The Revolutions by Felix Gilman – Book Review [Bane of Kings]
Milo, aka “Bane of Kings”, turns his attention to Felix Gilman’s latest novel, a steampunk/science fiction novel dealing with space exploration. Entitled The Revolutions, you can find it published by Tor Books in the USA and Corsair in the UK.
“A flawed but fun high concept steampunk novel that is pretty entertaining to read.” ~Bane of Kings, The Founding Fields
Following in the fine tradition of Felix Gilman’s spectacularly reviewed Half Made World comes a sweeping tale of Victorian science fiction, space exploration, and planetary romance.
In 1893 a storm sweeps through London, while Arthur Shaw—a young astronomer with a side career writing fiction—is at work in British Museum Reading Room. The storm wreaks unprecedented damage throughout London. Its aftermath of the storm Arthur’s prime literary market closes, owing him money, and all his debts come due at once. His fiance Jo takes a job as a stenographer for some of the fashionable spiritualist and occult societies of fin de siècle London society. Meanwhile, Arthur deciphers an encoded newspaper ad seeking able young men. It seems to be a clerking job doing accounting work, but the mysterious head man Mr. Gacewell offers Arthur a starting position at a salary many times what any clerk could expect. The work is long and peculiar, and the men spend all day performing unnerving calculations that make them hallucinate or even go mad…but the salary is compelling.
Things are beginning to look up when the wages of dabbling in the esoteric suddenly come due: a war breaks out between competing magical societies, and Arthur interrupts Jo in the middle of an elaborate occult exploration. This rash move turns out to be dire, as Jo’s consciousness is stranded at the outer limits of the occultists’ psychic day trip. Which, Arthur is chagrinned…
Steampunk is one of my favourite genres, and as a result despite not being familiar with any of Felix Gilman’s novels I was looking forward to reading this one when it came through my front door mainly because of the concept, which sounded like it could be excellent. Steampunk with space exploration? That sounded like a must read to me, and whilst The Revolutions did impress in some areas, there were other parts where it didn’t quite meet the mark.
The Revolutions is a fun, inventive and imaginative read that’s a bit different from your average novel. It’s not quite your typical Steampunk fiction either, with a big element of science fiction, specifically space exploration, being included to make for a read that’s got a wealth of ideas on offer. You won’t quite have seen anything like it before, and that can be both a good thing and a bad thing. The good thing is that you won’t feel like you’re reading something that you’ve already read, but the negativity that comes with this is in times, it can often feel too confusing especially when there are several questions that don’t get answered over the course of the novel.
It does help though, that the novel itself is well written, with a confident narrative voice and strong prose. The characters are interesting, with Arthur Shaw, a young astronomer and writer leading the way and whilst they never quite leave a lasting impact on the reader they’re more than satisfying people to spend a novel with. You won’t be put off by them, for example, and rarely do they make stupid decisions that will throw you off. However, the side characters don’t get the same amount of attention, with the likes of Lord Podmore, Atwood and others perhaps not receiving as much pagetime to flesh them out properly.
The Revolutions has some excellent world building going for it. You really get a good feeling behind what Gilman has created, and there’s a lot of depth here. It also helps that the book moves along fairly swiftly as well, not quite a page-turner but there are certainly slower novels out there. Despite having a steampunk feel, and something that could be classified as part of the genre (like I’ve done in this review) the novel doesn’t spend a lot of attention on the steam element, focusing more on different elements that will become more clear if you read the novel.
There are some issues with the plot, however. For example, Arthur’s writing is ignored once we’ve been introduced to it and only receives a passing mention at the end, and a focus on an important character’s death which does originally seem of huge import, is ignored and when brought back, is solved in an underwhelming way. I would have liked to see these two issues been expanded upon in more depth, thus allowing for a more concrete novel.
That said, there’s plenty to enjoy about The Revolutions despite its problems. The aforementioned quality of prose is part of what still manages to make this book entertaining, and the ideas presented mostly pay off. It never feels dull, and there wasn’t any point where I wanted to abandon it completely. There was always that hook that kept me turning the pages and it’s something that should apply to your reading experience as well, because despite its flaws, The Revolutions still comes with a recommendation, albeit a cautious one.