No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, February 07, 2013

2012/69: The Bookman -- Lavie Tidhar

The fat man looked taken aback. "Why, I thought my name is well known even in that lizards'-spawn hell of yours across the Channel," he said.
"I'm sorry, I don't–"
The fat man drew himself up. He snapped his fingers and his servant threw him his cane. The man caught it single-handedly and twirled it. "The name," he said stiffly, "is Verne. Jules Verne." [p. 135]

A 19th-century London ruled by the Calibanic dynasty known as Les Lezards; an orphan youth named Orphan; the launch of a Martian space-probe by one Professor Moriarty, Prime Minister; the automata, who wish only freedom ... Lavie Tidhar's steampunk novel, set in a world whose history is slightly askew, is a remix jam-packed with familiar names and allusions. I especially liked Orphan's perusal of titles in the bookshop: "Jo March's A Phantom Hand... Colonel Sebastian Moran's Heavy Game of the Western Himalayas... George Edward Challenger's Some Observations Upon a Series of Kalmuk Skulls... In My Father's House by Princess Irulan... Eustace Clarence Scrubb's Diary... Augustus Whiffle's The Care of the Pig. Dr Stephen Maturin's Thoughts on the Prevention of Diseases most usual among Seamen...Hugo Rune's The Book of Ultimate Truths. Harriet Vane's The Sands of Crime..." [pp119-20].

The Bookman is a swashbuckling adventure that's also philosophical, witty and -- despite the rollicking plot -- quietly menacing. Orphan feels like the hero of a nineteenth-century novel, naive and idealistic, ignorant of the bigger picture: he also, it has to be said, suffers from a certain two-dimensionality at times. But the scenery is rich enough that Orphan's inadequacies never overwhelm the reader. And, though I didn't engage with most of the female characters, Inspector Irene Adler more than made up for their colourlessness.

That said, I was deeply disappointed by the ending, which felt slight and anticlimactic. If I'd known this was the first of a trilogy (now complete!) I think I'd have read the whole book differently, expecting a different pace and only partial resolution. I have now acquired the complete trilogy as a single e-book. I shall read it ... soon. So many books! So little time!

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