Title: The Bookman
Author: Lavie Tidhar
Genre: steampunk, metafiction, science fiction
Source: electronic ARC from publisher
My Rating: 8/10
“The Bookman’s only a myth,” Orphan said. Beside him, Gilgamesh slowly smiled.
“A myth,” he said. “Oh Orphan. This is the time of myths. They are woven into the present like silk strands from the past, like wire mesh from the future, creating an interlacing pattern a grand design, a repeating motif. Don’t dismiss myth boy. And never, ever, dismiss the Bookman.”
Gilgamesh is right – the Bookman is not to be dismissed, especially when he starts putting bombs in books for an unknown scheme. And Orphan is a poet, so he of all people should understand the power of myth. Then Orphan’s fiancé Lucy is killed when the Bookman uses ones of his bombs to sabotage the launch of a Martian space probe, and Orphan goes looking for the mysterious terrorist after being told that the he can bring Lucy back to life. Somehow, the Bookman is tied up with Les Lézards, the reptilian royals who sit on the throne. Yes, the British Royal Family are giant lizards. In this alternate vision of Victorian England, the lizards supposedly evolved separately on a remote island (called Caliban’s Island), and now they rule the Everlasting Empire. But the reptilian royals don’t rule without dissent; rebel factions quietly but vehemently oppose the monarchy, and the novel sees London the verge of revolution. Orphan’s journey plunges him into the rebel underground, sends him on an ocean voyage and finds him on a pirate ship as he tries to reach the half-mythical Caliban’s Island. As he travels, he learns disturbing truths about who and what the Bookman is, as well as unravelling the mystery of who is own parents are and why he’s an orphan.
I worry that the bit about the lizards might make this sound like a silly book, but please believe me when I say it’s not. Because it’s awesome. The Bookman has a rich, metafictional steampunk world that I fell in love with in the opening chapter when Orphan reads Gilgamesh a news article about a notorious terrorist group called The Persons of Porlock who dressed up in clown outfits and shouted fragments from Edward Lear’s Book of Nonsense at Oscar Wilde who had been “engaged, in his own words, in a work of composition of the highest order”. “[A] confused Wilde said the title of his new play was to be called The Importance of Being Something, but for the life of him he could no longer recall what that something was.”
The book is laced with literary references like this, which is something I always enjoy, but since I am no expert on the classics, I know that every literary reference that amuses me, I know there is at least one that I don’t get. Which is fine. It just means that a re-read a couple of years down the line will be that much richer, with all those lovely “Oh! Now I get it!” moments.
Included in the cast of characters are literary figures such as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes, Irene Adler and Moriarty; authors Jules Verne and Karl Marx; and Tom Thumb. A hundred others pop up in minor roles or brief mentions, such as when Orphan is described as having “once met, by chance, the ancient Wordsworth, as the great man was leaving a coffee house in Soho”.
Not surprisingly then, The Bookman reminds me of Jasper Fforde’s Bookworld series, featuring literary detective Thursday Next. It’s also alternative history, set in a world where literature, especially classic literature, is much more pervasive than usual, forming the basis of society’s culture and entertainment. The Bookworld series however, has a very oddball, mostly humorous world and plot. It’s light-hearted, with serious moments. The Bookman on the other hand is darker, edgier, more intense with a strong sense of the epic lurking below the surface. Which for me means it’s simply a whole lot cooler.
One thing in particular that I like is that there’s a touch of cyberpunk to this steampunk tale (actually I’m not that familiar with steampunk; forgive me if cyberpunk themes are common). Among the competing political forces of London are the automatons – the steampunk version of cyborgs – who are fighting for the right to be treated like humans. Some of them are clearly machines, while others are so perfectly crafted to look human that it’s hard to see the difference. Identities are further complicated by the fact that there are machines who don’t even know they’re machines, living under the belief that they’re flesh-and-blood humans. As in the cyberpunk genre, the novel poses question of what it is to be human, and the disturbing notion that humans and machines are not so very different as people like to think. “What do the automatons want?”, Orphan asks one of them.
The artificial eyes blinked at Orphan. “The right to exist. Freedom.”
“But you are machines,” Orphan said, and the Turk’s head turned in a slow odd shake, left to right to left.
“So are you,” it said.
Later Orphan encounters another automaton, and his reaction is to ask who owns or controls him. The automaton laughs at him and protests “Can I not be of my own party? [...]Am I a machine, to be used and owned?” Orphan begins to understand their plight when he starts to feel more and more like a machine himself, realising how much he is being manipulated, how he has become the tool of people more powerful than himself.
As a character, Orphan is an archetypal orphan of myth and folklore with a mysterious but great destiny. He is also an incarnation of Orpheus, the poet and musician of Greek mythology. When Orpheus lost his love Eurydice to a snake bite, he was so overcome with grief that he descended to the underworld to plead with Hades and Persephone for her return. Like Orpheus, Orphan is a poet who lost the woman he loves, and he goes on a quest and bargains with a powerful otherworldly being to bring her back to life. In the Greek myth, Orpheus is told that he may lead Eurydice out of Hell, but he must not look back at her or he will lose her again, this time forever. In The Bookman, Orphan is often compared to a pawn on a chessboard, and “[p]awns can never go back. They can only move forward. To capture or be captured.”
Orphan may lack the power to control his fate, but that didn’t make his adventure any less exciting or the novel’s world any less fascinating. Admittedly, you might feel that certain aspects of the world could be been better explored and that the book leaves too many loose ends dangling. Quite a few reviewers have complained that there are too many ideas in this book, making it chaotic and unsatisfying. While I’ve had this problem in other novels, I didn’t find it here at all. Instead I found the flood of ideas captivating and loads of fun. And as far as exploring the world further and resolving plotlines goes, The Bookman is the first in a trilogy called The Bookman Histories. The second book, Camera Obscura was released this year, and the final instalment, The Great Game is due in 2012.
Since it’s been quite a while since I’ve had a giveaway and because I liked this book so damn much, I decided that I should do the decent thing and buy someone a copy of The Bookman.
To enter, please do the following:
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Following via RSS feed and any method other than those listed above will not count. I will be using Book Depository to send the prize, so this giveaway is international, open to any area where Book Depository delivers. Entries will stay open until Tuesday 2 August, and I will announce the winner on Wednesday 3 August. Good luck!