Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

October 13, 2010

Lavie Tidhar – The Bookman

Angry Robot, 416pp paperback. Out in the UK since January 2010, published in the US and in ebook form October 2010.

“This is the time of myths, Orphan. They are the cables that run under the floors and power the world, the conduits of unseen currents, the steam that powers the great engines of the earth.” — Inspector Irene Adler

The Bookman is set in an alternate Victorian era, and it’s intensely focused on the myths and legends of English literary geekdom. It has echoes of Alice Through The Looking Glass, Perdido Street Station, The Tempest, and The Eyre Affair, with a large chunk of Mayhew thrown in for good measure.

It’s set not long after 1887, several hundred years after an expedition to the Calibanic Isle results in the wholesale replacement of Britain’s ruling classes with giant poetry-obsessed lizards. Lord Shakespeare was the first of the great Poet-Prime Ministers; Moriarty is the most recent. And yes, that Moriarty. At the newly rebuilt Rose Theatre, Henry Irving performs his own adaptation of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner supported by Beerbohm Tree. (Described as a young actor; Tree was actually 34 and quite famous in 1887, and we know the book isn’t set any earlier because it mentions a new air from Ruddigore. I mention this nitpick, because it’s the only factual or chronological inexactitude I’ve been able to find in the course of an entire book of Victoriana.)

Opposition to Les Lézards’ rule is rising, however; Karl Marx, John (“Don’t call me Nevil”) Maskelyne, and Isabella Beeton meet in a cellar underneath a Charing Cross bookseller, and notorious terrorist organization the Persons from Porlock besiege literary figures with the nonsense of Edward Lear. And then there’s the titular Bookman, assassin and anarchist.

Tidhar’s style is rather readable, and drops into an intensely Dickensian mode for some descriptive passages. He clearly knows and loves London well, and does a very good job of bringing out the city’s character.

“He stopped in his walk through Leicester Square and bought one of the sausages so advertised, covered in oil, dripping fried onions, held in a soggy bun. Everywhere there was the smell of cooking foods, and the lights in all the public houses were burning, and the cries of the drinking class sounded, merry and loud, from every open window but were drowned by the street merchants.”

There is one problem I need to highlight, however, and that’s the Bechdel test failure. There are female characters; a couple of them are quite important to the political plot going on in the background, but they don’t get much screen time. The protagonist has a love interest, who spends most of the book dead, and a female relative who appears briefly and helps out. None of them get to talk to each other. Given that in this society, a woman can be an Inspector at Scotland Yard, that seems rather a missed opportunity.


  1. Okay, you had me at “giant poetry-obsessed lizards.”

    Comment by Kate — October 29, 2010 @ 3:20 am

  2. I’d've had myself at that line, too, if I hadn’t already fallen for the book!

    Comment by Sam — October 29, 2010 @ 1:12 pm

  3. Minor quibble (in the world of books, immensely minor): he seems to have written a short story entitled, oh-so-very-imaginatively ‘The Gimatria of Pi’. What he’d have done better would have been to spell Gematria correctly – or better yet – to call it ‘hebrew numerology’. For the non-initiated or easily nonplussed readers :P

    Oh, did I point it out yet, I’m a geek? No? Darn.

    Comment by almadsfeika — November 30, 2010 @ 3:59 am

  4. I don’t know, to be honest – I’m a fan of letting SF&F readers work things out or look things up for themselves, and “Hebrew Numerology” sounds offputtingly like spoonfeeding to me. Gimatria is a valid if rare version, given Hebrew vowel practices – I’ve not seen it in the wild, but the internet has plenty of examples.

    Comment by Sam — November 30, 2010 @ 1:30 pm

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