Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar

Posted by Simcha 4:48 PM, under | 5 comments

Do you ever wonder what history would have been like if the British empire had been taken over by giant talking lizards from outer space? No? Well, I haven’t either, but Lavie Tidhar has, and the result is The Bookman, a wild steampunk novel where you’ll find everything from Karl Marx and Martian probes to robots and magical books. The Bookman is Tidhar’s first full length novel, the first in a trilogy, and it certainly doesn’t hold anything back.

The protagonist, Orphan, is a young bookseller in London who writes poetry and occasionally stirs up mischief with the Persons from Porlock group, by boisterously disrupting writers at their work. Orphan has just proposed to the girl he loves, and life seems like it couldn’t get any better- and then Orphan’s fiancĂ© is killed in a horrifying terrorist attack, perpetuated by the legendary Bookman.

But Orphan soon discovers that there may be a possibility of getting Lucy back, though in order to do so he has to track down the elusive Bookman. In his quest to find the Bookman, Orphan is forced to venture outside of his familiar surroundings and to befriend a vast variety of characters, each of whom have their own ulterior motives for assisting the young poet. Along the way, Orphan will also make startling discoveries about himself, his friends, and the mysterious Les LĂ©zards,.

I have read a few other works by Lavie Tidhar, which somewhat prepared me for his unique storytelling style, but I still found myself shaking my head at some of the bizarre elements that he incorporated here. This is also my first steampunk novel and I had some vague idea that this was a subgenre related to science fiction, so I was rather surprised to discover a monarchy of talking lizards. But once I had accepted that this book would be rather different then what I had expected, I had no problem going along with everything else that the story threw at me.

The problems that I did have with the book were largely due to the occasional inconsistencies and the random information that was sometimes thrown into the story, without any explanation.

Here are a few examples, which I don’t think will give away anything from the story that you won’t pick up from the book blurb:

The general assumption that the Bookman was the source of the terrorist attacks when he was supposedly a myth, seemed odd to me, as well as the fact that it’s assumed that he could bring Lucy back to life. There wasn’t any explanation for why people thought that the Bookman was capable of this, and particularly, why the investigating officer would assume this was a possibility. And by the end of the story, when all the other ends were tied up, it was still unclear at to what the connection was between the Bookman and books, an understanding that I was expecting to come by at some point, particularly as the rest of Bookman’s mystery is unraveled.

But what held me back from really loving The Bookman was the character of Orphan, who I never really warmed up to. Based on the information provided about him, I would have expected Orphan to be an appealing character; intelligent and sensitive and with a streak of playfulness, but in actuality he was rather bland and lacking depth. For most of the story he is pulled along by the plots of the different characters who manage to get a hold of him, often by force, going along if it will help get back Lucy. But I was disappointed with Orphan’s passivity and his lack of anger at those who kept manipulating him. Since I had just finished listening to Scott Lynch’s Red Seas Under Red Skies, I couldn’t help comparing Orphan with Locke Lamora, who never failed to express his anger towards those who used him, despite his inability to break free. At least Locke showed some spirit, something I would liked for Orphan to have.

I admit that I had really wanted to love The Bookman. I think the cover is very attractive and the author seems like a really interesting person, but ultimately it didn't happen. While the book was certainly creative and well written, with an interesting mix of literary and historical references, it just didn’t grab me. I felt no urgency to pick up the book, when I would take a break from reading, and I didn’t feel myself caring too much about the fate of the characters. Though I am very curious now as to how The Bookman compares to other steampuk novels and which aspects of the book qualify it as steampunk. Perhaps after reading other books in this subgenre, I will give The Bookman another try and see if my perspective is the same.

The sequel to The Bookman, Camera Obscura, is scheduled to be released in October, and the excerpt included in the back of The Bookman actually sounds pretty intriguing.

You can check out some other reviews of The Bookman at the links below:

The Mad Hatter's Bookshelf

SFF World



I'd be partial to a novel called The Bookman too plus I am getting into steampunk in a big way. Too bad this didn't deliver, despite the talking lizards :)

It's funny - I also never wondered what history would have been like if the British Empire had been taken over by giant talking lizards from outer space. But now I must say - I'm curious!
It sounds like a book I might enjoy more than you did, with its random bizarreness. Though I might also be annoyed by the passivity of Orphan.

Stephanie: Because so many other reviewers really enjoyed The Bookman, and were not bothered by the issues that I mentioned, I would still say that you should give this book a try if the description interests you.

Brizmus: If you enjoy random bizarreness then Tidhar is the author for you. If the description interests you then you should give it a try. Other reviewers seemed to enjoy it more then I did.

LOL - no, I've never wondered that either, but now I know where to turn if I ever do! Great review :)

Emily: Yeah, this is a pretty crazy book, not at all what I was expecting from a steampunk novel but very much in tune with Tidhar's other works.

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