Lavie Tidhar’s new novel The Bookman is an alternate history of Victorian England that focuses on the authors of the era, as well as many of their fictional creations. For some, this clever premise may strongly recall Alan Moore’s graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Is that a problem? Most will argue not since, like Moore, Tidhar has a great deal of fun stirring up trouble in the Victorian Era and then setting his poets and canonical characters on the trail of a mysterious villain.
There’s a rather surprising number of things wrong with Victoria’s empire, not the least of which is that Victoria and her court are all members of an alien race of lizards, known as “Les Lézards.” Everything is upside down: criminal mastermind Professor Moriarty is Prime Minister and the ingenious thief Irene Adler works for Scotland Yard. Even perennial troublemaker Oscar Wilde suffers at the hands of pranksters that distract him from his latest work, “The Importance of Being Something.” If people are mocking Wilde rather than the other way around, all bets are off.
In the midst of all this literary chaos, a mysterious terrorist known as “The Bookman” has returned to London. Using explosive books, he has made it his goal to bring down Les Lézards and their Everlasting Empire. He also commands an army of automatons…
Caught up in all this unrest is Orphan, an aspiring poet who sadly doesn’t know his real name or who his mother was. However, when we meet Orphan, he is in love with Lucy. Before they can marry, Lucy is killed in an explosion during the launch of the Martian Probe. Orphan sets out to discover who killed Lucy and why, but soon finds himself being used as a pawn by larger forces.
In The Bookman, Tidhar has created a wonderfully clever world, relying either on a house full of Victorian-era books or a heavily stamped library card and late fees. Either way, many of Tidhar’s creations are fantastic, a standout being the simulacra of Lord Byron, a robot designed to recall the great Romantic poet. With a sigh he will admit that he doesn’t have the original Byron’s love of poetry.
Tidhar’s allusions to Victorian Era authors, personalities and characters are many, ranging from Le Mettrie to Jules Verne to Nicola Tesla, and it’s a lot of fun keeping up with all these references. However, some will find that Tidhar gets caught up having fun with his automatons, his alien aristocracy, and his revision of the Victorian Era at the expense of character development. Consequently, some readers may struggle to identify with Orphan and his unusual journey.
However, there is more than an interesting premise at work in Tidhar’s new novel, and The Bookman is not just a book for English majors (though having read broadly certainly won’t hurt). At heart, The Bookman is driven by mysteries. What do the Lizards want? Is Lucy still alive? Orphan’s quest to find out what happened to his fiancée quickly takes him into a world of automatons, pirates, and royal intrigues, but will he ever be something more than a pawn?
This steampunk take-off on Jules Verne doesn’t fulfill the promise of its title. The characterization is lacking, and the plot seems to be more an exercise in touching steampunk bases instead of creating anything original. I was disappointed.