Thursday, January 27, 2011

Impressions of The Bookman

After having read several short stories by Lavie Tidhar from various online sources (Daily Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, Futurismic, and Clarkesworld, to name a few) I was impressed with, not only his ideas, but the way in which he employed them - that is to say: Lavie does not balk at playing with structure.  The stories I've read by him tend to take place in Asian locales - an area I'm particularly interested in right now.

When I heard he had a novel out, The Bookman, naturally, I was enthusiastic. Though The Bookman was a worthy attempt with some pretty wild alternate history, the book suffered from First Novel Syndrome. The main character, Orphan, goes through the book without so much as an inkling of understanding as to why anything is happening to him; he is a pawn in a game of chess (which is part-&-parcel to the story, yet the concept here felt contrived and cliched).  Part of the problem is that everyone - and when I say everyone, I mean everyone - had machinations on this kid: from the blind homeless man at the beginning to the Prime Minister of England to an Indian ship captain to Jules Verne. Everyone in the book new Orphan's past - where he came from, who is parents were - except Orphan and when he finds out on page 330, well, the reader has known from about page 4. Let alone that Orphan is almost always in a dire situation at the end of each chapter that miraculously leads to more answers about his past and who the Bookman is and what he wants.

Not there aren't good qualities here.  Tidhar plays against some writerly tropes.  The plot changes at least three times in the book, which is unsettling in its way, but also makes for an interesting read. I did not expect the story to end where it did - even if that ending was a little disappointing.  There is a great moment, however, when Orphan makes an unexpected choice that changes how events play out through the rest of the book.  The prose, as usual, is remarkable with only a few hackneyed and awkwardly worded sentences.

I haven't mentioned the world yet, have I? It's a colorful world.  Giant lizards rule England.  Automatons want equal rights.  The mysterious Bookman puts bombs in books.  Historical figures like Jules Verne, Lord Byron, and Karl Marx, make appearances. It's alternate history, it's steampunk, it's weird, it's absurd, it's whimsical, it's adventurous.

Tidhar has said The Bookman is the first of three books in a series; maybe more answers are forthcoming, though I believe each book is meant to be standalone. Either way, The Bookman, despite its flaws, was a fun read - though I must say, I'm more interested in what Tidhar has cooking up in the short form.

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