A Great Finale? The Great Game by Lavie Tidhar

Steampunk is a curious and often inconsistent thing, particularly when it’s the steampunk of Lavie Tidhar. I worked my way with interest through the oddity that was The Bookman. I read its sequel Camera Obscura with great excitement. And so at last I came to the final volume, The Great Game, eager to find out whether it would live up to its title.

First Class Characters

The Great Game is a story of spycraft and intrigue set in Tidhar’s Bookman world, a 19th century alternate history with lizard monarchs, alien devices and literary characters roaming the streets. That name – the Bookman – draws attention to the sort of characters we’re dealing with here – literary borrowings such as Mycroft Holmes and Victor Frankenstein, as well as archetypes such as The Bookman‘s Orphan and this volume’s retired secret agent Smith.

Despite their well worn familiarity, those characters are one of the absolute highlights of this book. In particular, the reluctantly re-activated Smith and current agent Lucy are vivid, well depicted characters who I found good company and excellent drivers for their strands of the story. They’re clever and determined, pressing on through the confusion and overwhelming odds of their circumstances. Though Camera Obscura‘s Milady remains my favourite protagonist from this series, these are good, and certainly better than Orphan, who as Dial H for Houston pointed out, suffered from passivity and dullness.

A Very Tidhar Plot

Smith and Lucy’s paths, and those of the other characters, take them through a journey that’s one part John le Carré tension, one part Bond-style action, and one part batshit crazy. That weird and wonderful world is a big part of the appeal of this series, and it plays off here in spectacular style. The spies are doubly spy-like, the crazy ten times what it was, creating a sense that both the characters and the story could be overwhelmed at any moment.

Therein lies both the beauty and the problem of this book. I know others have found this plot chaotic, though I thought it cleverly intertwined rather than rambling like the first book. But it definitely lacks coherence in places, most critically the ending. Without giving the great game away, I felt that the ending lacked the sort of closure a thousand page series left me wanting, while not giving me enough to instead ponder the possibilities of what would come next.

Good But Disappointing

Look at the book’s cover, the version I’ve used in this post. Isn’t it bold? Isn’t it dynamic? Doesn’t it fill you with a desire for retro, pulpy, genre-mashing action? That’s what I wanted, even expected at first, from these books, and it’s an expectation they didn’t deliver on. They’re fascinating but flawed, far stronger in their ideas than their narrative cohesion, the bit players often more intriguing than the protagonists.

I’m glad I read this series, and that I saw it through to the end. These are good books. I’d even go so far as to call Camera Obscura great. But they don’t deliver on what they seem to promise, and that, for me, was their downfall.

For me as a writer, it’s also a very important lesson. Make sure your book does what it promises to, or you’ll have some disappointed readers.

This weekend I will mostly be reading…

What books are you excited about at the moment? Here’s my current reading heap, or at least the tip of it.

Second Chance by Dylan Hearn

A science fiction story that combines politics, technology and crime in an intriguing near future tangle. Being a fan of abeyance, I like the way that the world is slowly built up through dialogue, thoughts and actions, revealing how Hearn’s imagined future is different from now. It’s definitely a novel that’s focused on plot and pace rather than intricate prose – for example, there’s almost no physical description of the characters, letting you fill in the blanks as you see fit. I’m maybe a fifth of the way through, and really looking forward to seeing where this goes.

Write Your Novel From the Middle by James Scott Bell

Several writing buddies have recommended this to me as a top book on plotting. I haven’t started reading it yet, but I’m looking forward to seeing what all the fuss is about.

Plus my legs are really tired from working at my new standing desk, and reading this is a productive writing thing I can do while sitting down.

Seriously, my right calf is killing me. Who’d have thought standing still would be so much exercise?

The Bookman Histories by Lavie Tidhar

I’m still slowly working my way through this, and it’s still worth the effort. Somewhere around page 180 of the first book things have taken an unexpected turn, feeling much more pulp action oriented than what came before. The references to history and other works are also becoming less obstructive and more part of the natural flow of the story.

I stand by my initial assessment that this is an incredibly rich read full of fantastic ideas. Now it’s one that’s found some pace as well.

Over to you

What are you folks reading at the moment? Anything you’d care to recommend? And if you’ve read any of these books what did you think? Share your literary appreciation by leaving a comment.

A Dense Stew of Ideas – Lavie Tidhar’s Bookman Histories

Last May, everwalker, aka fellow writer and blogger AC Macklin, lent me her copy of Lavie Tidhar’s Bookman Histories. Since then, both our lives have taken some big twists and turns, and that feels like the appropriate context for reading this book. Because this week I finally started reading Bookman, and blimey, this one is a wild, weird ride.

A Huge Serving of Ideas

I’m only a hundred pages into Tidhar’s collected Bookman novels, so I can’t evaluate these stories as a whole. But there’s enough going on that it made me want to talk about it, and that’s usually a good sign.

The Bookman setting is a strange melange of steampunk, literary playfulness and a dash of fantasy. Set in a Victorian England ruled by lizards, in which the elite are driven through the streets in steam cars and Professor Moriarty is Prime Minister, from the outset it’s overflowing with ideas. There are secret societies, strange conspiracies, whales singing in the Thames. An ancient hero of Asian mythology is living as a tramp under a bridge – or possibly he’s just a really well read tramp. Political philosopher Karl Marx plots with household management legend Mrs Beaton while they watch lizards fight in the back room of a seedy pub.

For the sheer mass of concepts and juxtaposition alone, this book is worth reading.

Doubling Up On the Difficulty

That said, this is far from an easy read. The prose flows nicely, but it’s so densely packed with concepts that you have to work to untangle what’s going on. In fact, there’s two layers to that work, and so two ways in which the book could deter a casual reader.

Firstly, this is clearly written by and for the genre savvy. As I’ve discussed before, world building that seems subtle and sophisticated to a science fiction and fantasy fan can be bewildering to a casual reader. At the extreme, a novel like The Bookman takes effort to untangle for even the most dedicated steampunk fan, with its density of concepts and the implications hidden behind each offbeat revelation. It’s effort I consider worthwhile, but it means that it’s not casual reading to relax to late at night. You earn the rewards.

Secondly, there are a lot of literary references . The whole setting is built around them, and together with the use of books as bombs, they make clear that this is a story about stories, not just about its own contents. That’s no bad thing – art can achieve a lot by turning and reflecting on itself. It creates a tone that’s very similar to Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a fabulous mixture of familiar characters and hidden depths that makes a fantastically rich setting.

But just like the League, it also has its problems. You don’t need to get the literary references to follow the story. But their frequency means that, if you don’t get them, the story seems to be taking irrelevant detours, the narrative stalling in its flow to add little meaningless details. Later volumes of the League have been more about this than about character or story, putting me off a comic series whose early volumes I love. Similarly, Bookman is at risk of losing my attention if it becomes too mired in its clever games.

Are You the Audience?

I’m writing this now, rather than waiting to finish this book, because I think it’s worth taking the time to think about how books and audiences match up. Lavie Tidhar’s Bookman Histories has a perfect audience that is both genre savvy and well read in Victorian and classical literature. A wider audience of science fiction, fantasy and steampunk fans will enjoy it if they enjoy books that reward reflection and analysis with a deeper understanding. But I’d be surprised if casual readers, or those looking for an adventure in a world far from our own, would get much out of this.

Me, I’m really glad I’m reading it. I think it’s going to take a while to get through, but it’s worth it for the concepts even though I don’t get all the references. Whether it’s worth your time really depends upon what sort of reader you are. And that might be how any review of a book should end.