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Book Review: The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar

The BookmanGenre: Steampunk, Alternate History
Paperback: 416 pages
Publisher: Angry Robot
Publication Date: January 7, 2010
ISBN-10: 0007346581
ISBN-13: 978-0007346585
Author Website: Lavie Tidhar

In The Bookman, up and coming international author Lavie Tidhar weaves a steampunk tale steeped in the literature of the period.

The story follows Orphan, a young lad with the condition his name implies, who works at a little bookshop in Victorian England. But Orphan’s Victoria is a lizard queen, robots were modeled on Lord Byron, and whales inhabit the Thames. The lizards, since their discovery on an island in the New World by Amerigo Vespucci, had infiltrated the great Empire of Britain, until they are the nobility and humanity no longer rules. Tidhar further differentiates his alternate history from other steampunk tales by turning its fiction into life. Sherlock Holmes and his nemesis Moriarty roam England, though in very different roles, Tom Thumb is one of Orphan’s closest friends, and Jules Verne is not a writer of fiction, but a writer of fact, if the reader would only believe.

The plot of the tale follows Orphan, whose lover dies at the hands of the Bookman, an amorphous figure (really just a name) who uses books to deliver bombs. The Bookman’s only goal is to sow chaos in the lizard empire, for some unknown but later revealed reason. At the death of his lover, Orphan is quickly thrust into an adventure that uses all the plot devices one expects of Victorian literature. Through his escapades, Orphan learns much about himself, his culture, and the strange history of the lizards’ appearance on Earth.

Orphan himself is a flat character. Although he loses his lover, and this seems to be his primary motivation, Tidhar fails to make his grief really believable, and this reviewer simply could not find any sympathy for the character. And Orphan seems to be pulled around by other forces, never doing something because he wants to, only because he must of circumstances require it. He is no hero that a reader can sympathize with or cheer on, merely a pawn, and so the reader may find Orphan to be untenable as a protagonist.

What Tidhar does extremely well is mix the history and lore of the Victorian period into the story. Quotes at the beginning of each chapter come from writers of the period, as do many of the fictional and historical characters that Orphan meets. Coupled with clipped, fast moving chapters that always end on cliffhangers, readers will always be on the edge of their seat wondering just what will happen to Orphan next. As for this reviewer, I found that the constant cliffhangers got tiresome after a while. And too, Tidhar’s hides much and reveals little. Readers will likely find themselves very confused by the story, sometimes wondering what is going on or why Tidhar wrote a particular scene. This reviewer was forced to put the book aside multiple times, as each succeeding chapter only made the story more confusing, almost to the point where it was abandoned entirely.

Tidhar’s short work has been excellent and unique, and with The Bookman, Tidhar hits the second target, but not the first. The constant ambiguity of the story simply becomes too grating after a while, and Orphan’s lack of depth makes him a dull protagonist. Tidhar is very well-versed in the literature of the period and literature in general, but this first novel exhibits only his knowledge, and does not live up to the promise of his earlier work.