Arthur Shaw, a scientific journalistic of limited means and aspiring crime writer, is caught in the Great Storm of 1893. Trying to return home he meets Josephine Bradman, a typist and poet with connections in occult circles. They exchange letters, fall in love and become engaged. Then they meet Lord Atwood at a gathering of Josephine’s friends, and he directs Arthur to very profitable but unusual employment. The consuming nature of the strange work makes Arthur very distracted and creates distance between him and Josephine. Intending to help her fiancé, Josephine seeks out Atwood, who drags her into an experiment being conducted by his occult organisation, which thanks to Josephine exceeds everyone’s expectations. Against her better judgement Josephine returns for another experiment, assisting the organisation in the short term with the intention of being better placed to extricate herself and Arthur from their machinations completely. However things go wrong and soon Arthur is forced to become involved with the organisation, their feud with a rival group and their ambitious plans.
I haven’t read any Felix Gilman books before, and as I became engrossed in The Revolutions I saw this was a mistake on my part. The story features Mars and alien creatures that live there, but it is not purely science fiction. With its period setting and the prominence of spiritualism, the occult and actual magic it is perhaps closer to historical fantasy. However there is a kind of scientific rigour to some of the subject matter which fits with a science fictional tone better than a traditional fantasy outlook. In the end these genre labels are simply boxes that people (and the book industry) use to try and tidy up the wide sprawl of content, tone and theme available in literature. The thing about trying to tidy things into boxes is that when you look closely almost anything could be in there. If you insist on your SF being hard or your fantasy being simply fanciful then this might not be the book for you. However if you are one of the greater number of people who occupies any of the middle ground between these positions you’ll find something to enjoy here.
The action follows Arthur and Josephine, two intelligent and likeable characters thrown into situations they don’t understand. The early part of the book depicts their lives as they fall in love. Appropriate to the period theirs is mostly not a physical relationship. It is depicted as a growing bond of respect and shared communication that grows into a deep emotional relationship. It’s unusual to see a romantic relationship depicted in this way, and I heartily approve. Fiction is full of whirlwind romances, passionate affairs, opposites improbably attracting and love that is unrequited, obsessive and sometimes formed into triangles or other geometric shapes. Two people simply meeting, enjoying one another’s company and over time growing closer until they are in love seems almost novel, in a novel, even though it happens all the time. The strength of their early relationship makes later events all the more powerful. It is when communication between the couple breaks down, and each does what they think best without consulting the other, that things go horribly wrong. Arthur’s strange work makes him emotionally and intellectually distant, so Josephine acts against her better judgement to try and help him, leading to an enforced separation tests, but never breaks, the resolve of both.
The depiction of Victorian London feels authentic to me, although I am no expert in that period, especially not when it comes to warring occult groups. This is not a whitewashed slice of Victoriana, nor does in revel in grit and grimness as some depictions of past do. It is also not steampunk, it shares a time period with that subgenre (meaning it may appeal to steampunk fans), but it is not an alternate history and deals more in magic than technology. The tone feels old-fashioned, but not antiquated, of a different time, but understandable to modern readers. The cast of secondary characters, some more significant than others, includes strong-willed women and people of colour who have agency, impact the plot and in some cases are deeply embedded in what’s happening. In researching and building the setting and characters Gilman has taken practicalities into account. Arthur’s bad financial situation and the necessity of day-to-day practicalities is what leads him to the strange-but-profitable work that soon takes over his life. Josephine is pulled into machinations she does not understand through her own social connections -which seem broader than Arthur’s- and her desire to help her fiancé. Material and emotional needs are what drive people in most decisions they make, the impact of these powerful motivators should be present in fiction. It is interesting that the characters who drive some events, those with the grand plans, are the ones wealthy enough to be unconcerned about questions of finance, or driven enough by ambitions of knowledge and power to ignore the emotional welfare of others and perhaps themselves. Gilman also creates an alien setting. The device he uses for many of these sections mirrors the experience of SFF readers in general. He captures the feeling of trying to understand an unfamiliar world and its people by relating to familiar things, even if the comparisons are inaccurate. Then events mean that the experience becomes all the more immersive and interesting. Though much is left unclear about how the non-humans live, it is obvious that Gilman has taken care in his worldbuilding.
The story itself is engrossing. Strong characters and setting combine with odd circumstances and fantastical but dangerous events. There was a building sense of tension then dread as things went wrong and got worse. From early on I wasn’t sure what shape the story would be. This is no swashbuckling adventure, and the initial action plays out in social interaction more than in physical confrontation, but it does this incredibly well. As the story progresses -and more is revealed to Arthur- the stakes are raised and the action becomes both weirder and more physical. There is a section concerned with a battle between magical factions, but instead of flashy fireballs (which seem as ludicrous in the story as they might in real life) it is done subtly and secretly, all about influence and graceful attacks. The outcome is seen, but the technique is obscure. It is a refreshing way of depicting magic. Parts of the tone and content reminded me of C. S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet, but with less focus on Christian themes. Considering both stories are about Mars and have strong elements of mysticism and alien worldbuilding this probably isn’t surprising. There is a point when the characters are faced with very harsh circumstances, which reminded me of various stories of desperation, struggle and survival. The ending was not quite as I’d expected, though it was powerful, and this is a book that rarely did what I expected. The last small section didn’t engage me as much as what went before, it felt rushed and a little aimless, but I can understand why it was there. This is an interesting and engrossing read, and one that will appeal to a wide spectrum of SFF readers.