The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar

Posted: February 9, 2015 in reading
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The Bookman is the first book I’ve read by Lavie Tidhar, who’s developing quite a name for  smart and varied genre fiction. An idea-packed and often exciting steampunk novel, I enjoyed it both in its own right and because of how it got me reflecting on the nature of the genre.

Steampunk Spectacle

The Bookman is the story of Orphan, a young man living in a version of 19th century London where the British Empire is ruled by lizards, the streets are full of literary and historical figures, and there are conspiracies lurking in every shadow. As the book unfolds, Orphan is drawn deeper and deeper into a tangle of plots and schemes, which lead to revelations about the world he lives in, and about himself.

As 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 trying too hard to be smart, especially in the early chapters. But this density of ideas is one of its great joys – it makes for a fascinating and varied setting.

Once the story gets past its first act it’s also pretty exciting. A departure from London leads to exotic locations and action adventure elements that I really hadn’t expected. It becomes an exciting book that’s also smart, not just a smart book being smart. And that makes it a whole lot more fun to read.

Reflecting on the Genre

At the end, I found myself wondering about the elements that had been thrown together in this story. Mrs Beaton, Karl Marx, Sherlock Holmes and an automaton of Lord Byron all exist together in Orphan’s world. There are lizards, robots, giant mushrooms, pirates, the list goes on. Jules Verne shares a journey with one of his own characters. In a very real way, it makes no sense.

But isn’t that part of the joy of steampunk as a genre? When we read fantasy we’re often imagining other worlds that could exist out there, unrelated to our own. When we read science fiction we’re imagining possible futures. But with steampunk we take elements of history, old literature and modern imagination and cram them together in a way that we know makes no sense. We can’t believe even for a moment that Marx and Holmes ate at the same restaurant, because we know that one of them is real and the other isn’t.

Steampunk isn’t about what could be. It’s a never-land whose success depends not on the plausibility of concepts, but on successful execution. And Tidhar has executed a smart book that’s often exciting and always intriguing. If you can get through those dense early chapters you’ll be well rewarded by what follows.

Just don’t worry too much about what sort of sense it makes.

  1. Ben Burston says:

    lavie is a fine writer and his books are weird and wonderful. I have several of his PS Publishing books. ‘Osama’in particular is pretty interesting. He’s prolific and going places. He also seems to be the last writer standing at a party. Which makes him cool, in my book

    • Recommendations don’t come much higher than ‘Burston says you’re a literary party animal’. Clearly one to watch. The Violent Century looks particularly appealing to me – superheroes combined with 20th century history.

  2. glenatron says:

    We know Karl Marx is real, but is the Karl Marx we understand at this distance any less an imaginary construct than Holmes by this point?

    • To the extent that history and our image of it is an imaginative construct and not just objectively the past, you’re right. But our historical imagining of Marx is at least grounded in our best understanding of the facts, whereas Holmes doesn’t have that root.

      So I guess I’d argue that they’re both imaginary constructs now, but Holmes more so.

      Actually, this fits nicely with The Bookman, which includes an automaton construct of Lord Byron – an imaginary construct that’s a construct reimagining a real person.

  3. […] Obscura, the sequel to Lavie Tidhar’s The Bookman, picks up nowhere near where that first story left off. It’s several years later, in another […]

  4. […] the steampunk of Lavie Tidhar. I worked my way with interest through the oddity that was The Bookman. I read its sequel Camera Obscura with great excitement. And so at last I came to the final […]

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