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Friday, December 18, 2009

"The Bookman" by Lavie Tidhar (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official Lavie Tidhar Webpage
Order "The Bookman" HERE
Read Chapters 1-5 from "The Bookman"

INTRODUCTION: I have heard of Lavie Tidhar in connection with his short fiction published in various places and when I read about this novel I was immediately interested. However the blurb with its hints that The Bookman is a "serial killer" novel, almost made me ignore it since I strongly dislike that kind of book. Luckily I opened it, loved the style and the inventiveness and while I was dreading a turn toward a "steampunk crime" novel, it just never came!

FORMAT/CLASSIFICATION: "The Bookman" stands at about 400 pages divided into three named parts and 36 chapters all featuring main hero "Orphan" as POV. Both the parts and the chapters have evocative names - eg part 1 is called "Orpheus and Eurydice" for reasons you will discover by reading the novel. Also each chapter starts with a quote, mostly from poems or famous novels that adds to the depth and enjoyment of the story. The Bookman is the first in a series from what I understand, but it is a complete novel with a clear theme and a definite ending.

The Bookman is a hard novel to classify - it's *not* a serial killer novel or a sff mystery for that matter, as the blurb seems to imply. Steampunk, alt-history, coming of age story to some extent, but first and foremost a fast page turning adventure with clear homages to Jules Verne, AC Doyle and with cameos of many 19th century notable people.

London cca 1880-1900 where Professor Moriarty (that one) is Prime Minister at the court of the Calibanic Kings/Queens - it's still Queen Victoria but she is now from the "lizard race" - who were discovered/revived by Amerigo Vespucci on his return voyage from "Vespucciana" (ie America) which "today" is still a land of the indigenous people with some colonists.

Coming to London in the 1500's, the more advanced "Les Lezards" took power in England aka The Everlasting Empire with William Shakespeare as their first poet Prime Minister and they have been ruling since over a mostly human empire with lizards and sentient automatons in the mix.

Jules Verne is a notable writer/adventurer who is in search of the Lizards mythical home island - his account of the first search is called "The Mysterious Island" of course - Mycroft Holmes is head of some secret service bureau employing the famous but assumed mythical "black ships" , Sherlock Holmes is in a comma after a fall in Switzerland that seems connected with the PM, Irene Adler (that one too) is a new CID of Scotland Yard in charge with the investigation of mysterious book bombs, automatons including one as Lord Byron are lifelike and impersonate humans, Karl Marx is plotting revolution and Oscar Wilde is still (in) famous for his social life, while two new writers, the patriotic R. Kipling and futurist HG Wells appear as cameos If the above would not make you want to read this, nothing will so to speak...

Our main character, a young poet called "Orphan" by his blind mentor/surrogate father which goes by the epic name Gilgamesh, works as a bookseller assistant in an independent bookstore associated with the "revolution", as well as moonlighting as part of a "gang" that exposes the hypocrisies of society with pranks and the like. When Lucy, his natural scientist girlfriend, accepts his proposal, Orphan seems set for a good life, but then he gets dragged into the machinations of the mysterious "terrorist" known as The Bookman and tragedy strikes, while Orphan has to stay one step ahead of his unseen manipulators.

The Bookman is fast paced adventure with tons of sense of wonder and a main character that starts a bit aloof but grows on you. The world building is sketchy depending a lot on name dropping, cameos and the occasional "press release" but I did not really care that much since on one hand late Victoriana is quite familiar in sff and the twist of "Les Lezards" here is explored in more depth as the book goes on, while on the other hand the novel hangs together well and we just race along with orphan from adventure to adventure. I loved the author' style and I found the book's narrative energy high with smooth transition from one episode to another.

Another strength of the novel is its wide geographical spread, from London to the Continent, Atlantic Ocean and finally back to London. While there are moments when the author seems to throw in all the familiar tropes of the picaresque sfnal/steampunk adventure including pirates, airships, mysterious stranger, The Bookman never loses balance or hits a narrative wall.

Self-contained and with a great ending, The Bookman seems to be part of a planned series and I really am happy about that since I want more of this wonderful milieu.

Just big time fun,"The Bookman" is highly, highly recommended. Go check the excerpt and decide for yourself!


Jesse said...

I have been following FBC for a while now. I came across this post and thought the book cover was very striking and beautiful. With the book cover and the title alone, it looked like it'd be an interesting book to read -- which led me to read the entire review. Now having read the review, it definitely is something I'd like to read. I have a question for you. While I have only read the occasional lighter sci-fi book and almost no fantasy (with the exception of Lords of the Ring) books, your review seem to imply that the Lizard race (Les Lezards) is a recurring concept in many sci-fi/fantasy books. Does the book require reading any books before this one in order to be familiar with certain concepts and themes in the book?

Liviu said...

I would say that Victoriana and steampunk are the main tropes of this book; as regarding "Lizard" races on Earth, I would speculate that our fascination with dinosaurs and maybe dragons makes them popular whenever an "alien" race is introduced here in a way or another from Harry Harrison alt-hist Eden trilogy, to H. Turtledove alt-hist WW2 saga to various "invasion" novels like W. Barton superb When Heaven Fell to...

Regarding The Bookman the best way to decide for yourself is to check out the excerpt from sfsignal I linked to and see how you like what's there

bascule said...

Ordered immediately.

Many Amazon vouchers coming my this Xmas, this looks like a great way of spending some.

Dr. Elitist said...

Excellent review. My to-read pile continues to grow beyond my control. Pretty soon it shall overcome me.

Liviu said...

Thank you for your kind words; I know the feeling with the "to read pile" so I try to prioritize and read the books I love the most and/or fit the mood of the moment

For 2010 the "anticipated books collated post" that I linked on the front page to is a rough guide to the known new releases I plan to read and then of course whatever I discover and whatever is from the pile

ediFanoB said...

I'm a bit late with my comment.
I ordered the book immediately when I read your excellent and convincing review in December 2009.
I always get excited when I read words like Victoriana, steampunk, London in a review.
Now I expect daily the delivery of my copy. But it seems I have to be patient due to all the snow in Europe.


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