Lizard Kings, Pirates & the Mechanical Turk

The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar

Steampunk is a difficult category to get to grips with sometimes with its spec fiction take on Victorian England with added fantasy elements. Tidhar’s The Bookman has a great premise – a terrorist is setting off bombs in London hidden in books and unfortunately one of them blows up Lucy, the beloved of a young poet called Orphan. Orphan vows to avenge her and to catch the Bookman, but it also appears that the Bookman is interested in him.  He goes to see the Mechanical Turk for advice and this is the start of an adventure that will take him down into subterranean London, in Jules Verne’s submarine Nautilus, on a pirateship on the high seas and to a mysterious mushroomed island where everything becomes clear – the Bookman, the lizards and Orphan himself …

Orphan, who really is an orphan and knows no other name, lives in a different Victorian London that is ruled by Les Lézard – the aristocracy is a race of reptiles!  The city is peopled by a wide range of characters, both fictional and real, but also simulacra and automata abound.  Moriarty is Prime Minister, Isabella Beeton is a freedom-fighter, and Byron is a machine so real it can fool nearly anyone.   So you can see that fact and fiction are entirely entwined.  The Mechanical Turk, by the way, was a chess playing robot con invented in the late 1700s, (it had a real chess player hidden inside), but here he is a real automaton and oracle.The author also shoehorns in many, many literary references – from the Person from Porlock (a mysterious visitor who stopped Coleridge from finishing Kubla Khan), to much of Jules Verne – the mushroomed island comes from Journey to the Centre of the Earth;  there are countless characters from Conan Doyle and nods to H.G.Wells too.

I wanted to really like the book for it was full of good ideas, but the plot was too convoluted – there were far too many different factions involved. Orphan was also a very passive hero – had he done more of the swashing and buckling, it would have been much more fun.  Primarily though, I was too busy playing spot the reference all the time during its 395 pages.   I’ve read a few steampunk novels before though, and rather liked them…  I’d recommend The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling as a classic of the genre, or The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters by G W Dahlquist for a racy and pacy doorstep of steampunk fun.  The Bookman is undoubtedly ambitious, and Tidhar’s writing wasn’t bad, but it didn’t quite work.  (6.5/10)

This post was republished into its original place in my blog’s timeline from my lost posts archive

Source: Review copy

Lavie Tidhar, The Bookman (Angry Robot, 2010) paperback 432 pages.

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