by Felix Gilman
Cover Artist: Will Staehle
Review by Benjamin Wald
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765337177
Date: 01 April 2014 List Price $26.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Felix Gilman refuses to stand still. His first two novels explored an ever shifting fantasy city peopled with mysterious gods and bleeding into other dimensions. Many authors could have spent a career writing about a setting like that, but Gilman abandoned it after two books to write about an equally fascinating weird west setting in which powerful spirits embodied in giant trains and sentient guns battled to determine the fate of humanity. Now he's back with a new book as unlike these earlier works as they were different from each other. The Revolutions is set in Victorian England, and features astral travel, magical warfare, and Martian exploration, and it's a lot of fun.
Arthur Shaw is an impecunious freelance science journalist. Josephine makes a living typing out treatises by would-be alchemists, mediums, and other paranormal investigators. They fall in love and are engaged, but both are drawn into a growing struggle between the established magicians of London and a group of upstarts with grand designs to explore other planets through astral travel. Lord Atwood, the leader of the upstart group, enlists Josephine to aid in his astral exploration, and she ends up stranded on a satellite of Mars, making contact with the alien inhabitants. Arthur is desperate to retrieve his lost love, and must seek to follow her to Mars.
Gilman's writing and world-building are as excellent as ever. This is the first novel of his that is set in the real world, but he breathes as much life, and as much mystery, into Victorian England as into any of his imaginary worlds; and his descriptions of the Martian cities is brilliant. However, the story does feel a bit fragmented at times. There is an early stage of mystery and discovery, a middle section of magical warfare, and a final section of Martian exploration. Each section is well done and entertaining, but they are perhaps a bit more loosely connected than one might hope for. This lessens the impact of the novel as a whole to some degree. The highlight of the novel for me is Josephine's contact with and slow understanding of the Martians she encounters. They are believably alien, and we feel with Josephine the confusion, fear, and wonder of discovering a new species.
While not Gilman's strongest work, The Revolutions is an excellent work of fantasy. Mars as a place to have adventures and discover new civilizations harkens back to an earlier age of science fiction, and combined with Gilman's excellent prose and engaging characters make this novel a pleasure to read.