Thursday, 15 April 2010

Review - The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar

Steampunk is in a great place right now. Thanks to boundary-pushing authors such as Cherie Priest, George Mann, James Blaylock and Stephen Hunt it’s a genre that’s no longer just the Victorian era with airships. It has started to expand into new and varied landscapes. A Science Fiction sub-genre that’s not afraid to experiment, to shock, surprise, or even to horrify. Right now, it seems, there isn’t anywhere that Steampunk isn’t afraid to go.

Set in a strange alternate London of 1888, The Bookman concerns itself with a young man named Orphan, a poet with aspirations of greatness. When the two people he cares most about in the whole world are suddenly killed, Orphan finds himself dragged into the terrible machinations of the sinister Bookman - terrorist to some, freedom fighter to others. Orphan soon finds himself aboard the Nautilius, on a course for the L’lle mysterieuse, with writer and adventurer Jules Verne. There he must uncover the connection between The Bookman’s deadly mission and the strange alien lizards that now sit upon the throne of England.

This is Lavie Tidhar’s first solo novel, and what an amazing start it is. Coming across like the bastard son of Kim Newman and Arthur Conan Doyle, and yet surprisingly Dickensian in its depiction of a squalled and decaying London at the backend of the 1800s, Tidhar’s novel is, in turns, beautiful, shocking and downright distasteful. Tidhar’s prose is rich and beautifully evocative, yet crisp, clear and alarmingly simplistic.

There is an odd, almost dreamlike quality to the book, sometimes giving the impression that the whole thing was furiously written in a fit of drug-addled euphoria. The fabric of the world appears worn in places too, allowing other fictitious worlds to encroach and overlap for brief pages at a time. At one point in the novel a bomb explodes, burying the hero in a cascade of nearby books, a glance across the titles plunges us into the worlds of Stephen King’s Castle Rock and Derry, Frank Herbert’s Dune saga, Robert Rankin’s Hugo Rune series, P.G. Wodehouse’s Blanding books, Dorothy L. Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey novels…the list goes on.

As with Newman’s wonderful Anno Dracula series, Tidhar sprinkles his novel liberally with characters from both fact and fiction, famous historical figures of the time brushing up against his own richly crafted characters as they wonder across this surreal landscape. In this remixed turn-of-the-century London Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis James Moriarty is Prime Minister, running Britain and its Empire beneath the shadow of the Le Lezards, while French novelist Jules Verne is both travel writer and intrepid explorer on the side – inspirational fodder for his future novels.

From fake Lord Byrons to ancient prophetic automatons and mohican-haired punk lizards this is a city-wide penny-dreadful peepshow, a Victorian pandemonium carnival that has spilled out onto the streets and embedded itself into the very social fabric. Two worlds, one human the other (literally) alien, poised on the brink of bloody revolution and only one person can stop it.

But is it Orphan or the Bookman?

Without a doubt The Bookman is the second best book I’ve read so far this year, with Kaaron Warren’s Walking The Tree still occupying the top spot. Proving, if proof were needed, that although Angry Robot's back catalogue has barely reached its twenties this little division of Harper Collins is producing some of the most exciting and important works of SF, Fantasy and Horror of the Twenty-First Century.

So don’t take your eyes off them.

The Bookman can be found at the Angry Robot website

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