Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Felix Gilman - Gears of the City

This is how a city is built. Bit by bit it all locks tight together. When the lights come back the visual world will force itself on him; in the dark he can build the city himself, from these familiar fragments. He closes his eyes tight.

Listen: this is how a city is built from music.

There is something missing in it. (p. 14)

Gears of the City is the sequel to Felix Gilman’s debut, Thunderer. Thunderer was a book of distinctive prose and a vividly rendered (though somewhat incomprehensible) city, but it was let down by a looseness of pace and plot. Gears of the City exacerbates both of those flaws…and yet it is an absolutely excellent read. This is a book made by the prose. I'm not sure that it's possible to ever understand Gears of the City without reading it, so I will, when I can, try and let the characters and the world speak for themselves.

This story is both grander and smaller than Thunderer, more focused on the central mysteries of the world and yet filled with fascinating characters and their problems small and large. The city shapes whatever is within its boundaries and makes telling any normal story in its setting impossible. These characters are not ordinary people. Even the most mundane of them is larger than life, monolithic in their eccentricities, more brilliantly overblown actors on stage than anyone you would ever meet in your street, like a cast entirely populated by the electrifying and enigmatic stars of other stories:

My name is Brace-Bel, and a byword for evil. Here, now, in these last days, my reputation is still young; a poisoned seed yet to grow. My time, like yours, was many centuries ago, and far away, and I am forgotten. Like you I am a man out of time. Once I was before my time; now I am behind it. But if all time in the city is one time – as I believe that it is – and down some strange turn of hidden streets we may wander into years thought lost to us and find the long-dead still living and breathing and fucking into existence generations paradoxically unborn in one place and gone to dust in another – well then there still exist places where mothers warn their children to behave or Brace-Bel will take them; where preachers bellow against Brace-Bellism; where gutter-witches invoke those potent syllables Brace and Bel against their enemies to make maidens sterile and young men mad. (p. 114)

In the same way that the day to day struggles of Ruth and Marta, sisters in a ruined district who are struggling to survive, is elevated to the level of heroics, the central mysteries of Gilman’s world are equal parts unapproachable and human. The Mountain itself, the central aspect of Gilman’s world, the loadstone that bears the entire weight of the city, is never understood, and the reader can never do more than gape at it. At the same time, those who search for it are flawed beyond belief, twisted by their desires and, in turn, twisting the world around them:

There were theories – in the laboratories in Zubiri they spoke of the Mountain as a singularity, a weight around which the possibilities of the city revolved. In the bloody war shrines of the Red Moon city, they said that the Mountain was the home of the cruel Gods of the city, the one unconquerable place in the world, the ultimate challenge. In Huiringa, and Slew, and on Crabbe’s Lake, they said that the city was built by the Gods, that it blazed and sparked with their energies, and the Mountain was the black cold slag-heap of the wastes the great work left behind – but Crabbe’s Lake and Slew and Huiringa were Ages of heavy industry, and that was just how they saw the world. In Pyx they thought the Mountain was the graveyard were Gods went to die.

In the bars where the madmen and seers who’d Broken Through gathered, the rumor was that it was a kind of machine – the maker and unmake of the city. The engine of time and possibility. The prison, the fountain of Gods. The most coveted weapon in the world. St. Loup sometimes said it was a palace, and smiled his handsome smile over the prospect of its harems and it’s women. Abra-Melin and Ashmole believed it was a kind of vast alchemical crucial. One by one those madmen got greedy, went looking for the way up, and never came back… (p. 207-208)

The intersection between the bizarre realistic, or at least semi realistic, is where the majority of Gears of the City lies. There is one revelation near the end that’s a tad hard to swallow at first, but Gilman succeeds overall in grounding the fantastic in the mundane and the other way around. His characters generally fall on one side or the other of the divide, frequently either trying to disregard the city around them or ignore its details, but both approaches often lead to problems for their practitioners.

In my review of Thunderer, I talked about how the city of Ararat felt elusive and impossible to ever really grasp. The city of Ararat is, here, covered in grime and darkness, and it looms above and below us as it surrounds us. Everything here is strange, even grotesque. This city is unknowable, but it is beautifully unknowable, immense and incalculable to such an extent that its streets are oppressive with the surrounding buildings’ weight. Every once in a while, there is a moment where the city or the characters seem to be about to classify themselves, but they never quite do. 

So there’s atmosphere and setting and characters and all that, but where’s the plot? Well, the plot of Gears of the City is wholly a result of the characters and setting. There are plot driven and character driven books, and this falls so far to the latter end of the spectrum that (short of a uselessly broad summary: characters try and reach the mountain, say) it’s incredibly difficult to actually say what the plot of the book is. The progression of events is so organic that it generates all the messiness that a half dozen characters all striving in different directions would be apt to make.

This can occasionally lead to moments where our expectations turn out to be horribly, sometimes even annoyingly, off. After the prologue, which deals with Arjun at the height of his powers and in the middle of his search, the second chapter at Ruth and Marta’s shop feels like a brief detour, and that impression is confirmed when Arjun wanders off again to continue his quest (though he’s no longer so sure what his quest actually is). But then what’s this, he’s turning around? Yup, turns out Ruth and Marta are actually the center of the plot, or close to it. Similar moments occur at several points, leaving us with a narrative where it’s hard, sometimes, to tell if you’re in the climax, the buildup, or just drifting on a tangent.

Which isn’t to imply that Gears of the City is a confusing work. Every aspect of the tale makes perfect sense, if you simply follow Gilman through each of the steps in order. This is very much a work that must be allowed to wash over you. You have to let the prose and characters take you where they want to take you and show you what they want to show you; any attempt to wrest control away from them will just end up with bewilderment.

Between Gears of the City and The Halfmade World, it is no longer an adequate description to say that Felix Gilman is one of the most promising new authors in fantasy. Felix Gilman is not only the best new author of the last several years, but also one of the most unique and engrossing authors within genre, regardless of timeframe. If your tastes tend toward the weird and bizarre, there is no reason to not be reading Felix Gilman.

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