I almost stopped reading Felix Gilman’s new magical sci-fi drama, The Revolutions, on a number of occasions. Not a terrible book, it can, however, make for a frustrating read, and though it largely makes up for it near the end, the beginning is a slog. Gilman won a fair amount of acclaim and stunning reviews for 2010’s The Half-Made World and 2012’s The Rise of Ransom City, and while his latest novel is an ambitious attempt to try to come up with something new and different, it never lives up to his earlier hype. The book tells a unique story, but it is the manner in which it is told that derails the narrative.
There is a lack of consistency that is by turns both aggravating and exasperating. Nearly each chapter hangs its hat on a new trick or trope, jumping into a new point of view, bouncing in and out of first and third person narration, and the constant back and forth is exhausting. Every time you begin a new section you pause to wonder what you’re going go get now. You can tell that Gilman does this in an attempt to add diversity, but instead of accomplishing that goal, it turns you off, because while some work well, others do not.
Some sections are fantastic. You’re fully engaged, the pace is brisk and even, and you can’t wait to move forward from one sentence to the next. But then there are extended passages where the momentum drops, the prose become stale, and you just can’t wait for it to be over. One of the weights of these areas are the minutiae, the intricate details that are supposed to serve as world building, but instead bog you down and distract from the more pertinent matters at hand. Set in 1893, you understand the impulse to include the particulars from that time, but the problem is that there is nothing all that interesting or informative about them. What you learn about the environment could have been lifted directly from Dickens or a high school history text. In this regard, there is little that makes The Revolutions its own.
The story follows a down on his luck journalist named Arthur Shaw who becomes entangled in the occult underworld of London, where dueling magical societies attack each other with violent storms. He and his cronies travel from dingy East End flats to the plains very near Mars. That’s a fantastic set up, but it takes forever to get there. Over the course of the first 100 pages or so you bog down in the details of Arthur’s romance with his fiancé Josephine and a mysterious new job, which is essentially accounting. Indeed there are many things off about this position, things that are important to the overall plot, but entire chapters go on and on about the work and the work place. After a while, you don’t care how strange and unnerving Arthur may find his tasks and you want to get to the point. All of the work these areas do could have been accomplished in a much shorter time, and smoothed the pace tremendously.
Gilman’s vision of Mars is a tip of the cap to the early days of science fiction, when the more speculative among us imagined a Red Planet that more closely resembled our own, full of creatures and civilizations and history. This is where The Revolutions is the most fun and where you’re really able to lose yourself in the story for the first time. The world building here succeeds where the earlier attempts don’t, but the issue is that by the time you get to this point, you’re already on the downward slope and you’re just anxious to keep the action moving.
Aside from Arthur, you have a hard time discerning the motivation for anyone. When Josephine becomes stranded, stuck on the astral plane in the middle of a psychic journey—something that doesn’t happen until near the middle of the book, and is where The Revolutions finally figures out what it wants to do—he will do anything he can to rescue her. The others in his company, however, have shadier purposes, which rarely, if ever, come to light. Wealthy, arrogant, and convinced of his own importance, Lord Atwood seems driven by a vague lust for power and glory, but everyone else seems to be involved in these unsettling endeavors just because they’re into weird shit and that’s what they do.
I don’t necessarily need a story to be laser focused and stripped of all subplots and asides. Most of my favorite novels drift and roam, it isn’t easy to accomplish, but it can be done. The Revolutions is, however, uneven and frustrating. Instead of acting, characters waste inordinate amounts in pursuits that turn out not to be particularly important. The most interesting component of the book, the magical war, is glossed over in the literary equivalent of a movie montage. You can almost hear “Eye of the Tiger” playing as you read. Both in the book and the internal journey of the characters that populate The Revolutions, you walk away wondering what’s the point?