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: Morlock Night by K.W. Jeter (1979)

Morlock Night by K.W. Jeter
Angry Robot, 1979 (orig)

Rating: B+

It seems an incomplete picture of what steampunk is if one does not at least mention the earliest works. Although Homunculus didn’t turn out to be as enjoyable a read as one would hope, K.W. Jeter’s Morlock Night pretty much was exactly what anyone could hope for when it comes to excellence in the earliest days of the steampunk sci-fi movement. It is worth mentioning that Jeter is also responsible for The Glass Hammer, a cyberpunk novel of such quality that it is second only to the first two books of William Gibson’s original Sprawl trilogy, and ought to be thought of as a classic of that subgenre.

Morlock Night is not the first The Time Machine sequel written by someone else, but is one of the better known ones. The basic idea is that one of the attendants of the party in which the Time Traveler told the story of his adventures to the future is having a chat with a man named Dr. Ambrose about whether or not the story is actually true, and by the time he gets home he finds himself thrust into a London that has been taken over by the Morlocks of the future, who appear to have stolen the Time Traveler’s machine.

In many ways, Morlock Night is a standard fantasy romp. The narrator has to find various copies of Excalibur and put them together to restore the legendary sword to power, and give it to a reincarnation of King Arthur so that he may drive the evil from England and save the world from the Morlocks. Jeter writes absolutely brilliantly, though, and the author captures the narrative voice of Wells so perfectly that if one were told this was written in the late 19th century, it would be hard to doubt. Comparing it to his other works, it is quite remarkable how well Jeter manages to change his writing style to fit the mood of the piece without it feeling hackneyed. He has dabbled in everything from cyberpunk to Star Trek and Star Wars tie-ins and otherwise, so at the very least he is a diverse writer.

To compound the good points of Jeter’s writing overall, his characters are really compelling. The narrator (Edwin Hocker) is a sympathetic character that is very easy to like, and the woman Tafe who accompanies him throughout is a perfect steampunk heroine who frequently kicks ass and takes names. Dr. Ambrose is similarly interesting; there is really nothing bad to say about any of the writing or character development at all. This novel is really gripping early on and only gets better as it goes on. Perhaps the overall plot was a little simplistic, but it was still deeply enjoyable.

Review: Homunculus by James P. Blaylock (1986)

Homunculus by James P. Blaylock
Ace Books, 1986

Rating: F

In the realtively short history of the steampunk movement, a handful of novels are seen by scholars of the genre to be at the forefront of its emergence into the contemporary science fiction and fantasy literary scene. At the very earliest, books like H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days are seen to be the inspiration for steampunk, but novels like K.W. Jeter’s Morlock Night and James P. Blaylock’s Homunculus are seen to be the actual manisfestation of the genre as we know it today. Morlock Night is an exciting steampunk sequel to Wells’ The Time Machine that is even more fun than the original. Homunculus is arguably the most dryly written science fiction novel ever, and is roughly the literally equivalent of going to the dentist.

A zeppelin whose pilot has been dead for some years has been orbiting London for a while, and is slowly falling towards a crash. Naturally, this is the cause of some interest from the people living in the city, as scientist and explorer Langdon St. Ives wants to know more, while sometimes counterfeiter and always evangelist Shiloh is convinced that his space alien father is on the falling dirigible. If one were to peruse websites like Wikipedia and otherwise for information on the general plot outline of the novel, you would be hard pressed to find more than that, because it is hard to recall if anything ever actually happens in the book.

Although there is certainly a steampunk veneer, Homunculus reads more like a poorly written Victorian novel; it completely lacks the sense of adventure implied by the term “steampunk”, and instead feels more like a bunch of stuffy and completely unlikable Englishmen sitting around and talking inanely. They essentially spend the majority of the novel gossiping about the locals in such a boring way that by the time the characters actually manage to get up and do something, it is just about impossible to care about what they’re doing or why they’re doing it. By about the 30% mark of the novel, it is clear that Homunculus is an absolutely overrated and completely boring novel that should serve only as a cautionary tale, and not as an inspiration.

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.