the contextual life

thoughts without borders

The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar

with 2 comments

“This is the time of myths. They are woven into the present like silk strands from the past, like a 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.”

The thing about steampunk novels is that they make you want to Google everything. It’s the reimagined history element that does it; the fascinating with British Romantic poet Lord Byron and the English inventor Charles Babbage alone will leave you guessing what’s fact and what’s fiction. The urge to search is even stronger with Tidhar Lavie’s novel The Bookman thanks to cameos by Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling, and Jules Verne.

Externalities alone make The Bookman is irresistible. David Frankland’s gorgeous cover illustration is worthy of professional framing and the title is one that no book nerd can ignore.  Dig a little deeper and a quick thumb through shows literary epigraphs at the start of each chapter.

Set in Victorian London, as one would expect from a steampunk novel, The Bookman, laden with questions at every turn and sparing with its answers, is a riddle to its core. Although the multiple twists can be confusing if not read with the utmost care, the mystery is one of the driving forces of the book. The unresolved relationships between characters, their conceivable motivations, and possibly most compelling, the unknown origin of the protagonist, Orphan, keeps the eyes moving and the pages turning.

Orphan, both a name and an apt description, is a poet-hopeful and a lackadaisical employee and resident of Payne’s Booksellers. Although the store is owned by a known seditionist and doubles as a meeting place for those looking to overthrow the government—an alien reptilian race known as Les Lézards, the Lizard Kings, who have infiltrated Britain and now occupy the empire’s throne—Orphan’s earthly concerns extend little beyond his romantic interest, Lucy, a slightly aloof, whale-loving girl. Head-over-heels for her, Orphan proposes one night and all seems right with his world.

Unfortunately, the political climate, growing tense by the day, can no longer be ignored. Terrorists, presumably headed by the Bookman, an esoteric and feared figure, have begun setting off bombs in the public arena with deadly consequences and Lucy, unwittingly, becomes a casualty of another attack. Heartsick and desperate, Orphan is forced to play the Bookman’s game, becoming his pawn and setting off on a preternatural adventure.

The vividity of the worlds Orphan passes through on his quest to retrieve his one true love is a strength of Tidhar’s writing. His lyrical prose and use of metaphor ties the fantastical elements to an emotional realism. The outcome is a romantic voyage along the boundaries of absurdity.

The Bookman was a fun and engaging read; Tidhar’s imagination, responsible for creating a world of royal lizards, convincing simulacrum, multicultural pirates, and a shifting island with a strict entrance policy, is something I look forward to experiencing again in his follow up, Camera Obscura.

::[Excerpts]::

On Orphan . . .
“Who was Orphan and how had he come to inhabit that great city, the Capital of the Everlasting Empire, the seat of the royal family, the ancestral home of Les Lezards? His father was a Vespuccian sailor, his mother an enigma: both were dead, and had been so for many years. His skin was copper-red, his eyes green like the sea. He had spent his early life on the docks, running errands between the feet of sailors, a minute employee of the East India Company. His knowledge of languages was haphazard if wide, his education colourful and colloquial, his circle of friends and acquaintances far-ranging, if odd.

He learned poetry in the gutter, and from the public readings given by the great men and women of the age; in pubs and dockyards, in halls of learning and in the streets at dawn — and once, from a sword-wielding girl from France, who appeared mysteriously on the deck of a ship Orphan was helping to load with cargo bound for China, and recounted to him, in glorious, beautiful verse, a vision of God (he had never forgotten her) — and he learned it from the books in the public library, until words spun in his head all day and all night, and he agonised at writing them down on paper, his hand bleeding as the pen scratched against the surface of the page.”

On love . . .
“Orphan had first met Lucy one day at the bookshop. She came through the door like — sunshine? Wind? Like spice? Orphan wasn’t that much of a poet — looking for a book about whales. He fell in love the way trees do, which is to say, forever. It was a love with roots that burrowed deep, entangled, grew together. Like two trees they leaned into each other, sheltering each other with their leaves, finding solace and strength in the wide encompassing forest that was the city, holding together in the multitude of alien trees. Orphan loved her the way people do in romantic novels, from the first page, beyond even The End.”

On books . . .
“Paynes was a haven of light in a dark world. Stepping inside, he was nearly overwhelmed with the feeling of home. The familiar, conflicting smells of the books vied for his attention. The musty tang of old volumes, the polished smell of new leather bindings, the crisp clear scent of freshly printed books, all rose to greet him, like a horde of somewhat-dysfunctional relatives at a family event.”“There is nothing sadder than an unused bookshop. Volumes of words, ideas and stories, blueprints and diagnostics, illustrations and notes scribbled in the margins — they did not exist unless there was someone there to hold them, to open their pages, to read them and make them come alive, however briefly.”

::[Links]::
The Bookman at IndieBound
Lavie Tidhar’s page at Angry Robot
Lavie Tidhar’s World SF Blog, a site dedicated to science fiction writing from non-English speaking writers
An interview with Lavie on the Functional Nerds podcast
Follow Lavie on Twitter @lavietidhar

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Written by Gabrielle

August 23, 2011 at 6:11 am

2 Responses

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  1. I have this on my TBR, and can’t wait to get to it! Especially after your review!!!

    Kristin

    August 23, 2011 at 11:57 am

    • i think i saw it on your GoodReads list. definitely worth reading. i liked all the literary references–total nerd bait!

      Gabrielle

      August 23, 2011 at 1:24 pm


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