A Dense Stew of Ideas – Lavie Tidhar’s Bookman Histories

Posted: January 6, 2015 in reading
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Last May, everwalker, aka fellow writer and blogger AC Macklin, lent me her copy of Lavie Tidhar’s Bookman Histories. Since then, both our lives have taken some big twists and turns, and that feels like the appropriate context for reading this book. Because this week I finally started reading Bookman, and blimey, this one is a wild, weird ride.

A Huge Serving of Ideas

I’m only a hundred pages into Tidhar’s collected Bookman novels, so I can’t evaluate these stories as a whole. But there’s enough going on that it made me want to talk about it, and that’s usually a good sign.

The Bookman setting is a strange melange of steampunk, literary playfulness and a dash of fantasy. Set in a Victorian England ruled by lizards, in which the elite are driven through the streets in steam cars and Professor Moriarty is Prime Minister, from the outset it’s overflowing with ideas. There are secret societies, strange conspiracies, whales singing in the Thames. An ancient hero of Asian mythology is living as a tramp under a bridge – or possibly he’s just a really well read tramp. Political philosopher Karl Marx plots with household management legend Mrs Beaton while they watch lizards fight in the back room of a seedy pub.

For the sheer mass of concepts and juxtaposition alone, this book is worth reading.

Doubling Up On the Difficulty

That said, this is far from an easy read. The prose flows nicely, but it’s so densely packed with concepts that you have to work to untangle what’s going on. In fact, there’s two layers to that work, and so two ways in which the book could deter a casual reader.

Firstly, this is clearly written by and for the genre savvy. As I’ve discussed before, world building that seems subtle and sophisticated to a science fiction and fantasy fan can be bewildering to a casual reader. At the extreme, a novel like The Bookman takes effort to untangle for even the most dedicated steampunk fan, with its density of concepts and the implications hidden behind each offbeat revelation. It’s effort I consider worthwhile, but it means that it’s not casual reading to relax to late at night. You earn the rewards.

Secondly, there are a lot of literary references . The whole setting is built around them, and together with the use of books as bombs, they make clear that this is a story about stories, not just about its own contents. That’s no bad thing – art can achieve a lot by turning and reflecting on itself. It creates a tone that’s very similar to Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a fabulous mixture of familiar characters and hidden depths that makes a fantastically rich setting.

But just like the League, it also has its problems. You don’t need to get the literary references to follow the story. But their frequency means that, if you don’t get them, the story seems to be taking irrelevant detours, the narrative stalling in its flow to add little meaningless details. Later volumes of the League have been more about this than about character or story, putting me off a comic series whose early volumes I love. Similarly, Bookman is at risk of losing my attention if it becomes too mired in its clever games.

Are You the Audience?

I’m writing this now, rather than waiting to finish this book, because I think it’s worth taking the time to think about how books and audiences match up. Lavie Tidhar’s Bookman Histories has a perfect audience that is both genre savvy and well read in Victorian and classical literature. A wider audience of science fiction, fantasy and steampunk fans will enjoy it if they enjoy books that reward reflection and analysis with a deeper understanding. But I’d be surprised if casual readers, or those looking for an adventure in a world far from our own, would get much out of this.

Me, I’m really glad I’m reading it. I think it’s going to take a while to get through, but it’s worth it for the concepts even though I don’t get all the references. Whether it’s worth your time really depends upon what sort of reader you are. And that might be how any review of a book should end.

  1. glenatron says:

    It sounds intriguing, but a little reminiscent of the Thursday Next stories, which I almost liked only they were so goddamn smug that it drove me up the wall. I think there is lots of room for interesting metafictional storytelling, but those weren’t it and slightly put me off the whole thing.

    • I haven’t read the Thursday Next books, but I think Bookman might be just a little less focused on showing off its own smarts, so might not annoy you so much. It’s certainly not down there with Umberto Eco’s Prague Cemetery, which felt like a bunch of historical references strung together without passion or pleasure. That said, the two pages of street-vendors’ poems about their goods were a bit much.

  2. […] of history for richer world building. How to reference other things without it becoming smug or putting the reader off. How to weave an intricate tangle of events for the protagonist to fall […]

  3. […] still slowly working my way through this, and it’s still worth the effort. Somewhere around page 180 of the first book things have […]

  4. […] heavy exposition of Kate Elliott’s Cold Magic and the dense intellectual sprawl of Lavie Tidhar’s Bookman, it was great to have something that cracked along at such a pace, that was smart but still easy to […]

  5. […] I discussed in a previous post, this book is densely packed with ideas and imagery, so much so that it can feel like it’s […]

  6. […] when the book is reliant on those references for its meaning, when they come thick and fast as in The Bookman or Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery, it gets in the way of my reading. The thick mass of […]

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