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Camera Obscura by Lavie Tidhar

Angry Robot, 2011, 379 p.

 Camera Obscura cover

Camera Obscura is the second of Tidhar’s tales of The Bookman Histories. Whether it is desirable I can’t say as I’ve not read the previous volume but familiarity with the first is not necessary as this book did stand alone. Yet how to classify this blend of steampunk, altered history, murder mystery and SF? Best not to, perhaps. Let it all wash over you in an overwhelming wave.

Milady de Winter, once Cleopatra, The Ferocious Dahomey Amazon in Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth, sometime wife of a late English Lord, now works for the Quiet Council, a group of machines which rules in Paris. Across the channel Queen Victoria is on the throne – but she is a lizard, one of the set of creatures awakened by Amerigo Vespucci when he ventured over the Atlantic to Caliban’s island. As a result, in this universe inhabitants of the New World are referred to as Vespuccians.

As the above perhaps indicates, various homages are made in the course of this tale. We encounter Viktor, a scientist who experiments on dead bodies, Edison players which operate using perforated discs, a representative of the Empire of Chung Kuo, Mycroft Holmes (an agent for British intelligence,) Citizen Sade – who likes to inflict pain, Sitting Bull, Buffalo Bill; the list is almost endless. We hear, too, of a man named Moreau, off to carry on his work on a Pacific island. There was even the sentence, “A man came through the door with a gun,” but that was inserted only to subvert the cliché it implies. Earlier it had reminded me the film of The Maltese Falcon. At a ball Viktor utters a line that reads as if it could have come out of Treasure Island. “The dead don’t dance, and they seldom drink,” begs to be followed with, “Yo, ho, ho, and a bottle of rum.”

The first section of the book is entitled Murder in the Rue Morgue and at this point it looks as if we are going to be reading a steampunk (secret) police procedural. The starting point is misleading though, as the murder story morphs into a different kind of tale. There is the sense that Tidhar is packing too many allusions and references into his novel, at the expense of a tighter story. Not that the journey isn’t enjoyable just that the focus becomes diffuse, though pointers to the resolution are distributed throughout.

It all builds to a climax set four years after the Paris Exposition Universelle, at The World’s Vespuccian Exposition in Chicago – Ferris Wheel and all. Compare The World’s Columbian Exposition (a World’s Fair whose buildings became known as The White City) of which there are some pictures here.

While Tidhar can write there really is too much going on here for the characters to grow and develop – but that is, I’m sure, deliberate. Read it for the adventure story, for the references and allusions. For its brio.

Pedant’s corner: Except for the one occasion where automata appeared the word automatons is used as a plural throughout the book. Milady at one point has “another death on her hand.” (Hand, singular. This was before she lost one of the relevant appendages and it was replaced with a Gatling gun.) “Apart for them” was used for “apart from them,” and in “as if she and the jade have come to some sort of understanding” (have should be had) – plus a “sank” for sunk.

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