The Bookman is the first book I’ve read by Lavie Tidhar, who’s developing quite a name for smart and varied genre fiction. An idea-packed and often exciting steampunk novel, I enjoyed it both in its own right and because of how it got me reflecting on the nature of the genre.
The Bookman is the story of Orphan, a young man living in a version of 19th century London where the British Empire is ruled by lizards, the streets are full of literary and historical figures, and there are conspiracies lurking in every shadow. As the book unfolds, Orphan is drawn deeper and deeper into a tangle of plots and schemes, which lead to revelations about the world he lives in, and about himself.
As I discussed in a previous post, this book is densely packed with ideas and imagery, so much so that it can feel like it’s trying too hard to be smart, especially in the early chapters. But this density of ideas is one of its great joys – it makes for a fascinating and varied setting.
Once the story gets past its first act it’s also pretty exciting. A departure from London leads to exotic locations and action adventure elements that I really hadn’t expected. It becomes an exciting book that’s also smart, not just a smart book being smart. And that makes it a whole lot more fun to read.
Reflecting on the Genre
At the end, I found myself wondering about the elements that had been thrown together in this story. Mrs Beaton, Karl Marx, Sherlock Holmes and an automaton of Lord Byron all exist together in Orphan’s world. There are lizards, robots, giant mushrooms, pirates, the list goes on. Jules Verne shares a journey with one of his own characters. In a very real way, it makes no sense.
But isn’t that part of the joy of steampunk as a genre? When we read fantasy we’re often imagining other worlds that could exist out there, unrelated to our own. When we read science fiction we’re imagining possible futures. But with steampunk we take elements of history, old literature and modern imagination and cram them together in a way that we know makes no sense. We can’t believe even for a moment that Marx and Holmes ate at the same restaurant, because we know that one of them is real and the other isn’t.
Steampunk isn’t about what could be. It’s a never-land whose success depends not on the plausibility of concepts, but on successful execution. And Tidhar has executed a smart book that’s often exciting and always intriguing. If you can get through those dense early chapters you’ll be well rewarded by what follows.
Just don’t worry too much about what sort of sense it makes.