Any reader of science fiction and fantasy will defensively tell you that books and their covers often bear not even a passing resemblance. This Star Wars-y cover featuring a 1980s vision of a harem girl and a dwarfish policeman? It's actually an intelligent and wildly fun coming of age story from one of the masters of the genre. This image of something like an Easter Island head mixed with Gumby, apparently winking at you? A beloved, influential classic. When I saw the cover of Felix Gilman's The Revolutions, I thought: Lord, let this book be even half as good, as intriguing and unusual, as its cover. To summarize the rest of this review: It is.
In the lower left corner of the cover, a newspaper headline announces the "Storm of the Century." This is where the story begins: a hurricane hits England in 1893, driving a Mr Arthur Shaw to take refuge in a stationary shop. There he meets Josephine Bradman, mild-mannered typist. Arthur and Josephine shortly find themselves very in love and very short of money. Both of them take work of a mysterious and vaguely sinister nature. Arthur works in the bowels of a vast and inscrutable Machine, calculating senseless symbols and numbers without discernible purpose. Josephine joins a Company run by the mysterious and highly suspect Mr Atwood. His group of magician-scientists is dedicated to a kind of occult, astral exploration, flinging their spirits into the void of space in an attempt to reach the red-dust deserts of Mars.
The plot thickens, as plots tend to do. Arthur's Machine burns down, and he comes to suspect that there are two forces of magic-workers opposing one another. Josephine casts herself into space more and more deeply. Both of them vow to have nothing more to do with such nonsense, but protagonists are rarely sincere about such proclamations. Eventually, one of Josephine's astral voyages is interrupted and her spirit is left floating in space, while her body lies inert in London. In his determination to save her, Arthur wades deeper into the magical fray and allies himself with Mr Atwood. Mars looms larger and larger on the horizon.
The Revolutions has been compared to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (2004) and there are more-than-superficial similarities between the two—both present a magic-infused nineteenth-century London torn by two theoretically opposed sides. But it's a bit cruel to compare anything to Jonathan Strange, because nothing has ever approached its rambling majesty (nothing, she insists, shaking her fist at the sky). Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell also had the advantage of an unusual clarity of identity and purpose. By contrast, The Revolutions appears to have had difficulty making up its mind. It's simultaneously a Sherlock Holmes-ish mystery thriller complete with secret societies of nefarious purpose, a surprising love letter to the golden age of science fiction, and a fantastical vision of England in the 1890s.
As a thriller, it suffers from an occasional lack of thrills. It's a meandering sort of story, with lots of waiting while a sense of dread and oppressive magic looms in the distance. The mysteries—the nature of magic, the nature of Atwood and his company, the reasons behind the opposition, the tragic history of Mars itself—remain occluded for a very long time, and are only partially revealed. It's often only Gilman's crisp, humorous writing that carries you through the slack in the plotline ("His eyes were round and watery, his eyebrows prominent and black and spiky, like little voles or marsh-rats come to drink at a puddle" [p. 53]).
As Victorian science fiction, The Revolutions is more successful. It's a rare writer that can pull off the word "Martian" without evoking the hokey absurdity of Mars Attacks. It just feels too well-trodden, cartoonish, something we left behind after the Cold War. But Gilman made me believe, for a while, in a darker, eerier vision of Mars unpopulated by tiny green aliens with centurion helmets. Mars and its inhabitants have a whole history and culture, simultaneously alien and familiar, and just as real as London.
It's the English-history-and-magic portion that most charmed me, though. Historically, it's a very credible portrait of London at the turn of the twentieth century, caught between the seductive allure of the occult and the heady rationalism of science. Many of the occult societies Gilman describes were quite real, as was the wider fascination with "believers, spoon-benders, table-rappers, psychometrists, levitators, mesmerists, tea-leaf-readers!" (p. 84). The scientific and the magical were curiously blended, as if one might at any moment prove or disprove the existence of the other. Gilman captures the blurred, confused boundaries perfectly.
The best part of this paranormal world was the slow pitched battled between two magical forces in London. It's a rare kind of battle for a work of fantasy—instead of the forces of Good and Evil arranging themselves in neat lines and riding for wrath, ruin, and the red dawn, we have two undefined sides with undefined ends, launching subtle, graceful attacks against one another. Josephine and Arthur skate along the surface of the war, but the glimpses we catch are absolutely tantalizing.
My favorite scene was the opening shot of the magicians' war: Lord Podmore, a rational and civilized sort of man, and Mrs Archer, a wild hedge-witch, confront one another in a crowded restaurant. They fight through the other customers—a number of the diners suddenly feel compelled to tell Lord Podmore how unpatriotic his newspapers are. Others begin to whisper nasty rumors about Mrs Archer. These people find themselves plagued with abrupt speech impediments. Eventually the restaurant-goers find themselves passionately arrayed in opposing armies, though they aren't sure why. It's a funny, clever, and wonderfully understated scene.
Not all of The Revolutions works as well. In his dedication to historical charm, Martian landscapes, and murky conflicts, Gilman has left his characters a little thin and blurred. Josephine and Arthur are not bad characters, or unlikable ones, but I still feel I would refer to Arthur as Mr Shaw if we ever met. We are not quite on speaking terms. It's the kind of distant fondness you feel for characters on a stage in a very good play—they had some excellent lines, but their features never quite came into focus.
But these are the kinds of criticisms a person can make only after the initial rush of enjoyment has faded. The Revolutions was an exceptionally pleasurable read, unpredictable and elegantly written, varying between dry wit and eerie darkness. It’s remarkably like its cover: eclectic and mysterious, with mere silhouettes of characters, but strangely beautiful.
Alix E. Harrow teaches history and posts speculative fiction reviews on her personal blog. She lives in a romantically dilapidated farmhouse with her partner in Kentucky.