by Henry Farrell on January 7, 2009

A short but intensely felt recommendation for Felix Gilman’s first book, _Thunderer_ (“Powells”:, “Amazon”: combined with a query – why haven’t I heard about this book before? It’s _exactly_ the kind of sf/f novel that I like – a brooding, post-Mievillian fantasy set in a decaying city of uncertain extent and boundaries, with a keen ear for politics, character and language. But that’s not how it’s been marketed – cover, blurb etc suggest a generic quest fantasy of the more or less inept and badly plotted variety. I think this misses its core market (hell, I think I _am_ its core market) – people who are looking for a standardized post-Tolkien ripoff are liable to be quite upset while people looking for a more challenging read, who would have bought it, if they knew what it was about, won’t. I can sometimes understand these kinds of marketing decisions. For example, I’ve quite enjoyed Sarah Monette’s Mirador books, which are very nicely written indeed, but are marketed to the romance fantasy/mildly titillating slash market, this, presumably, being rather more lucrative than the literary fantasy market that folks like myself inhabit. But this seems downright odd to me – I don’t see what the publishers are getting by chucking it out into the generic fantasy market without some pointers that it should also be of interest to people who have different literary tastes (Monette’s books, in contrast, _have_ been cross-marketed as best as I can tell). Gilman’s book should be getting highly approving reviews in _Locus_, nominations for major awards etc, which could allow it to straddle the split between the more and less literary ends of genre but, to the best of my knowledge, it hasn’t been, and I suspect Bantam/Spectra’s marketing folks are at fault. Or is there something relevant about the publishing trade that I’m just not getting here?



FS 01.07.09 at 5:30 pm

I alerted Andrew Wheeler to this post-hopefully he’ll stop by and shed some light.


Jason 01.07.09 at 5:36 pm

Thanks. I’m always on the look out for new SF/F authors and this looks promising.


lemuel pitkin 01.07.09 at 5:43 pm

Someone should ask the the Nielsen Haydens about this….


Cheryl 01.07.09 at 5:59 pm

You are clearly reading the wrong people, Henry. There’s been plenty of talk around the blogosphere about it. Follow Jeff VanderMeer if no one else.

Andrew will doubtless tell you that it is a miracle that Bantam even bought a book that caters for such a small niche market as you describe. The money is all in Tolkien imitations and teen vampire books.

As to major awards, Thunderer is a Dec 2007 release, and very late in the month as well. That’s an absolute killer for the Hugos because most people won’t have read it by the time nominations close. Last year’s World Fantasy Award jury was decidedly odd. There’s a chance it will turn up elsewhere.


Cheryl 01.07.09 at 6:13 pm

While I’m at it, the other fantasy books from this year you should be reading are:

Pandemonium by Daryl Gregory

Last Dragon by JM McDermott


Henry 01.07.09 at 6:46 pm

Thanks Cheryl (although I’ve been a little allergic to J VdM since he got into a huff several years ago when I described one of his books as ‘whimsical’ in an online forum).


sg 01.07.09 at 6:52 pm

post-Mievillian? That’s a bit premature isn’t it!!!


Cheryl 01.07.09 at 6:58 pm


Presumably that wasn’t one of the books published by Ministry of Whimsy.

I recall Jeff and China having a bust up over the meaning of “whimsy” as well, which we eventually put down to two nations separated by a common language.


Cheryl 01.07.09 at 7:52 pm

Apologies if I’m getting boring on this, but a few things occurred to me in the shower…

I see from my own thoughts on Thunderer that the cover blurb described it as “high fantasy”. There are two plausible reasons for that. The first is that the Random House marketing people (who may not be genre experts) haven’t got a clue about subdivisions of fantasy but know what buzz words sell. Alternatively they may have figured that the New Weird crowd would find the book anyway, so they might as well try pitching it to the elf crowd to expand sales.

Also, in recommending McDermott and Gregory I was, of course, thinking purely of debut fantasy. The most Mieville-like (it has gargoyles and a political revolution) of this year’s releases is Ekaterina Sedia’s The Alchemy of Stone, which is a wonderful book.

Finally CT readers might be interested in Liberation by Brian Francis Slattery, on the grounds that it is set in the USA after an economic collapse. (Slattery is an economics journalist, so he makes rather more sense on the subject that most SF writers.)


Henry 01.07.09 at 8:27 pm

I also seem to remember getting into an argument with him about the New Weird back when it was first being bruited around on MJH’s discussion board (which makes me, I suppose, a quasi-official hanger-on present at the creation or whatever you might like to call it). I was a bit surprised to see that he’s now edited an anthology of the New Weird – my memory (again perhaps imperfect; I haven’t checked back on those online discussions in years) was that he was rather opposed to the NW and defensive about it at the time, largely, I suspect, because it didn’t have JVdM at its center.

The Slattery and Sedia books are on my must-read list – I hadn’t come across McDermott, so am grateful for the recommendation.


Jackmormon 01.07.09 at 11:21 pm

Felix Gilman was absolutely hilarious when he commented on Unfogged; he had some inspired “Fuck you, clown” poetry, if I recall correctly. Haven’t seen him around so much lately. I enjoyed his novel as well and am glad to see you plugging it.


Dan S. 01.08.09 at 4:40 am

Well, early on, Michael Swanwick’s wonderful The Iron Dragon’s Daughter was (perhaps unintentionally) presented – cover art & such – as something of a YA-ish ‘a girl and her dragon’ tale (as opposed to a dark, violent, morally murky, fairly explicit, and eventually nihilistic adult fable) . . . Not sure if they’re still up, but there were some very shocked reviews on Amazon . . .


Martin 01.08.09 at 11:49 am

Vandermeer loved a good internet slapfight in the olden days but he turned over a new leaf a while ago and is on his best behaviour now.


LizardBreath 01.08.09 at 12:44 pm

Damn — this is the guy who commented on Unfogged? I am ashamed of myself — he mentioned the book, I looked at it online and and it looked exactly like ‘standardized post-Tolkein ripoff’ and I didn’t read it because I thought, given some risk that I’d find myself interacting with the author again, ‘I hadn’t found time to read it’ would sound better than ‘Um, the paper was high quality’. I must go buy a copy.


Patrick Nielsen Hayden 01.08.09 at 1:24 pm

The fact that publishers and booksellers have figured out a set of packaging tropes that seem to consistently work to identify some subsets of SF and fantasy to their potential audiences does not mean that we’ve worked out tropes that successfully identify all subsets. In particular, we’re still pretty much at sea when it comes to many of the nuances of non-generic fantasy.

Unfortunately, the fact that we’ve managed to successfully target our packaging in some respects has created the expectation in many readers, particularly more sophisticated readers, that SF and fantasy cover packages are overall reliable. Thus LizardBreath’s comment above, about walking away from a book that LB might have otherwise checked out because “it looked exactly like standardized post-Tolkien ripoff.”

The remarkably thing is that for much of the history of modern SF and fantasy, this sort of thing rarely happened, because clued-in readers simply assumed that all the covers were misleading tosh. The basic project around which modern SF fandom organized itself was readers informing one another which of the publications-that-looked-like-crap were in fact crap, and which ones were actually worth reading. There were good cover artists and well-designed books and magazines, but you couldn’t count on them correlating with worthwhile fiction. Everybody knew that. Nowadays, the discourse surrounding the question of which SF and fantasy intelligent people should read seems to be half arguments and complaints about the goddamn covers.

I don’t mind discussing the goddamn covers, and I’m generally delighted when we actually do manage to expand the vocubulary by which publishers can send accurate signals to more precisely-understood subsets of the world of readers, but for cripes’ sake, modern readers sometimes have unrealistic expectations of being spoon-fed perfect signals. There’s a reason “you can’t judge a book by its cover” is copybook wisdom. If you only ever try books whose cover packages perfectly cater to your personal aesthetic, you may have a satisfactory life, but you will certainly miss a metric ton of genre fiction you would have otherwise enjoyed.


LizardBreath 01.08.09 at 2:42 pm

You know, that’s right, and I am ashamed of myself, but some of the codes are pretty reliable. The problem with the Thunderer cover (and I can’t remember it specifically, I just remember my reaction to it) wasn’t that it failed to convey “I am a book with literary merit” — I don’t expect that. It was that it (at least to me) squarely conveyed “I am a book aimed squarely at a particular niche of the fantasy genre”, and it’s one that leaves me cold. (I should note that I’m not above reading stuff with no particular pretentions to literary merit, I read buckets of it. And I like lots of fantasy. That particular subgenre is one that just doesn’t work for me.)


Henry 01.08.09 at 2:45 pm

I hadn’t realised that Gilman was a sometime member of the unfoggedtariat – more reason to like him. Patrick – this is fair enough (and the description of fandom is great) – but the point I was trying to make, if not very well, was that I had received none of the signals that I associate with a good, intelligent book – it hadn’t gotten any discussion in the places I usually look for it. This was partly my fault (I don’t follow Jeff VdM’s blog), but it also maybe reflects some deficiencies in the web of author-blogs etc that serve as a partial substitute for the kinds of conversations you describe. Unless the blogger is someone whom I really trust, I tend to discount book recommendations heavily, because the conversation is a public one. This means that there are both strong incentives towards logrolling (cliques of authors chatting each other’s work up), and disincentives to honesty about the crap (you don’t necessarily want to piss somebody else off by being rude about his/her book, because he/she can retaliate in kind). I imagine that you get straighter talk at cons etc – but since I don’t really attend them (even CapClave I haven’t gone to in a couple of years b.c. of kids) I don’t get it.

And as noted above in re: Sarah Monette, I have no problem whatsoever in picking up a book with an embarrassing cover as long as I have some sort of credible signal that the contents are good. Lizardbreath, if I understand her right, is in a different situation – where you have a social acquaintance with someone whose work you suspect you may not like, you may reasonably want to avoid entering into conversation with that person about that work. And here, given the awkwardness that can result if you do read it and hate it, it may be that even a weak negative signal is sufficient to turn you off, in the absence of any positive one.


Henry 01.08.09 at 2:46 pm

[above comment was cross-posted with Lizardbreath]


Jackmormon 01.08.09 at 4:10 pm

The mass market paperback version of Thunderer is a much better fit than was the hardcover. (Amazon link.) That flying jester lad in the hardcover image was rather unfortunately twee.


chris y 01.08.09 at 6:03 pm

I’m afraid I reacted exactly like LB @14. I shall order it this weekend, since we’re coming to the end of the Christmas book box. So that’s two sales down to Henry.


Cheryl 01.08.09 at 6:05 pm


I confess to having complained about the cover, but only because it highlighted a white-skinned minor character, the main viewpoint character being dark-skinned.


I’m interested to know what it would take for a blogger to be someone that you “really trust”. There is a huge amount of book-blogging that goes on these days, and one of the reasons I don’t write proper reviews any more is that no one seems to trust anything that anyone says, unless they actually know the blogger, or are a fan of the blogger.


felix 01.09.09 at 12:15 am

oh my

thanks, Henry

hello unfoggers, Cheryl, all


Cheryl 01.09.09 at 12:36 am


Psst, plug the sequel.


roac 01.09.09 at 3:19 pm

I heard the word “Tolkien” (like a cat and a can-opener) and thought it was worth posting this quote:

” I wrote . . . [the American publisher] expressing (with moderation) my dislike of the cover for [the first paperback of] The Hobbit. It was a short hasty note by hand, without a copy, but it was to this effect: I think the cover ugly; but I recognize that the main object of a paperback cover is to attract purchasers, and I suppose that you are better judges of what is attractive in USA than I am. I therefore will not enter into a debate about taste — (meaning though I did not say so: horrible colours and foul lettering) — but I must ask this about the vignette: what has it got to do with the story? Where is this place? Why a lion and emus? And what is the thing in the foreground with the pink bulbs? . . .”

* * *

“[A representative of the publishers] rang me up. I had a longish conversation; but she seemed to me impermeable. I should judge that all she wanted was that I should recant, be a good boy and react favorably. When I made the above points again, her voice rose several tones and she cried: “But the man hadn’t TIME to read the book.” . . . With regard to the pink bulbs she said as if to one of complete obtusity: “they are meant to suggest a Chistmas Tree.” Why is such a woman let loose? I begin to feel that I am shut up in a madhouse.”

He was talking about the second one here.


Bill Gardner 01.09.09 at 5:10 pm

But that cover was the one under which, at 11 years old, I encountered Tolkien. Curled in a sleeping bag in a tent on Baffin freaking Island during a 48 hour rainstorm. Everything about the cover is wrong, but it evokes the memory or ecstasy.


roac 01.09.09 at 5:47 pm

Jeez, how swell it must be in retrospect to have been taken to Baffin Island as an 11-year-old, however unpleasant the actual experience was. Your parents were archaeologists? Palaeontologists? Biologists?


Bill Gardner 01.09.09 at 7:03 pm

I went with a school friend and his dad. The dad was an eccentric genius engineer. He made a lot of money and retired early to pursue his avocation: collecting first editions of the writings of the arctic explorers and retracing their journeys. This trek had something to do with Franklin, maybe. The experience was extraordinary and never miserable… except for the BI mosquitoes, which are built to penetrate caribou hide. The man drowned a few years later canoeing down a river to Hudson’s Bay.


Cheryl 01.12.09 at 11:40 pm

Henry: this may be of interest.

Sorry I couldn’t talk about it when your post first went up, but I had to wait for the official press release.

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