Lavie Tidhar’s mind must be fascinating place in which to live. It certainly is an exceeding pleasure to visit. His new series, The Bookman Histories–currently consisting of The Bookman, which premiered last year, and Camera Obscura, which just came out at the end of last month (both from Angry Robot Books)–presents the reader with a lavishly imagined alternative universe with such breathtaking, overflowing inventiveness that there are times I had to pause for a moment just to take in the sheer brilliance of this richly detailed, labyrinthine creation. Set in a Victorian era with steam machines, airships, the whole bit, one might be tempted to label the series “steampunk,” and yet while it certainly dabbles in this emerging subgenre, it is far less interested in the technology of the era and instead presents what I can only classify as “litpunk.”
In the world of these novels, historical figures such as Queen Victoria, Oscar Wilde, William Shakespeare, Tom Thumb (of Barnum’s circus fame), Harry Houdini, Jules Verne, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, and more exist side-by-side with famous fictional characters such as Sherlock Holmes, Mycroft Holmes, Irene Adler, Victor Frankenstein, and so on and so forth. Both books are stuffed to the brim with literary references galore, particularly The Bookman, which practically requires a literature degree to pick up on every singe reference (though doesn’t require one to enjoy it). Oh, and that Queen Victoria I mentioned isn’t the Queen Victoria we know. Instead, she’s a lizard who might be from outer space. Her ancestors were first discovered on Caliban’s Island, a real place who the great Poet-Prime Minister Shakespeare wrote about in his play, The Tempest, which is about the first meeting between lizards and humanity.
The Bookman centers on a young man fittingly named Orphan, who has no idea of his parentage and lives in a revolutionary bookshop. He spends a great deal of time with an old beggar man named Gilgamesh who always seems to know more than he lets on. He is also in love with a young woman, Lucy, a marine biologist who has devoted her life to studying the mysterious singing whales who gravitate towards the waters of the Thames, and plans on marrying her until fate, circumstance, and the machinations of an enigmatic terrorist known as the Bookman, who places bombs in books, conspire to rend them asunder. He embarks upon a quest that comes to parallel and reflect classic works of mythology, such as the tales of of Orpheus, Odysseus, and Prometheus. Over the course of this truly dazzling, funny, stirring novel, puzzle pieces of an extremely dense mystery involving the Bookman, lizards, androids, potential resurrection, and the original royal family gradually assemble and lock into place. If I were to have one criticism of The Bookman it is that it ends with many of the threads left unexplained, and while I was able to make many of the connections myself, I still have some questions and I can understand why some readers would be frustrated with the lack of resolution of these issues. Since this is still an on-going series, I wasn’t quite sure whether Tidhar left these threads dangling on purpose, to be answered in later installments, or if he intended to simply leave it all up to the reader to piece together.
And if one picks up Camera Obscura hoping to find those answers, one will be disappointed, because if anything, it is even more complex and cryptic. Although it is set in the same world, a few years later, Camera Obscura mainly occurs in Paris and then the New World, here called Vespuccia (a country in which the Great Sioux Nation still thrives), and features only brief appearances from some of the tertiary characters of The Bookman, as well as passing mentions of the events of the previous novel, though told from afar. Now, with The Bookman, I found the sense of discovery that permeated the whole novel to be so infectious that I wasn’t as concerned by the ending’s partial ambiguity, because the clue-finding and the atmosphere of a mystery are almost always so much more interesting than its ending revelations, which can’t help but not live up to the web of intrigue that precedes them. Orphan is also an extremely engaging character. I cared more for him as a protagonist than I did about the mystery itself, and was so impressed by the world-building that I didn’t mind being left in the dark a bit. It was all about experiencing the wonder of it all.
On the other hand, while there is still a great deal to love in Camera Obscura, I found it to be a bit too distancing, overall. The lead character, Milady, is a hard-as-nails spy whose past is only vaguely hinted at and who works for a shadowy Council whose intentions we never learn in full. I never came to feel a connection with Milady and never really warmed to her, and on top of that, the plot is even more difficult to follow than The Bookman‘s. The mystery itself is great fun, including a jade statue that seems to have mystical powers, a zombie plague, a sociopath who likes chopping off people’s appendages and replacing them with robotic parts, a portal to another universe, Chinese gangsters, and more. I remain truly awestruck by the brilliance of Tidhar’s creation, but at the same time, I feel as if I have read pieces of what could have been a great story but which never really coalesced into one. In the long run, my opinion of this series will likely be great affected by the next installment. If Tidhar brings back the still-living characters from both of the previous volumes, merging the two stories into a single narrative that begins to explain some of my lingering questions, my opinion of Camera Obscura will likely shift greatly. If he jumps to a different cast again, while still not filling in the storytelling gaps, though–or if he at least doesn’t start to provide answers to the previous mysteries, from the point-of-view of a new cast–I might lose patience.
I honestly love The Bookman and would happily reread it. It is a delight, from start to finish. Camera Obscura, however, doesn’t quite justify its existence for me as a standalone, despite some ingenious elements. I’ll wait until at least the next installment before passing full judgment, however, because Tidhar is a wonderful writer, who manages to merge widely different influences and references with seemingly effortless grace and who weaves a ripping yarn–exciting, suspenseful, extremely clever–that revels in the literary fun of it all but in a manner that is never smug or self-satisfied. Tidhar proves that words such as “intellectual” and “playful” are not mutually exclusive, and does so in the most thrilling of ways. And so I feel that I owe him the benefit of the doubt for the hours of enjoyment that The Bookman (and much of Camera Obscura) brought me.