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Stylish Yet Insubstantial Steampunk From An Emerging Master
on 2 October 2010
Orphan loves Lucy. He loves her "the way people do in romantic novels, from the first page, beyond even the end," and when The Bookman kicks off, he's either about to propose to her, or else bed the little strumpet. One way or another, as Orphan admits to Gilgamesh, a broken old poet making ends meet on the street and father-figure to the young scallywag in lieu of his actual parents, "tonight... is the night."
But the only oaths Orphan makes that night are oaths of vengeance. Attending the grand launch of a Martian probe, the Bookman makes his mythical presence felt; his vehement objections to the interstellar expedition in question known. In absentia, he detonates a bomb which destroys the probe and incinerates, in collateral, Orphan's one true love. As soon as he regains his health and his wits, the boy's intent is set. For his campaign of anarchic terror, for his wanton disregard of human life, for taking away the very thing that made Orphan whole, the Bookman must pay.
So begins "emerging master" Lavie Tidhar's first novel, which pits one boy against a conspiracy of - would you credit it? - royal lizards which reaches to the stars and back. Now The Bookman could have been brilliant. During its first third, I fully believed it would be. Tidhar's beguiling short fiction, collected together in Hebrewpunk a couple of years ago, certainly is, but the demands of a short story versus those of a full-length novel are divergent, and Tidhar approaches The Bookman from an odd angle: as if it were a collection of loosely-related shorts rather than a single, cumulative experience, he introduces new characters (cobbled together from the annals of factual, as well as fictional, history) and new concepts (which is to say lazily repurposed steampunk tropes) in every chapter, none of which he fleshes out to any real extent.
The bigger picture is what's missing in The Bookman. Every encounter feels isolated, digressionary at best. It doesn't help that Orphan careens through the narrative like a headless chicken, chauffeured frustratingly unawares - and as we experience the text from his perspective, so too are we - from one conflict to the next by a rotating array of supporting characters. The boy's like a wind-up toy. Tidhar alludes to Orphan being but a pawn in some greater game, and that's fine, but at no point does he strive to rise above the myriad manipulations of the likes of Prime Minister Moriarty and the titular Bookman; he is so at the mercy of his every opponent that one becomes rather exhausted by of the rollercoaster of resolve rebuffed and recovery Tidhar has built for Orphan to ride along.
The Bookman is not without its strengths. Specifically, its beginning will reel you in like a bird on a wire, and on a related note, Tidhar's turn-of-phrase can be quite captivating. His stylistic intervention is, however, regrettably intermittent - prevalent particularly in the early-going and at presumably pivotal moments later in the game. For instance:
"This is the time of myths. They are woven into the present like silk strands from the past, like a wire mesh from the future, creating an interlacing pattern, a grand design, a repeated motif. Don't dismiss myth, boy. And never, ever, dismiss the Bookman."
Purplish, perhaps, but pretty all the same. Lyrical and impactful. Were there more such prose, I would heartily recommend The Bookman to you on account of its style, if not its substance, of which, sadly, there's something of a lack. But alas.