who knows his fate may pose the most deadly trial yet. 


A reading of the first part of this duology is necessary to understand Gears of the City, and yet this is a very different novel to Gilman's debut. Thunderer, criminally, was never given a UK release, nor did it sell particularly well despite the slews of awards it could boast. It was a novel that was recognised by the people within the industry as brilliant, but did not get the public fantasy buying public onside. Hence, you've probably never really heard of it.

I loved Thunderer. It boasted a sharp and vivid style that verged on lyricism at times, and backed this up with a truly original and imaginative story. Ararat is a sprawling city that contains different times and cultures overlapping, and the gods walk the streets. It is a chaotic place, where reality is a lot less stable than it should be, and it, really, is the main character here. The protagonist is Arjun, a musician who comes to city looking for his god.

Arjun returns for the second novel, still searching. Here, there is a contrast to the overpowering bright and lurid world that seemed to ooze the fantastic in the first book; this is a post-industrial place, grimy and very much reminiscent of Thatcherite Britain. The gods are gone. Arjun is a different man, both because of the changed setting and the events that transpired between the first and second book. At the start he is an amnesiac, losing all sense of identity. This isn't played for mystery - the audience knows who he is already - but more to rebuild the character.

This is a very different book to Thunderer, but also the same. Gears of Wars takes much of the core aspects of the story he created and expands upon it, using the same ideas to show very different things. Certainly there is a sense of continuity, but not repetition. Perhaps many might be turned off of it by the difference, but for myself I found that the balance between new and old was well judged.

Gilman's stories are the type which could very easily be lost in what they are, in the chaotic flux of images and ideas, but like Thunderer there is also a very well crafted story. This books answers questions from the first book that don't seem to have an answer, but often they don't answer it fully enough to detract the mystery: it would be more accurate to say that Gilman gives you the information to fill in the gaps, leaving just enough ambiguity.

Perhaps the characters are the weak point. They are all well-rounded and complex, but they lack a point of emotional engagement for the readers. At the beginning of the book it feels like Gilman is struggling with Arjun's voice and character, and although this does settle down, Arjun retains the aspect of a vehicle for the story, more than a friend to take us through. The characters are all very distinctive and varied and interesting, however, so its hard to pinpoint exactly what is missing.

The way things are resolved is both very good and very rushed. It feels like Gilman may be a bit burned out, or may have ran out of time as deadlines closed in, as the core ideas here are very good and, really, the ideal way to finish the story. However, they are not given the time and development they warranted. Sure, they happen pretty damn quickly, but when you are reading your perception of time is already very skewed, so a sense of speed and suddenness can be still be conveyed even if the prose is not moving at a pace that reflects the events.

Much of the magic and wonder, too, is lost from the last book. The setting Arjun finds himself in just isn't as compelling. There is a desolation and hopelessness here. Gilman's sharp prose is a little bit at odds with the people and places he is trying to convey. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the book immensly. Gears of the City is a very worthy sequel and if you enjoyed Thunderer, you're cheating yourself by not reading it.

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