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.

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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.