Review: Camera Obscura by Lavie Tidhar (2011)

Camera Obscura by Lavie Tidhar
Angry Robot, 2011

Rating: B

After the pure enjoyment factor of The Bookman, the first novel in the loosely connected Bookman Histories, it was hard not to be excited to push forward onto Camera Obscura. While The Bookman was the adventure of a young man in search of lost love, Camera Obscura is a steampunk noir murder mystery featuring a kick ass heroine and a pile of bodies that keeps getting bigger. It is sort of a Chandler-esque gumshoe story crossed with League of Extraordinary Gentlemen style steampunk that pulls characters from all sorts of different works and puts them in strange situations.

Milady de Winter is a brilliant character so well-written that she begs to reappear. To compare her to female heroes in other novels and different mediums is to do her an injustice, as she is completely unique in her badassery. Strong black characters are rare in science fiction to begin with, and strong black female characters are even fewer and further between. Tidhar using a minority character in a steampunk setting is refreshing, and to have her be as strong a character as she is makes for excellence. Although the novel is enjoyable on its own merits, the most memorable part of Camera Obscura is surely its protagonist.

A little bit more than halfway through the novel, a traumatic and extraordinarily violent episode for Milady de Winter happens that not only changes her character significantly but changes the tone of the novel so drastically that it feels like a completely new story. While the first half is pretty straight forward (and enjoyable) point to point murder mystery, the second half reads like a twisted existentialist fantasy that is interesting but sometimes hard to follow and more difficult to enjoy. Tidhar obviously is a brilliant writer whose prose is careful and exciting with characters that leap off the page, but the change in mood makes the end result of Camera Obscura feel a bit more disjointed than it should.

Although it is easy to enjoy Camera Obscura without having read its predecessor, it is recommended that you read The Bookman first to get a sense of the world that the story takes place in before moving into this second installment. Both novels are completely unique experiences that are nothing like anything else in steampunk. Despite their flaws, they are essential reading in the steampunk subgenre, as being unique in the world of zeppelins and goggles is something that just doesn’t happen too often.

Review: Clementine by Cherie Priest (2010)

Clementine by Cherie Priest
Subterranean Press, 2010

Rating: C

Following the explosion of popularity that Cherie Priest’s steampunk zombie adventure novel Boneshaker gave her, it was only natural that it wouldn’t be long to see more from Priest and her universe. Clementine is the second release of the Clockwork Century, and the only of the four to date to be released by a company other than Tor Books. It is also only about half as long as the other three entries in the series, making it seem kind of like an attempt to cash in on the popularity of Boneshaker as quick as humanly possible.

The Clockwork Century is only conntected in as far as that they are set in the same world, in the same country, at the same time. All of the books are set during an alternate history steampunk version of the Civil War that has lasted much longer than it did in reality. Beyond the shared universe, there are only vague references to events and people from previous parts of the series, so they essentially stand alone. This is no different in Clementine, which follows an escaped-slave-turned-airship-captain Croggon Hainey as he tracks down his airship the Free Crow in a chase across America. He apparently stole the ship himself but doesn’t see the irony in being upset about the fact that his stolen airship has been stolen from him. The second (and less interesting) plot follows Maria Boyd, an ex-Confederate spy who is hired by the Union Army to stop Hainey from catching up to the airship that has been rebadged Clementine.

Taken on the simplest of terms, Clementine is a perfectly enjoyable steampunk romp of absolutely no substance. It is written capably, is short enough to keep even the most attention deficited readers from getting bored, and is so full of action that it would actually probably serve as a solid introduction to what steampunk is for someone who doesn’t generally read because they find it boring. Reading beyond just explosions and gunfights, however, there are some issues that cause irritation.

Having an escaped slave as the main character is a good opportunity to provide an African-Ameriacn sci-fi/fantasy hero when we have so few in print. Unfortunately, Priest plays to the unfortunate stereotype of Hainey being essentially a crook and a pirate, who is not really that smart and is prone to angry outbursts and violence. Complimenting his less than sterling personality, he is essentially completely apolitical; despite being a freed slave who escaped the south, he has no loyalty to the Union and is happy to pull jobs for either side. The easiest comparison for the character is if you were to take Nathan Fillion’s character Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly, take away his Browncoat loyalty, make him a bit dumber, and essentially squash any sense of honor. What you are left with is more or less a collection of racial stereotypes with a gun and a ship.

Fans who are able to read a simple adventure without being irritated by the probably unintentional racial undertones will find an enjoyable steampunk adventure of absolutely no substance. This is a perfectly acceptable way to enjoy a book, but it is a hollow enjoyment. Priest is a good writer, and continues to churn out books in this universe that get strong reviews from the majority of the reviewer community, but this one leaves a bad taste in the mouth despite being entertaining on a superficial level. Clementine hasn’t ruined the series, but it certainly hasn’t helped.

Review: The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar (2010)

The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar
Angry Robot, 2010

Rating: B+

In an alternate Victorian England where anthropomorphic lizard aliens from outer space are in control of the British monarchy, a young man named Orphan loses the love of his life in the crossfire between an anti-government revolutionary called the Bookman and Les Lizards, the name given to these strange lizard kings. The mystery deepens when, shortly after the death of his beloved, a blind beggar named Gilgamesh who Orphan often confided in disappears as well. The Bookman is essentially the story of this young man’s struggle to track down the Bookman and find a way to get his love back.

Angry Robot always seems to manage to put out books that generate significant interest on the strength of their book covers alone; novels like Beukes’ Zoo City and Dan Abnett’s Triumff would likely have never caught my eye if it weren’t for the absolute quality of the graphic design. Luckily, the strength of their literary output measures up to the perfection of their presentation. Lavie Tidhar is an extraordinarily talented writer, in terms not just of quality of storytelling but in pure prose; the writing in The Bookman is bordering on perfection. Even in the slower parts around the novel’s middle, the prose is consistently flawless and engaging.

It is easy to say that the first ten percent or so of the novel (leading up to the death of Lucy as detailed in the blurb) would be one of the strongest pieces of any science fiction or fantasy novel ever. The build-up of the story is picture perfect, with every word used to its absolute greatest possible output. If you are fortunate enough to have not read the blurb before hand (or in the case of this reviewer, not having read the blurb in long enough that I had no memory of it), the death of Lucy is an absolutely heart-breaking kick in the chest. Although perfection of the level achieved in the early chapters of The Bookman is hard to keep up, the novel as a whole turns out to be a wonderful steampunk adventure.

Victorian London has the tendency to be a bit of a dry setting; it has been done and done before by writers of all stripes since the era was actually current. It seems to be some kind of literary cultural obsession to remember fondly back to days that no one currently around was alive for, but Tidhar does it better than anyone in The Bookman. His lizard-led steampunk re-imagining of Victorian England is the perfect setting for adventure, and luckily a world he revisits in future novels.

There is a lot to say about the strengths of the book that would spoil too much, so to summarize: brilliantly written, strong characters, wonderful world, and an engaging story make for a novel that is absolutely a must-read despite a middle third that could have used a bit more excitement. Although the book uses borrows some other characters from fiction a la The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Bookman is far superior to that graphic novel series in execution. Here, the characters from Moby Dick, the various Sherlock Holmes tales, and otherwise, are used with much more restraint, but it makes the world of The Bookman feel much more its own. Absolutely a classic of the steampunk and alternate history genres.

Review: Reich TV by Jeff Pearce (2010)

Reich TV by Jeff Pearce
Gallivant Books, 2010

Rating: A

Alternate history is a crowded and often quite useless genre. How much can we really learn from aliens from the future giving gamma rays to the Viet Cong? It may have entertainment value, but the best in alternate history takes a bigger approach than this. Classics like Philip K. Dick’s Hugo award winning novel The Man in the High Castle and Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America spring to mind. Jeff Pearce’s Reich TV isn’t quite The Man in the High Castle, but it is just as good as The Plot Against America, if not better.

Unlike any of the alternate histories I had read prior to Reich TV, Pearce’s novel uses real life public figures as his main characters rather than his own creations. In one aspect, it makes the characterization process easier; you don’t have to create them yourself. On the other, though, it adds a lot of required research to a genre that by definition requires more in-depth study than any other genre of fiction. In the case of Reich TV, this use of real people is brilliantly executed. This is an outstandingly well-researched piece of speculative fiction.

At its core, Reich TV is a story about the way technology changes everything. Just in case it isn’t already obvious from the title and cover, Reich TV is set during World War II. The biggest technology advances of the century have come to be earlier than in reality, and this leads to a much larger influence of media on the scheme of things, on the ebb and flow of the conflict. Essayist and novelist George Orwell is a journalist from England, in Germany investigating the circumstances surrounding some mysterious deaths. The Marx Brothers are performing a weekly variety show in London being transmitted in Berlin that causes enough controversy to put their lives in danger. Dylan Thomas is their producer, who tears himself away from booze and women just long enough to focus on a new obsession: stopping the Nazis.

There are times in Reich TV where the pace could have been just a bit faster, especially around the middle third. It starts out very strong, and the story is attention grabbing very quickly. There’s a bit of a slowing around the middle, but it was still very enjoyable. Pearce writes wonderfully—so well that it is actually quite a surprise this wasn’t published by a more traditional, larger publishing company.

The strongest aspect of Reich TV is the characterization. Pearce’s portrayal of all of these seemingly larger than life figures is picture perfect. In reading the novel, one could entirely believe that Dylan Thomas, George Orwell, and Groucho Marx were exactly as Pearce wrote them and participated in the events as written. Pearce did an excellent job of immersing this reader in the world, and completely squelching any disbelief that someone might have had reading another alternate history book.

Of particular interest, aside from the great novel itself, is the section at the end when Pearce explains how much of the novel is based on reality, and how much his own creation. The inclusion of this several pages of explanation really managed to deepen my appreciation for the novel and how it was written. It was certainly no small task, and not something everyone could do. Reich TV is a pretty special book. Pearce is a brilliant and talented writer, as well as being spectacularly diverse: he has a couple other novels out that are in completely different sub-genres of speculative fiction, but they intrigue nonetheless. Reich TV is definitely a must read for anyone with an interest in alternate history.

Review: Lauren Beukes – Zoo City (2010)

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
Angry Robot, 2010

Rating: C

People of color in science fiction are rare. The genre is generally perceived as being something only for white people, no matter how many Samuel L. Jacksons show up in Star Wars films. It is an unfortunate thing, considering that the genre has been, in general, so forward thinking and ahead of its time in race relations and general civil rights. The first African-American woman to have a starring role on a television show was none other than Nichelle Nichols as Uhura on Star Trek. It seems that since the seventies and eighties, however, science fiction has become something of a white male’s club. With that unfortunate fact, it is refreshing to be able to pick up a sci-fi novel with two people of color on the cover.

Zoo City is set in South Africa, as racially divisive a place as there is in the world, where a young woman and ex-con named Zinzi makes a living as a tracker. She is what is referred to as a “zoo”, a person who has a sort of fantastical animal companion attached to her as a result of committing a serious crime. With this, she also has a gift of being able to track items down that mean something to her clients, and she is eventually thrown into a long chase for a piece of mystery. Readers will immediately compare the animal familiars to those of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, and rightfully so; Pullman’s work is even referenced in the novel, so it is fair to say it was an influence.

There are a lot of key strengths to Zoo City that would seem to lend to it being a standout novel. The urban fantasy world of South Africa that Beukes has developed is a wonderful playground, and characters like Zinzi and Benoit are memorable for their qualities both good and bad. It is refreshing to have characters that are not just vessels for plot, but that actually feel like genuine people with likable qualities and real flaws. Beukes also writes very well, with prose that is never too flowery but also keeps from ever feeling pedestrian.

The key problem with Zoo City is simply that the plot never really feels that exciting. As much as the characters grab the reader’s attention and as well developed sociologically and aesthetically the world of Zoo City is, the story itself leaves so much to be desired that in the end the novel doesn’t really manage to get all that much past average. Memorable characters and a wonderful setting are hard to come by, but without the story to drive it forward, there isn’t a lot to get excited about. Beukes is still a worthwhile writer who will certainly have better novels than this, as her gift for character will be the primary asset of her future output in fiction. Unfortunately, Zoo City is a little bit of a letdown.