The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar
Published by Angry Robot (7 Jan 2010)
Review by Bridie Roman
Orphan, the protagonist and hero of the tale, is a poet and bookseller in the streets of London. He has a lover he is going to propose to and many friends and advisers, such as blind Gilgamesh and his political group, The Persons of Porlock. But this is no ordinary London, in the reality Lavie creates. This is a grimy yet vivid reimagining of Victorian London where our ruling monarchs are lizards and common humans brush shoulders with Automatons. Inside this intriguing world there is one who stands against les Lizards, The Bookman. The sinister myths about him are easily dismissed, especially by Orphan, until he makes an explosive reappearance and Orphan is thrown into circumstances he doesn’t fully comprehend and an adventure he doesn’t want to have.
This is a steampunk gem. The settings are marvellously detailed, giving you the feeling that there is a London in which Lizards reign and whales swim up the Thames to sing lullabies to the city dwellers. The technology is mystical yet mechanical, blending souls and machines into a fascinating mix that would spark one hell of a debate between philosophers. The society itself, in which poets and writers are revered, is pretty cool too, as you keep reading certain names often pop up that make you go “Hey! I’ve heard that somewhere!” Names dropped include Prime Minister Moriarty, Byron the Automaton and Captain Nemo. This particular feature of the book was fun and made much of it seem like an “in” joke.
The plot itself was interesting, fast paced and diverse. One minute Orphan is being abducted, the next he is a pirate on a ship. I felt the pace was a bit too rushed, as though Lavie was trying to cram a big book into fewer pages. A lot of explanation was left out in favour of intrigue and descriptions of how Orphan is feeling. I often had a feeling that everyone in the book knew more and that nothing was being fully explained to me, however I let my imagination run wild and that filled the gaps for me, if a little insufficiently.
This minor flaw for me, however, by no means made me dislike the book. In fact, I loved it. What made me love it? Possibly it was the characters, in particular Orphan, who I thought was a lovely chap who I could really sympathise with. I especially liked how he wasn’t at all a competent hero. He didn’t think ahead, he didn’t have a plan and he allowed himself to be a pawn in the giant chess game that was being played out around him. Why? I can’t tell you exactly, (I wouldn’t want to spoil it!), but he has some pretty good intentions!
Another reason to love The Bookman, is Lavie’s writing style, which was so powerful I was overcome with tears in less than 50 pages. In places my heart was racing with fear, in others excitement that the mystery was finally going to be revealed. All the time I felt that the story could’ve been real, despite the more fantastical elements, because of Lavie’s excellent precise details.
All in all, I would’ve settled for a bit more explanation to do with the mythology of the setting and the creatures within it but as the book stands I thought it was fantastic and definitely one to watch in 2010.
Bring on a sequel, Tidhar! I’m craving to know what happens after the ending!
Review by Bridie Roman