By Lavie Tidhar. You’d have thought steam punk would have run out of steam by now, but apparently not
Author: Lavie Tidhar
Publisher: Angry Robot • 395 pages • £7.99
ISBN: 978-0-00-734658-5 • OUT NOW!
Steampunk tends not to reach beyond the imaginations of those writers contemporary to its setting, retro-futurism being its key gimmick. That makes it more difficult for the genre to move forward than “straight” sci-fi. Inevitably, what once seemed radical is now in danger of being about as punk as Razorlight.
The Bookman doesn’t particularly carve out new imaginative territory for steampunk, but it does have a sound plot reason for its Victorian setting beyond mere aesthetics. It also suggests an alternative means of keeping steampunk relevant, which is the way all historical fiction stays relevant – the way we talk about the past, just like the way we talk about the future, tells us something about ourselves. Accordingly, The Bookman isn’t mere retro-escapism: it touches on terrorism and features some sly comment on the importance of evolutionary theory.
There could have been a bit more of this, but that might have got in the way of the plot, which moves at a great pace and takes in a large and varied cast of characters (including several real historical figures and characters from Sherlock Holmes). It follows a young London book vendor named Orphan, who lives in a world which – we discover in passing – is ruled by lizards, and where for some reason poetry is considered particularly important. When his fiancée is killed in a terrorist attack, Orphan finds himself caught between numerous competing agendas.
The juicy backstory is neatly unfolded by Tidhar, making it a key part of what makes the narrative so compelling. Other writers attempting world-building exercises should read and take note. The Bookman may not be radical, but it’s skilful, clever and highly enjoyable: steampop, if you will. Eddie Robson