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.