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Late Victorian London: heart of an empire on which the sun never sets, and seat of the all-powerful Lizard Kings. Three centuries have passed since these creatures toppled the English monarchy, having been discovered on a remote Caribbean island by the explorer Amerigo Vespucci. Now their puppet government, headed by Prime Minister Moriarty, hopes to crown its successes with the launch of the first British probe to Mars. But beneath this veneer of triumphalism, all is not well in the heart of the Empire: news spreads through the streets of a ruthless campaign of terrorist atrocities, master-minded by the elusive, perhaps mythical, "Bookman." Orphan, an upwardly mobile street urchin and aspiring poet, has little interest in the world of high politics, but when his fiancée, Lucy, is caught up in one of the Bookman's seemingly random bomb attacks, he finds himself drawn, against his will, into a world of conspiracy and subterfuge which threatens to undermine the Empire. . . .

Lavie Tidhar's The Bookman wears its pulpish steampunk stylings with pride, shamelessly wheeling out such generic commonplaces as Babbage-era AI from the very start. Its focus throughout is on maintaining a taut, quick-fire narrative and, as such, its prose is sparingly functional, usually aspiring to do little more than regularly tick off the requisite period clichés: thick fog, haunting gaslight, and toothless paupers are all formulaically noted. The reader's familiarity with the works of Verne, Wells, Conan Doyle, and their contemporaries is left to give body to the period ambience. When the author does strive for something more affecting, he has a tendency towards slightly purple prose:

He [Orphan] fell in love the way trees do, which is to say, forever. It was a love with roots that burrowed deep, entangled, grew together. Like two trees that leaned into each other, sheltering each other with their leaves, finding solace and strength in the wide encompassing forest that was the city, holding together in the multitude of alien trees. Orphan loved her the way people do in romantic novels, from the first page, beyond even The End. (p. 30)

Striving to imbue events with a sense of significance, he also produces a fair amount of portentous and rather hammy dialogue:

"Oh, Orphan, why is it that everyone you touch seems to die? You are like Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, wandering the halls of your mind, not daring to act until all is lost. This is the time of myths, Orphan. They are the cables that run under the floors and power the world . . . " (p. 58)

Of course, it can be argued that such passages are penned with tongue half in cheek, as is to be expected in a piece of mock-Victoriana. A similar justification could be made for some of the more obvious plot-twists resurrected from nineteenth-century potboilers (few readers will be surprised to learn that Orphan's roots are far from humble and that he is, in fact, heir to a not-inconsiderable inheritance). However, pastiches of Victorian literary excess are hardly few and far between, and others have ploughed this literary furrow with more entertaining results.

The central problem with The Bookman is that it throws too many elements into the mix and then does too little with them (a sequel is in the works, and the intention is clearly to revisit and develop many of its under-worked components at a later stage). Like many novels of its ilk it features cameos from a diverse and dazzling cast of historical and literary figures; many of the usual suspects of the sub-genre (Karl Marx, Mycroft Holmes, Lord Byron, Jules Verne, and, inevitably, if fleetingly, The Ripper) are present and correct, with a few curve-balls (Mrs. Beeton?) thrown in for good measure. However, too many of the familiar faces Tidhar relies upon serve only to provide exposition and nudge the plot along, with little attempt being made to flesh out their characterization. For example, the reader is offered no insight into Moriarty's motivations for acting as a Quisling to the Lizard Kings; given his literary track-record, he simply provides a convenient All-Purpose Evil Genius. The only original character of any note in the novel is Orphan himself, who is little more than a cardboard cut-out protagonist. Attempts are made to portray him as a sympathetic "little man," overwhelmed by events and seeking only to rescue his lost love, but these feel rather half-hearted. His dialogue remains stilted and excessively formal, doing little to convey the impression of a character raised in destitution, even one with an admirably self-improving passion for poetry.

This is not to say that The Bookman is without merit. Occasionally scenes do appear which don't simply rely on recycled steampunk clichés—a vividly realized scene in a dingy cock-fighting den lingers in the memory—but these remain few and far between. There are also scattered flashes of wit amongst the heavy-handed literary references, such as with the "Persons from Porlock," a band of young anarchists whose modus operandi consists of breaking the train of thought of eminent writers by violently disrupting their work mid-composition. However, on the whole, Tidhar relies too heavily on reheating generic leftovers, and the novel's plot is not compelling enough to conceal its lack of colour and creativity. This might not be a problem in a less crowded corner of the market, but those who like their high adventure set in a world of gaslight and pea-soupers are hardly starved for choice.

That said, I'm sure David Icke will love it.

Michael Froggatt lives in Hampshire, UK.

Michael Froggatt lives in Oxford, UK.
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23 May 2022

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