Camera Obscura by Lavie Tidhar – that’s more like it

Steampunk cyborgs. Secret governments. Deadly ninjas. And to top it all off, a more compelling plot. I really enjoyed returning to the world of The Bookman.

A Warped Thriller

Camera Obscura, the sequel to Lavie Tidhar’s The Bookman, picks up nowhere near where that first story left off. It’s several years later, in another country, with an almost entirely different group of characters. But that’s no bad thing.

This time the steampunk escapades start in Paris, where Milady De Winter, deadly agent of the Quiet Council, is hunting down a mysterious murderer. This hunt takes her into an underworld of espionage in which agents from all over the globe are trying to get hold of a mysterious object of great power. It’s a mission that leads Milady to dark places, takes her through terrible ordeals, and helps to present more of the fascinating world set up in The Bookman.

More Plotting, Less Showing Off

I loved how rich and varied the world of The Bookman was, but I struggled at times with the way it was written. The plot was a little unfocused, and some of the prose read like it was there to show off references to fiction and history, rather than to further the story. There’s far less of that here. The plot feels tense, and there’s nothing that reads like it’s just there to show off. Sure, there are a lot of literary references, but they fit more naturally and don’t disrupt the flow. A preposterous level of effort has been put into connecting it with a wider literary tradition, but much effort has also gone into making a strong plot and a great central character.

Speaking of which, this is not the Milady De Winter you may remember from Musketeer books and movies. She’s a woman of African origin who has been a victim of colonialism and an exhibit in a travelling circus. She’s more sympathetic than the original Milady, and a refreshingly unusual lead character who naturally draws attention to 19th century prejudices and oppressions.

In many ways, I wish this had been the first book in the trilogy. Though some of the events only make sense in light of The Bookman, it would have been a stronger and more accessible start.

Fake Past, Real Present

As well as a cracking adventure, Camera Obscura is a thought provoking exploration of issues facing us as humans today, many of which were starting to become visible in the Victorian era. We see the first tentative steps towards globalisation in the Worlds Fair and globe-spanning intrigues. The rise of technology is absolutely central to the plot and to Milday’s life. The blurred boundaries of what it means to be human are raised by the presence of automatons, sentient lizards and steampunk cyborgs.

It has been argued that the information age started not with the internet but with the telegraph. Holding that idea in mind opens up a lot more in the world of this book. For all that it’s set in a fantastical version of the past, Camera Obscura is also about what it means to be modern.

And Relax

Given my mixed feelings on The Bookman I went into Camera Obscura tentatively, not holding up the highest of hopes. I was misguided. Either I’ve gotten more into Tidhar’s style, or he’s shifted into something that suits me better. Either way, this is a really good read.

If you read The Bookman and stopped after that, I really recommend giving this a go. And honestly, I recommend reading The Bookman more confidently now I know what follows. This is a rich and fascinating series, and worth the effort it sometimes requires.