Book Review: Lavie Tidhar’s The Bookman

Hey everybody, looks like it’s time for some more Steampunk.

The Bookman is probably the steampunkiest book I’ve read so far this year. The goggles and such are just window dressing in Soulless, and Perdido Street Station really is its own thing. In contrast, The Bookman pretty much runs down the checklist of various steampunky tropes (goggles, airships, fancy font for the cover, etc).

Lavie Tidhar’s first novel, The Bookman, centers around a young man named Orphan. So right away, you can tell things are going to get a little metatextual. The book reminds me of Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series, in that it’s populated by a whole bunch of literary characters: Irene Adler, both Holmes Brothers, Moriarty, Sir Harry Flashman V.C., Herbert West, Dr. Moreau, and a dozen more characters (likely from stuff I haven’t read) are mentioned in passing at some point or another. On top of this is a motley mix of historical characters like Jules Verne, Thomas Edison, and Karl Marx.

I did, however, catch an odd little historical snag- at one point, Orphan is given a Colt Peacemaker, which a character describes as a gift from Colt himself…except there’s no United States in the world of The Bookman, so it seems kind of odd to still have a Samuel Colt…but then again, this is nitpicking a book that’s about reptilian royalty and strange alien monsters.

Oh yeah, I should mention the English Royal Family is made up of actual lizard people in this book. That’s just the way things are. Things are fairly weird here, which is fun. I dunno if I’d call it New Weird, however- the whole cast of various literary and historical characters make it seem a little too derivitave for that.

At the start of the novel, Orphan remains blissfully unaware of the strange goings-on around him, which makes sense, because he’s more focused on being in love with his girlfriend, Lucy. This doesn’t last long, however, as Lucy is soon killed in a terrorist attack by the titular Bookman. Dun dun dun.

The rest of the novel concerns Orphan’s quest to find Lucy’s killer- and possibly even bring her back. He’s ‘recruited’ by The Bookman to act as a spy, at which point he travels the world, gets into various scrapes, and learns more about the secret history of the British empire. There’s airships and lizard pirates and giant spiders and all kinds of convoluted plotting. Oh, and Orphan really turns out to have a secret destiny heritage, because of course he does.

As one might expect from his name, Orphan is a dull character. He’s passive, getting sent from one place to another in search of (and later employed by) the Bookman. Things just sort of happen to Orphan, and every now and again someone expositions at him, telling him how he really doesn’t know what’s going on, blah blah blah. There’s really not much to distinguish Orphan from a long line of Special Destiny Dudes who’ve been the center of countless other novels. One could argue this is an intentional, metatextual choice on Tidhar’s part, but that might be reading a bit too much into it.

A great measure of a fictional character is the question ‘would I want to spend more time reading/watching about this character in a sequel?’ And in Orphan’s case, the answer is a resounding “meh.”

Still, if you’re in the mood for something vaguely metatextual and steampunky, The Bookman is a fun distraction.

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1 Comment

  1. I agree with you on a lot about this book. It didn’t live up to the excitement I expect, though there was a lot of fascinating stuff in it. The sequel, Camera Obscura, is far better in my opinion, and leaves Orphan behind in favour of a more interesting protagonist.

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