Sunday, February 5, 2012

100 Books #11 - Lavie Tidhar's THE GREAT GAME

I would call myself a moderate steampunk fan -- I find automatons charming, I like clockwork, I certainly like well-dressed men gallavanting about in nice suits and top hats (though I don't envy the distaff their petticoats and crinolines and frippery and corsets) -- but I'm certainly not the sort who drops everything and rushes to the bookstore at the news that someone has published a new steampunk novel. It's low dose stuff for me, like brandy and cigars: pleasant once in a while but not so enjoyable if taken on a daily basis. Cough. So I cannot by any stretch of the imagination call myself an expert on the genre, but I think I've found something a bit unusual here.

The steampunk milieu of Lavie Tidhar's Bookman series (of which this is the third volume*) is one in which the author has actually taken pains to not only come up with an explanation for why the technology of steam and clockwork is so much more advanced than what was achieved during the actual reign of Queen Victoria, but has come up with a highly entertaining, even somewhat Lovecraftian explanation. For in this world, highly advanced and mysterious reptilian aliens landed on an island in the South Pacific, there to be contacted by Amerigo Vespucci and brought to Europe and thence to usurp the throne of England. Henry VII being the first Lizard King** and the succession proceeding from there in much the way of our world except, e.g. Elizabeth I was the greatest of all the rulers of the Lizardines, at least until Victoria of the powerful tail and forked tongue and...

And guys, I haven't even gotten to the weird bits yet.

For The Great Game (and presumably the two prior Bookman novels) entertains two big conceits simultaneously: 1. That the long rule of England and other bits of Europe by advanced reptilian aliens from outer space has spurred considerable technological development to the point where, for instance, Charles Babbage lives on and on as a nightmarishly freaky steampunk cyborg, and 2. That pretty much every character from 19th Century popular fiction actually existed, in many cases right alongside the authors who made them up in our world, so that not only is Bram Stoker a character but so is Lucy Westenra***. Karl May, the German author of a series of dime westerns, exists and so does his famous character, the Apache warrior Winnetou (who, of course, trained Harry Houdini in the way of the diplomat/spy. Of course). And there are more and more and more. For about the first third of the novel, it is amusing to spot all the characters from Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle and Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas (though I got a bit annoyed at the coyness with which some were presented, as if I was being challenged to recognize them, which kept knocking me out of my happy story reading trance, and we all know how much I don't like that), but after a while, one goes into overload. When Miss Havisham shows up as some kind of human library, I kind of threw my hands up in the air and sighed. But I also chuckled a bit.

Which is to say that if you're a fan of crossovers and secret histories, the Bookman series will pretty much make your brain explode. Keep your tophat on tightly so as to avoid spattering the wallpaper, would you?

Me, I'm not so much of one. I prefer authors to make up their own characters, on the whole -- but at least, if one is going to do it, Lavie Tidhar has pretty much shown exactly how to do it.

Even before Harry Houdini is made over into a [spoiler redacted] and is sent off into [spoiler redacted]. And Number Six refrains from announcing he is not a number but does indeed find his way out of The Village. What? No no, just roll with it.

You'll be glad you did.

*Once again, my Angry Robot ebook subscription brought me a late entry in a series. Regular readers of this blog know that usually results in my huffing off to the AR store to snag the earlier entries because I have that serial compulsion they count on, but just this once I decided to try jumping in at Book Three. I'm glad I did. And yes, I huffed off to the store to get the earlier books, but only after realizing I'd plowed through 2/3 of this book in a single sitting. Wa-hey!

**Nuts to you, Jim Morrison. Hee hee.

***And, as seems traditional for steampunk, the female characters play havoc with conventional gender stereotyping by being, to a woman, pistol-packing paragons of badassery (except when, as with Isabella Beeston, they remain somewhat conventionally feminine except in that they get elected Prime Minister). As someone who enjoys the classics but always gnashes her teeth at how much it always sucks to be a woman in the periods depicted, I must say I enjoy the hell out of this tradition, even though it strains my credulity rather a lot.

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