Review of vN by Madeline Ashby

vN - The First Machine Dynast by Madeline Ashby

Title: vN
Series: The Machine Dynasty #1
Author: 
Madeline Ashby
Published: 
31 July 2012
Publisher: 
Angry Robot
Genre: 
science fiction
Source: 
own copy
Rating: 
8/10

Last month I reviewed Life of Pi and mentioned that it reaffirmed my philosophy of finishing books even if I don’t like them, because the ending might be redeeming. There are times when I just stop reading, but instead of abandoning the book altogether, I try to take the optimistic approach – perhaps I picked the wrong time to read it, and I should try again later. This has proven to be a good strategy in the past, and again with Madeline Ashby’s vN.

I first started reading it a few months ago, just before and during a trip to SA. I was distracted by travel stuff, and found the novel disappointing. It didn’t seem nearly as exciting or interesting as the many rave reviews suggested, and put it aside at the halfway point. I gave it another shot a few weeks ago, giving it my full attention this time, and was rewarded with an excellent, well-paced story about AI and all the issues surrounding their creation and existence in human society.

The story is mostly told from the perspective of 5-year-old Amy, a self-replicating von Neumann machine. Amy might be a cyborg, but her human father and vN mother are raising her to believe that she’s as much a ‘real’ girl as her human counterparts, and deserves all the same rights and privileges. Her father Jack also makes an effort to show his wife Charlotte that he loves her and takes her emotions seriously, seeing her as a person, not a robot. I particularly liked his description of her here, bringing together human attributes and vN physiology with a suggestion of something beyond that:

Charlotte was different. Charlotte was vN. She had no hormones to influence her decision-making, no feast-or-famine cycle driving dopamine or serotonin. She didn’t get cramps or headaches or nightmares or hangovers. She didn’t need retail therapy or any other kind. Her “childhood” was difficult – her mother abandoned her in a junkyard – but her spirit was as strong as the titanium sheathing her graphene coral bones, her personal integrity as impermeable as the silicone coating the polymer-doped memristors in her skin, her wit as quick as the aerogel currents wafting through the musculature of her body. Charlotte was a self-replicating humanoid. Charlotte didn’t do drama. Until now.

It sound idyllic, but Jack and society as a whole haven’t quite adjusted to the idea of machines as people. The solution is not simply for vN to be treated like humans – they’re not human, and their needs, abilities and weaknesses mean that co-existence requires something far more radical than mere acceptance. Amy’s story proves this, beginning with her parents’ (or her father’s?) decision to ‘keep her little’. In an imitation of human life, vNs start out as babies and grow into adults, but they can do this in a matter of weeks. Jack, being human, wants Amy to age slowly, enjoy her childhood and grow gradually into adulthood as a human would. To do this he has to starve her so that she doesn’t grow as rapidly as she’s designed to. She’s basically spent her whole life in a state of starvation that her father has imposed on her with his kind, loving intentions.

Amy’s hunger is the catalyst for the main story. Her grandmother – a terrifying rogue vN – pitches up at Amy’s nursery school graduation, murders a small child, and attacks Charlotte. Amy runs to her mother’s aid and involuntary eats her grandmother in the first full meal she’s ever had:

she’d only meant to bite her, but Amy’s diet left her so hungry all the time. When her jaws opened all the digestive fluid came up, a whole lifetime’s worth, hot and bitter as angry tears. It ate the flesh off her granny’s bones. By then, Amy couldn’t stop. The smoke was too sweet. The bone dust was too crunchy. And the sensation of being full, really full, of her processes finally having enough energy to clock at full speed, was spectacular. Being hungry meant being slow. It meant being stupid. It felt like watching each packet of information fly across her consciousness on the wings of a carrier pigeon. But her granny tasted like Moore’s Law made flesh.

It’s enough for little Amy’s body to grow into an adult’s, but the most important aspect of this incident (to the authorities at least) is that Amy’s failsafe malfunctioned. All vN are equipped with failsafes to prevent them from harming humans. They feel pain or can even shut down if they see a human being harmed, so Amy should have been killed or put in a coma from seeing her classmate murdered.

Amy is jailed, but escapes and goes on the run with another vN, an eco-friendly model named Javier who is younger than Amy but happens to be ‘pregnant’ with his thirteenth child. With Javier, Amy and the reader gradually get a better sense of what it means to be a vN, and what the vN mean to humans. The vN were created by a fundamentalist church, with the intention of providing slaves to serve the humans left behind after the Rapture. Their primary function was sex, so they were created with “all the right holes and such. So people can indulge themselves without sin”. Consequently vN are impeccably beautiful, they are self-replicating so that humanity will never run short on slaves, and their failsafes not only ensure that they can’t harm humans but that they love humans and want to please them even though they’re conscious of their pre-programmed enslavement.

The implications of these perverse origins and the failsafe are contemplated or played out throughout the novel, often juxtaposed with the ideal of egalitarian vN/human relationships. Jack worries about the possibility of a paedophile taking Amy, because her failsafe would make it impossible for her to resist. Amy actually later encounters a paedophile who has two vN children so that he’s not tempted to hurt ‘real’ children. At one point Javier is captured by bounty hunters because he lacks the power to fight them.

The authorities are after Amy, because a vN who can witness human pain is also a vN who can inflict it. Humans are terrified of what she represents – a powerful, autonomous machine who isn’t forced to adore them or incapable of hurting them. What I kept thinking as I read, was that Amy is a machine who is far too human for humans to handle. She is a creation who threatens to surpass her creator and break out of the slavery she was born into.

There is a robot revolution in the making, initiated not by Amy but by Portia, the grandmother she devoured. Portia argues that “Sentience is not freedom […] Real freedom is the ability to say no” and this is the core of her plans for the vN. Unfortunately for her, she now exists only as an entity in Amy’s head, gradually revealing the details of her plan to Amy and the reader. Most of the time she insults and badgers her granddaughter for being so naive, but she offers guidance too. At times Portia is able to take over Amy’s body, typically using it to get out of tough situations with extreme violence. In a series of flashbacks, we also get glimpses of the incredible cruelty – including murder and torture – that Portia has inflicted to achieve her goals

Despite being a clone of her grandmother, Amy is her complete opposite, proving that she is more than the sum of programming. Amy might look like an adult, but up until very recently, she’s been living the life of a 5-year-old child, and she’s still adapting to the transformation. She has childish habits (like playing in a sandbox) and asks odd questions that reveal her lack of knowledge about the world. She knows little about sex and has to adjust to having a mature, sexually attractive female body. Shortly after her prison escape, she changes into a child’s t-shirt and Javier politely averts his gaze and suggests that she put on a baggy jersey. Amy actually dislikes her large breasts, remarking that they’re “weird” and “stupidly inefficient” since they serve no purpose for vN. She tends to be too trusting, and while Portia resorts to violence too easily, Amy’s attempts to be kind and gentle sometimes cause just as much trouble. Her main goal is to find and help her parents, while Portia has much grander schemes, and Javier just wants to stay out of prison but finds himself inexplicably dedicated to Amy.

I remember thinking that this story was a bit flat the first time around, but I obviously wasn’t paying enough attention because there are so many nuances at play here – little details and debates about tech, gender, character, ethics, what it means to be human, what it means to be vN, what it means to be ‘real’. While I wasn’t completely blown away by the novel once I’d finished, the more I think about it, the more impressed I am with its story and ideas, and all the interesting questions it raises, both for the characters and as a serious consideration of the possibility of AI in human society. I’d happily launch into more discussions if I didn’t think it would make the review excessively long and rob you of the pleasure of seeing it all unfold yourself. However, I will say that everything about Amy’s journey and the vN in human society screams with the need for revolution. I have no idea where Ashby is going to take the Machine Dynasty series from here, and I can’t wait to find out.

Up for Review: vN

vN by Madeline Ashby (Angry Robot)

vN is Book 1 in a new sci fi series entitled The Machine Dynasty.

Blurb from the Angry Robot website:

Amy Peterson is a von Neumann machine, a self-replicating humanoid robot.

For the past five years, she has been grown slowly as part of a mixed organic/synthetic family. She knows very little about her android mother’s past, so when her grandmother arrives and attacks her mother, little Amy wastes no time: she eats her alive.

Now she carries her malfunctioning granny as a partition on her memory drive, and she’s learning impossible things about her clade’s history – like the fact that the failsafe that stops all robots from harming humans has failed… Which means that everyone wants a piece of her, some to use her as a weapon, others to destroy her.

vN will be published on 31 July 2012 in the USA and Canada, and on 2 August for the rest of the world. Madeline Ashby has written a thesis on science fiction and has a master’s degree in anime and manga, which I think is pretty cool. You can  learn more about her on:
– her Angry Robot profile page
– her website, where you’ll also find a list of her published short stories, some of which you can read for free 🙂

Review of Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

Title: Blackbirds
Author: Chuck Wendig
Series: Miriam Black #1
Published: 24 April 2012 (USA & Canada); 3 May 2012 (worldwide)
Publisher: Angry Robot Books
Genre: urban fantasy
Source: review copy from the publisher
Rating: 7/10

Miriam Black can see when people are going to die. One touch, skin on skin, is all it takes to give her a vision of exactly when and how it’s going to happen. Several years of living with this curse have made her a caustic, jaded human being, and she’s only in her twenties. She has no job, but gets by looking for people who are going to die soon, stalking them, and taking their money when they kick the bucket. It’s enough for her to survive on, and she never gets close to anyone.

Then she hitches a ride with a truck driver named Louis. Unlike most of the people she encounters in her seedy lifestyle, he’s a nice, gentle guy. She likes him, she’s attracted to him. But then she shakes his hand and sees that he will be horribly murdered in a month’s time, a moment after seeing her and speaking her name.

If there’s one thing Miriam has learnt over the years it’s that she should never get involved in people’s deaths. “It is what it is”, is her refrain. “Fate gets what fate wants,” and when she tries to prevent someone’s death she just finds herself playing right into fate’s hands. The problem now is that Louis is going to die because he tried to help her. She tries in vain to get away from him, only to get entangled with a con artist named Ashley, who’s on the run from some extremely dangerous people. Ashley puts Miriam on a path that leads straight back to Louis and his impending doom. Miriam knows that you can’t stop fate, but for Louis’s sake, she’s going to try.

One of the characters in Blackbirds remarks that Miriam is “just not who I expected”. I feel exactly the same way. Not that I ever really expect to encounter a woman like Miriam. She’s a trashy, foul-mouthed, morbid woman. She’s weird. She loves to lie and she’s very good at it.  She loves to hear herself talk, and at times I couldn’t believe the mouth on this chick:

“Cut the ‘little girl’ shit, paleface. If I only have fifteen minutes, then I want whiskey. Your cheapest and shittiest. Think lighter fluid mixed with coyote piss. And you can put a shot glass down, but if you’re amenable to it, then I’d damn sure like to pour my own.”

 

“She hates the sun. Hates the blue sky. The birds and the bees can go blow each other in a dirty bathroom.”

But don’t get me wrong – I like Miriam and her dirty mouth. And I like the writing. Blackbirds is written in rapid, brutal prose that hits just as hard as the story it tells. If this were a movie, I’d want Quentin Tarantino and David Fincher to direct it.

There’s a lot of violence, and it’s not the slick martial arts type – it’s dirty, angry street violence, or the professional cruelty of career criminals. Miriam spends most of the novel with bruises on her face. In the first chapter a trucker gives a black eye, and that’s like a kiss compared to the beatings she endures later. She’s not some punching bag though – getting beat up doesn’t get her down and she knows how to protect herself, as she proves by kicking the shit out of a pair of hillbilly would-be rapists who attack her on the road. However, she’s not quite so lucky when she encounters Frankie and Harriet – a pair of hitmen looking for Ashley the con-artist. Frankie’s dangerous but otherwise pretty normal – for a hitman. Harriet on the other hand is one cruel, twisted bitch who enjoys causing pain the way other people enjoy fine wines or collecting antiques.

Actually, I kind of like Harriet too. There must be something wrong with me. Anyway, she isn’t even as evil as her boss… So yeah, I enjoyed Blackbirds. It’s a quick and dirty brush with the seedier side of urban fantasy. A good kind of nasty, especially if you get a little tired of squeaky clean heroes and heroines who do no wrong. And if you like it, Miriam will be back in Mockingbird, due out in September 2012.

 

Buy a copy of Blackbirds (Miriam Black #1) by Chuck Wendig.

Up For Review

Check out some of the books I’ll be reviewing over the next few weeks.

Death of a Saint (Mall Rats #2) by Lily Herne (Puffin Books)

After having a lukewarm reaction to Lily Herne’s first novel, Deadlands, I’m happy to report that I found the sequel, Death of a Saint to be a much better book. Even though it’s a lot longer than its predecessor, I tore through it in under two days. Review to follow on Thursday.

Secrets. Everyone has them. But what if your secret is something so unthinkable that you can’t even admit it to yourself? Lily Herne returns with Death of a Saint, the next instalment in the Mall Rats series.

Exiled from the city enclave for crimes against the Resurrectionist State, teen rebels Lele, Ginger, Ash and Saint — aka the Mall Rats — are hiding out in the Deadlands, a once-prosperous area now swarming with the living dead. With the sinister Guardians breathing down their necks, the Mall Rats face a stark choice: return to the enclave and try to evade capture or leave Cape Town in search of other survivors. But what if the rest of South Africa is nothing but a zombie-infested wasteland? Will they be able to survive on the road if all they have is each other, or will their secrets tear them apart?

After all, only Lele knows the shocking truth as to why the dead leave the Mall Rats unscathed — knowledge that she can’t bring herself to share. And she’s not the only Mall Rat harbouring a dangerous secret…

Death of a Saint was released on 1 April 2012 by Puffin Books, and the series has been rejacketed. The third book is entitled The Army of the Left. Thanks very much to Candice at Penguin SA for my review copy.

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Blackbirds (Miriam Black #1) by Chuck Wendig (Angry Robot)
This gorgeous cover was designed by Joey Hi-Fi, who used a similar style for the awesome Zoo City and Moxyland covers.

Miriam Black knows when you will die. She’s foreseen hundreds of car crashes, heart attacks, strokes, and suicides.

But when Miriam hitches a ride with Louis Darling and shakes his hand, she sees that in thirty days Louis will be murdered while he calls her name. Louis will die because he met her, and she will be the next victim.

No matter what she does she can’t save Louis. But if she wants to stay alive, she’ll have to try.

Blackbirds will be published by Angry Robot on 24 April in the USA and Canada, and on 3 May for the rest of the world.

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The Peculiars by Maureen Doyle McQuerry
Normally, I don’t even look twice at books with these kinds of covers, but Lu and I are always looking for books to joint review, and when she requested this one I thought the story sounded interesting and it might give us something to discuss. But either way I’ll be reading and reviewing it soon.

This dark and thrilling adventure, with an unforgettable heroine, will captivate fans of steampunk, fantasy, and romance. On her 18th birthday, Lena Mattacascar decides to search for her father, who disappeared into the northern wilderness of Scree when Lena was young. Scree is inhabited by Peculiars, people whose unusual characteristics make them unacceptable to modern society. Lena wonders if her father is the source of her own extraordinary characteristics and if she, too, is Peculiar. On the train she meets a young librarian, Jimson Quiggley, who is traveling to a town on the edge of Scree to work in the home and library of the inventor Mr. Beasley. The train is stopped by men being chased by the handsome young marshal Thomas Saltre. When Saltre learns who Lena’s father is, he convinces her to spy on Mr. Beasley and the strange folk who disappear into his home, Zephyr House. A daring escape in an aerocopter leads Lena into the wilds of Scree to confront her deepest fears.

The Peculiars will be published on 1 May 2012 by Amulet Books.

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The Croning by Laird Barron (Night Shade Books)
I haven’t read a good horror novel in a while. I hope this one is creepy enough to get under my skin.

Strange things exist on the periphery of our existence, haunting us from the darkness looming beyond our firelight. Black magic, weird cults and worse things loom in the shadows. The Children of Old Leech have been with us from time immemorial. And they love us.

Donald Miller, geologist and academic, has walked along the edge of a chasm for most of his nearly eighty years, leading a charmed life between endearing absent-mindedness and sanity-shattering realization. Now, all things must converge. Donald will discover the dark secrets along the edges, unearthing savage truths about his wife Michelle, their adult twins, and all he knows and trusts.

For Donald is about to stumble on the secret…of The Croning. From Laird Barron, Shirley Jackson Award-winning author of The Imago Sequence and Occultation, comes The Croning, a debut novel of cosmic horror.

The Croning will be published on 8 May 2012 by Night Shade Books.

Thanks very much to NetGalley and the publishers for providing review copies!

Review of Carpathia by Matt Forbeck

Title: Carpathia
Author: Matt Forbeck
Published: 28 February 2012 (USA & Canada); 1 March 2012 (rest of the world)
Publisher: Angry Robot
Genre: fantasy, horror
Source: eARC from the publisher
My Rating: 4/10

The first thing I need to tell you is that the official Angry Robot blurb for this book is misleading. This is what it says:

When the desperate survivors of the Titanic were rescued from the icy waters of the North Atlantic by the passenger steamship Carpathia, they thought their problems were over.

But something was sleeping in the darkest recesses of the rescue ship. Something old. Something hungry.

The lucky ones wished they’d gone down with the ship.

Based on that blurb, I assumed the plot went something like this: Titanic sinks. Survivors are rescued by the Carpathia. Unknown monsters start preying on the passengers of the Carpathia. Survivors must find out what the monsters are and kill them or be eaten. Reader gets to enjoy a combination of mystery and horror.

Lies!

Firstly, it’s only about a third of the way into the novel that the survivors actually board the Carpathia. Until then, you have to spend an unexpectedly long and boring amount of time with characters on the sinking ship and in the icy water, waiting for the rescue ship to arrive.

Secondly, the monsters don’t even wait for the Titanic to finish sinking before making a meal of the passengers. Soon after the distress call is sent, they hurry over to the vessel to feed on the poor survivors, who everyone will just assume drowned.

Finally, there’s no mystery about what the monsters are. They’re vampires. “[S]omething…sleeping… Something old. Something hungry” – that’s just marketing crap to build tension that the book wastes little time in dissipating. And I’d really been looking forward to that mystery.

To be fair though, this is a criticism of the blurb and my interpretation of it rather than the story; it doesn’t mean the book itself can’t still be good. Except it’s not. It’s lame. I wish Angry Robot had given Matt Forbeck that blurb and told him to write a story that fit it, because I found the blurb pretty enticing in a pulpy sort of way.

So what’s wrong with the novel? Well most of my issues with it are actually linked to the ways in which it departs from assumptions I made based on the blurb. It takes too long for the Carpathia to pick up the passengers, and in the meantime we’re treated to something that feels a like a novelisation of James Cameron’s movie after they hit the iceberg, with the addition of vampires who feed on the passengers. Instead of Jack, Rose and that other guy, you’ve got a love triangle between three lifelong friends, Lucy Seward, Abe (Abraham) Holmwood and Quin (Quincey) Harker. Hint fucking hint. Forbeck obviously wasn’t trying to write a mystery novel, or he wouldn’t have named all three of his leads after characters from Dracula. At first this seemed like a reference gone too far, but it’s later revealed that Bram Stoker is actually a friend of the Seward, Holmwood and Harker families. And *gasp!* it appears his novel was as much fact as fiction.

Even though you know what the monsters are the novel could still be tense, but again it’s not. Of course there’s danger, and plenty of gory action, but somehow there’s no sense of urgency. It’s just not gripping enough. One reason might be that instead of one main plot you have several subplots. There’s the sinking Titanic, a strand that ends a third of the way in. There’s a love triangle – Lucy is dating Abe, but Quin is in love with her. The vampire leader, Dushko, is in conflict with a younger vampire, Brody, who wants to do things differently, with the result that a fight between the vampires is as much of an issue as a fight between vampires and humans. Finally, there’s the plot that gets marketed as the main one – vampires killing passengers and crew. However, it’s not even all the vampires who try or even want to do this. Dushko had planned as discreet a journey as possible; it’s Brody who starts all the mayhem. Also, most of the vampires remain hidden in the ship’s cargo holds and don’t get the chance to attack anyone. There’s too much going on here, but none of it is quite exciting enough.

Another reason for the lack of tension is that the vampires were kind of lame. They’re the old-school kind who are vulnerable to garlic and crucifixes, have to sleep in coffins lined with the dirt of their homeland, and can turn into mist, bats or wolves. Shape-shifting abilities are awesome, but the rest amounts to weakness, much more so than in Dracula. One slap in the face with a crucifix and Carpathia’s vampires run screaming as their flesh boils away. The use of these traditional weapons is made even more disappointing by the fact you’re led to expect something more modern and innovative. Dushko is extremely concerned about the progress made by modern science, warning that humans are not as vulnerable as they once were. This sounded to me like the foreshadowing of some awesome steampunk weapons, but NO! – that might have been fun, so the humans stick to their stakes and crucifixes.

All this is bad enough, but there are also some glaring inconsistencies and oddities to annoy you just in case you might somehow start to enjoy the book. For example, when the Titanic sinks, the passengers swimming in the freezing water continue to converse as if they were still enjoying cigars and brandy in the smoking lounge. They keep talking about the cold, but they speak in calm, full sentences; no chattering teeth or any real sense that they’re at risk of freezing to death. The vampires on the Carpathia are moving, en masse from New York back to Europe because some of them were careless and and their killings risked exposing the whole group. I don’t know why they have to leave the entire continent and couldn’t just move to another city or state, or why they have to live in one large group instead of splitting up. When gearing up to fight the vampires, Quin goes to get the large crucifix that his mother insisted he pack – a miracle, since his luggage went down with the Titantic.

How could Forbeck (and the editors) be so sloppy and waste so much potential? The only thing he does satisfactorily is to depict the culture and sensibilities of 1912, at least for readers, like myself, who would only notice the most heinous historical inaccuracies. A lot of time I actually felt like I was reading some obscure pulp fiction that had actually been written in the 1910s.

If that sounds appealing, then you can order a copy of Carpathia, which is coming out on 28 February in the US and Canada, and on 01 March in the rest of the world. Otherwise, just ignore it.

The Book Ferret: Moxyland goes Zoo City

Angry Robot, the UK publisher of Lauren Beukes’s novels, is releasing an awesome new cover for Moxyland, to match the incredible cover for Zoo City. Check it out:

Both covers were created by award-winning designer Joey Hi-Fi. According to Angry Robot, the new cover will be out in early March 2012.  I really love the old Moxyland cover from the first edition published by SA company Jacana Media, but this new one is just as cool, not to mention infinitely better than Angry Robot’s lame first cover for the novel. I’m easily seduced by great covers and matching editions, so I’ll be hitting the order button as soon as this is available.

 

The Book Ferret is a Violin in a Void feature that showcases interesting book-related finds – gadgets, websites, book stores, events, cover art, quotes, new releases, etc.; anything bookworms would enjoy hearing about.

If you’d like to do your own Book Ferret post, grab the picture, link it back here, and let me know about it in the comments. I’ll be sure to mention your post in my next Book Ferret.

Review & Giveaway of The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar

Title: The Bookman
Author: Lavie Tidhar
Published: 2010
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:

  1. Follow my blog via email (subscription box in sidebar), WordPress, or Twitter @Violin_InA_Void.
  2. Leave a comment on this review.

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!