by Lavie Tidhar
Angry Robot Books (2010)
To put it plainly, this novel offers a smorgasbord of steampunk goodness. Zeppelins, automatons, floating islands, cannon-fired space flight, lizard people, and a countless array of literary cameos from the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Oh, and somewhere in all that there is a sweeping adventure.
Orphan is a young poet, hopelessly in love with Lucy, who is set to take part in the launching ceremony of the first venture in unmanned spaceflight. But, a notorious terrorist known only as the Bookman sabotages the launch, killing Lucy and others in the process. From there, Orphan finds himself recruited to track down the Bookman and stop him before he does even more harm.
The story is set in an alternate universe in which real life figures from history, such as Karl Marx and Jack the Ripper, share the stage intermittently with authors of the time, like Jules Verne and Rudyard Kipling, as well as famed literary characters, such as Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty (who is the British Prime Minister). It's a kind of kaleidoscope effect that dazzles the reader, but also serves as a distraction from what I feel is a rather riding-the-rails storyline.
Orphan is a kind of chosen character, the type of "you're our only hope, Obi Wan!" kind of hero. But, if you watch his actions through the story, you might notice that he isn't chasing after his goals so much as he's being batted about Tidhar's universe like a ping pong ball, being pushed along from one discovery to the next. It was a kind of Alice in Wonderland effect, in my opinion. It didn't feel like it as I was reading, but when I finished the book I thought back and wondered, what exactly did Orphan do besides play someone else's pawn, pushed across the board as if someone was prodding his back with a stick?
Perhaps, an early scene in which Orphan plays chess with "the Turk" is meant to act as a prelude to his adventure and the role he plays in it.
It is a remarkably elaborate plot, considering the cast of characters and cameos, and the numerous twists did entertain me, but ultimately it felt less impactful because of Orphan seemingly being led along by a leash through much of the story.
There is a sequel in the works called Camera Obscura, which apparently picks up where The Bookman very neatly leaves off, so I'll be looking forward to reading that and seeing if I might better appreciate a book heralded as one of the best steampunk novels to be published in the last few years.