‘The Bookman’ by Lavie Tidhar, is quite simply, tremendous fun. It’s a rollicking steampunk adventure that mashes together fantasy, sci-fi and Gothic with a smattering of ancient mythology. Only here can you find characters called Orphan and Gilgamesh jostling for space alongside Isabella Beeton, Karl Mark and Tom Thumb. In this alternative nineteenth-century, London’s PM is Moriarty but he’s in thrall to the Queen of the Lizards at Buckingham Palace. That’s Les Lézards to you and me, and word has it, they merged from Caliban’s Island many years ago to stage their coup. But the aristocratic reptiles are less alarming than the mysterious Bookman who is prosecuting a terrorist campaign by means of exploding books. Yes, the book is mightier than the sword.
Baroque as the world-building is, at its core this is a Hero’s Journey story. Orphan is a young man about to propose to the love of his life, Lucy. He is a passable poet and bookshop minder; she is a marine biologist tending to a pod of whales in the Thames. ‘Working with whales is like working with poets,’ Lucy teases him. ‘They’re unruly, obtuse and self-important.’ But Orphan is mesmerised by the ‘lode-stars’ of her eyes and the fine laughter lines of her mouth. ‘He fell in love the way trees do, which is to say, forever.’ The two lovers kiss to the music of whale-song and Big Ben’s chimes and their happy ending looks prematurely assured. However. Moriarty is planning to launch a Martian space-probe and Lucy has been selected to place a book of Elizabeth Barratt Browning’s Sonnets into the capsule. You can see where this is going. When that book explodes in her hands, a distraught Orphan is thrown into an insane quest. ‘This is the time of myths,’ Inspector Irene Adler advises him. ‘Would you bring her back if you could?’ Not for nothing is Part One titled Orpheus & Eurydice.
Driven by this all-consuming desire to haul Lucy back from the underworld, Orphan stumbles though a labyrinthine plot all the way to Caliban’s Island. Along the way, he’ll encounter body snatchers, clockwork men and a surprising mentor in the form of famous French author, Jules Verne. The story has a kind of pell-mell energy to it. I thought the structure like a series of intricately designed clockwork Russian dolls. He is tumbling through one trap-door of secrets after another, acting in turn as detective, pawn, assassin. Yet unworldly as he is, Orphan is always a catalyst for change in this weirdly layered world of political machinations he can only guess at. However much the plotting of others baffles or outrages him, he holds to one thought. ‘Lucy needed him.’ With that in mind, he’ll go to the ends of the Earth to face down the Bookman and barter for her return. What more can you ask from your protagonist?
Lavie Tidhar delivers it all with a flourish worthy of Monsieur Verne. And for good measure, throws in a novelette called ‘Murder in the Cathedral’, in which Orphan and Verne undertake a minor venture in the Parisian capital. Voilà. Word has it, Angry Robot are hoarding two more mysteries by Lavie Tidhar in the Bookman’s alternative universe. Snap up this volume before the bookshop explodes.
THE BOOKMAN, Lavie Tidhar, Angry Robot, 2010.