At not quite the halfway point in Felix Gilman’s The Revolutions, the main character — Arthur Shaw — reacts to a particular text he is reading:
It was a hodge-podge of Masonry, Greek myth, Egyptian fantasy, debased Christianity, third-hand Hinduism, and modern and ancient astronomy, promiscuously and nonsensically mixed . . . The Book was riddled throughout with paradox and absurdity and contradiction . . . But after a week or two of study, Arthur began to enjoy it.
And it is at this point where a reader might stop and think, “Yes, yes I am,” even as he/she mentally expands that list of hodge-podge foundations: “And C.S. Lewis and Burroughs and Yeats and Poe and Stevenson and The Sun and maybe a bit of Susanna Clarke and and and . . ., “ before remembering that the book in question was not in fact The Revolutions itself, but a text within that text. And so after that brief moment of dislocation, the reader might continue on, thinking they had for an instant caught a glimpse of something behind what they’d been looking at, had, for a moment, been transported wholly elsewhere — an entirely appropriate feeling with this novel. A novel I thoroughly enjoyed, though I confess I’m seldom bothered by hodgepodges and absurdities. Those who are might admittedly find themselves less enamored.
The Revolutions is set in a late-1800s London filled with fog and both fanciers and practitioners of the occult, many of whom are clear frauds, but a surprising number of whom, it turns out, have some actual talent, ranging across an entire spectrum of social/economic classes and of abilities — from lords and ladies to clerks and sailors, from the meanest of fortune-tellers to the most puissant of magicians and witches. It begins with a great storm that leads to an off-chance meeting between Arthur and the other main character, Josephine Bradman. Soon, the two are in a whirlwind of courtship, engagement, and debts, as Arthur has recently lost his job as a science writer for a small journal. Josephine’s job as a typist/translator for spiritualists will not pay the bills, but it does lead to their meeting with Lord Atwood, who invites Josephine, a strong “sensitive” in his judgment, to join his much more serious occult group (the focus of which is out-of-body travel) and also throws a bone of a job to Arthur.
They both accept, and both roles soon spiral out of control into disaster — Arthur is nearly driven mad by “the work” as it is called, while Josephine finds her spirit self severed from her body, the former trapped on a moon of Mars while the latter lies in a coma in London. As Josephine tries to communicate with the moon’s people and find her way back from that direction, Arthur throws himself even deeper into the machinations of Atwood’s group, seeing that as his only hope of finding his fiancée again, though to do so he’ll have to help Atwood stand against other English magicians ranged against his occult cabal.
Astral travel, lost Mars civilizations, mind powers, strange winged creatures, ancient evil, magical warfare, insanity and near-insanity, visions, witches, strange computations, bodily transformations, difference engines, secret societies, Eastern mystics, potions, conjurations, romance, chase scenes, fire and flood, prophetic dreams, shootings and stabbings, red sand and ruins, murder and kidnapping, betrayals and dark secrets. It’s all here. A hodgepodge, so to say.
And mostly I loved it. The plot flew by the majority of the time. The opening might be a little slow as characters are introduced and relationships set into place, and it doesn’t help much that the two main characters don’t actually feel much like a couple, but each are interesting enough in their own vein to carry us through to the point, at about page 75 or so, where they meet Atwood and the pace really picks up. From there, the pacing is impeccable, never lagging but also never going at an annoyingly breakneck speed.
The plot unfolds nicely in terms of mysteries behind mysteries, and once Josephine is stranded away from Earth, the dual storyline works quite well to both create suspense and also to offer up an entire other setting that is more fantastical and more complicated than the Earth-bound one, and that also allows for a more lyrically descriptive style, which Gilman handles with aplomb.
If I have any complaint with the plot, it is that Gilman throws so much into the mix that some of it gets lost either for long periods of time or simply dropped. Arthur’s writing, for instance, which is where we begin, with him composing a new fictional detective to take the place of the just-killed-off Sherlock Holmes, is quickly dropped, only to get a passing reference at the extreme end. The perhaps-mysterious death of an important figure, which is made much of in terms of focus early on, is forgotten for a time, until it is solved in almost throwaway fashion, never to be raised again.
Some of this happens with the characters as well, particularly side ones. If their relationship isn’t particularly moving, each of the two main characters is interesting enough to carry their individual storylines. Josephine is the best drawn and most compelling, both by nature of her personality and her dramatic situation. Arthur himself makes a somewhat too abrupt change in character I’d say, in terms of determination and ability, and is of more narrative interest due to plot than character. The other characters mostly have a sense of unmet potential, many of them intriguing in theory thanks to little hints of their nature or motivations, but less interesting in execution. Among these are Atwood, who actually devolves a bit as a character; Lord Podmore, a powerful magician opposed to Atwood’s group and one who I would have liked to have seen used to better effect; Archer, an intriguingly mysterious witch; Orpheus, an off-worlder; Sun, a member of Atwood’s group; and Vaz, one of Arthur’s co-workers. All of them felt like they were just on the edge of tipping over into fully realized characters entirely interesting in their own right, but they never quite did make that move.
Normally, this would have been more of a hindrance to my enjoyment of the novel, but I took so much pleasure in the nature of the plot, the old-time feel and echoes, and in the vividness of the prose, that the problems with characterization were noticeable but relatively minor. And if Gilman dropped the ball a bit with individual characters, I thought he was wonderfully on in his evocation of larger groups, whether it be the small in number spiritualist groups; the much wider view of English society at the turn of the society, when the past world of superstition blended almost seamlessly into the new world of science and when small harbingers of grand changes were barely making themselves known; or in the portrayal of a once-grand Mars civilization long collapsed, the lessons of which should perhaps be heeded by that younger civilization just beginning to stretch outward.
Sure, riddled with some flaws. And yes, definitely a hodgepodge. But unlike Arthur’s reading of his occult text, it didn’t take me “a week or two” to enjoy The Revolutions. It took me about five minutes to begin enjoying it and that feeling stayed with me for the ensuing five or six hours in a single sitting it took to finish it. Sometimes a hodgepodge is just a mess, its disparate parts canceling each other out and leading to a dull confusion. But sometimes, it’s like that great meal you make when you just throw everything that’s about to go bad in your fridge into the pot and let it simmer. Grab a bowl while Gilman’s ladling it out.