Lavie Tidhar just won a World Fantasy Award for his novel Osama, but I felt more drawn to his steampunk trilogy about the mysterious Bookman. I started reading with high expectations but ended up having to plough through most of the novel due to its lack of depth, interesting language, and – most of all – character development. I am so disappointed I could cry.
Published by: Angry Robot, 2010
ebook: 416 pages
Series: The Bookman Histories #1
My rating: 3/10
First sentence: Orphan came down to see the old man by the Thames.
A masked terrorist has brought London to its knees – there are bombs inside books, and nobody knows which ones. On the day of the launch of the first expedition to Mars, by giant cannon, he outdoes himself with an audacious attack. For young poet Orphan, trapped in the screaming audience, it seems his destiny is entwined with that of the shadowy terrorist, but how? Like a steam-powered take on V for Vendetta, rich with satire and slashed through with automatons, giant lizards, pirates, airships and wild adventure, The Bookman is the first of a series.
Sometimes I wonder if my expectations are too high or if, by covers alone, I hope to find something in a book that simply isn’t there. In the case of The Bookman, I was disappointed on pretty much every level. The story starts out interesting enough. Alternate London, a young man called Orphan, his friend Gilgamesh, a police inspector called Irene Adler, Prime Minister Moriarty, and the mysterious Bookman. I loved the initial whacky mix of classic literature that seems to have permeated this version of England. But what Jasper Fforde does brilliantly, Lavie Tidhar fails in a rather embarrassing way. It soon becomes apparent that no real world-building has been done. Names are thrown around, mostly so the readers will feel they already know a character and the author doesn’t have to bother actually giving them personality.
Nobody has personality! Orphan is the blandest, most passive, most painfully boring character I’ve read in a long time. The initial plot device – his girlfriend Lucy dying in a terrorist attack staged by the Bookman – is the starting point for his “adventures”. On these adventures, which take him to the mysterious Caliban’s Island, Oxford, the London underworld, a pub, a museum, and tons of other places, Orphan never does anything by himself. He is told to do things, threatened if he doesn’t do things, other people explain why it would be a neat idea to do yet another thing, you get the idea. Most of the time, things happen to him. And the worst thing is: There are certain mysteries (painfully obvious, might I add) that Orphan
finds out is told and although they pretty much change every aspect of his life, he just stores them away, never to be mentioned again.
The wonderful Lucy, dead from the beginning, is mentioned a lot in Orphan’s thoughts, but we never get to see why he loves her so much. She is a damsel-in-distress kind of stand-in, so he has something
to do be told to do. As for side characters, don’t even get me started. The handful I remember were there for exposition, info-dumps, and to nudge Orphan along when – again – he’s standing around passively and completely useless.
There is a fair amount of stuff happening, considering this is not an extremely large book. But stuff happening is still not plot, no matter how hard some people try to make us believe that. In fact, everything that happens to Orphan was so disconnected and so badly anchored in this strange, unfinished world, that it is nearly impossible for me to pick out the red thread of what this story was actually about. It’s not about the Bookman, despite its title. It’s not about the world – which would have had so much potention to be something great, what with lizard royalty and conspiracies and Jules Verne saving Orphan in a hot air balloon… none of it was realised.
Whenever there is the chance of a scene becoming thrilling, Orphan being in danger or something being at stake, the scene is cut or ended abruptly by “and then he got out”. Thanks for building up to nothing. To make things worse, the writing in general wasn’t stellar, either. Sentences are mostly short, when there is description, it is unoriginal, and the story and its setting lacked atmosphere.
He crashed into the warm water with a huge explosion. His lungs burned. He had the sense of dark, heavy shapes moving below him. He kicked out and broke back to the surface. He looked at where he was. He was in a large pool of water.
You see, writing like this is okay if it happens only occasionally and to emphasize how quickly something happens. But every school kid learns you don’t start every single sentence with “He”. Sadly, this happens a lot throughout the novel, much to my disappointment. This also shows nicely how Orphan’s “dangerous” adventures don’t really get a chance to become interesting.
The Bookman is crammed full of Stuff – we never get to fully enjoy any one thing, because there have to be Lizards and pirates and a ship voyage, and airships, and bombs and a shuttle to Mars and a secret island and the underworld and automata and Orphan’s secret history and characters that show up so they can tell him something, never to be seen again, and millions of references to other books. I was quite pleased that Princess Irulan’s book In My Father’s House was a real thing in this world. But that’s about it.
It felt like the author had a number of great ideas, threw them all into a pot, stirred lightly and dumped it on a plate, for me to enjoy. Unfortunately, I enjoy good characters, a story that makes sense, set in a world that at least adheres to its own rules. This was such a strange reading experience with only a few fun bits that aren’t enough to be called a silver lining on this drab, colorless, endlessly boring sky of a “story”.
THE GOOD: Some great ideas, incorporating fictional characters into this story’s reality. Great potential for world-building.
THE BAD: Potential completely wasted. Terribly bland, cardboard characters, the plot is all over the place, mediocre writing and, ultimately, nothing in this story makes sense.
THE VERDICT: What a vast disappointment! I won’t be reading the rest of this series (which, btw, is not really steampunk) but I may give Osama a chance. I can’t believe everybody else loves Tidhar so much. This book was in bad need of editing, world-building, tightening of plot, and – most of all! – characters who feel like they are people, not puppets.
RATING: 3/10 – Bad
The Bookman Histories: