Lavie Tidhar has always had fun playing with reality and the intersectionality of fiction and reality; it's a marker of the Bookman Histories, albeit not one highlighted quite so much as it is here.  Osama, after all, is a noir novel, and noir rather lends itself to existential questions, universal doubt, crises of identity, and similar; which is what Osama really does best, alongside a beautiful prose style and some wonderful writing. This is, after all, Tidhar's undoubtedly strongest and most interesting work to date, and combines that with a potentially explosive idea...

The plot of Osama follows Joe, a PI based in Japan, who is hired to find Mike Longshott, a writer of a series of pulps called Osama bin Laden: Vigilante.  The narrative of the novel intersperses excerpts from these novels - descriptions largely of al-Quaeda/Islamist terrorist attacks from Nairobi onwards, although 9/11 is played oddly - with Joe's increasingly abstracted and frustrated search for Mike Longshott, and increasingly Joe's avoidance of a search for a fundamental truth: what is the nature of his reality?  The alternate history of Osama is slowly revealed, with the effects never quite clear in their totality, only partially; Tidhar's novel is not about the world but about it's nature, and that intersects with the plot in little notes - such as de Gaulle's death in 1944 in Algiers, rather than in 1970; or the failure by the Western powers to carve up the Middle East to suit themselves.  The whole novel's plot relies on those literal differences, to some extent, and our not knowing all of them; because this is a strange world apparently without terrorism, a world where noir is reality, and this leads to the fantastic intertextuality between the fiction of the Mike Longshott books, the fiction of Lavie Tidhar, and the real world, layering in on each other powerfully and incredibly to a point where reality itself - inside the novel, at a minimum, and probably also outside - is a construct, although whose and for what purpose is left tantalisingly unclear.

The character of Joe - the only real character in the entirety of Osama (who, tantalisingly, appears only on posters with the words "Osama bin Laden: Vigilante. Wanted Dead or Alive" in the novel, as advertisements for the Longshott books) - is one ripped straight from noir.  A PI who
drinks, smokes, takes a case because a dame walks into his office and pays him to find Longshott, stubborn and occasionally foul-mouth, Joe is a man lost in his world; his identity fraught with confusion and questions - as becomes increasingly apparent throughout the novel - and his certainty in existence and everything around him increasingly shaken.  The way Tidhar slowly erodes the foundations under Joe's feet is perfectly played, and the ultimate pulling away of the rug - Joe's choice, right at the close of the novel - is brilliant, and incredible; not one we can perhaps accept, but one we can understand, and one in character for him.  This is definitely a portrayal of a character as well as of a world...

But Osama is a portrayal of a world, and it does it beautifully.  The combination of styles - the noir, the evocative, beautiful and lush physical description which makes scenes and cities pop off the page, the powerful language, the short sharpness of the chapters, the clarity and conciseness of the language which says exactly what it means to and neither more nor less, make this not only a compact and pacy novel but one that is also almost leisurely; basking in the descriptions and the language Tidhar uses is just as possible as scratching one's head at the philosophical conundrums and reality-questioning engaged in, and both are as possible as simply enjoying the noir story.  Indeed, the multiple levels on which Osama should be enjoyed make it a book that really works well, because none of them are mutually exclusive, and combine to create a really effective novel.

Osama is up there with Chris Beckett's work in terms of thoughtful intelligence combined with sheer authorial craft; a few more like this, and picking a top 5 of the quarter is going to be intensely difficult! It's no wonder to me that Osama is up for a slew of awards, and good luck to Tidhar in them; I'd really recommend this novel to you.
Tidhar's third volume in the Bookman Histories not only returns to, but surpasses, the promise of the first volume of the series.  The Great Game - a name instantly suggesting the subject-matter of the novel - is a fun, and enjoyable, thriller, which winks slyly at the audience with literary and historical allusions (our viewpoint characters include Lucy Westenra and Harry Houdini, and the rest of the cast draws on characters from Mycroft Holmes to Charles Babbage via Colonel Creighton and M.; the novel's front cover also shows off one of the more significant influences on the novel...)

The Great Game's plot follows three strands, each of them building together in complex ways to a conclusion that is powerful, horrific and rather unexpected.  The plot follows Smith, a retired agent of the Bureau - Mycroft Holmes' British intelligence service - as he begins a last mission in the wake of the assassination of Mycroft Holmes, hunting down the assassin.  The plot also sees Lucy Westenra similarly sent on a last mission by the great detective's even greater brother, and Harry Houdini set on something of a collision course with Lucy by the Vespuccian secret service.  Each plot strand builds on things learned in the others, and the division into parts of the novel, and only following one character in each part, really does help keep clear what's going on; though the differentiation of character and location is no small boon in that regard too.  It's a nicely controlled, and well-written plot that is both mysterious and brilliant homage to spy thrillers of all sorts; Tidhar's writing really does keep the plot moving fast and stops the mysteries and hidden elements getting annoying, whilst also avoiding letting things slip early or unneccessarily.

The characters of The Great Game are also well-written, especially Smith himself.  Smith's a nicely amoral creation, but a loyal one; loyal to Mycroft and to Britain.  His satisfaction in his job is evident, as is his borderline sociopathy; that Tidhar makes such a character an interesting, empathetic and indeed in some ways attractive is the mark of a fantastic writer, especially as we're never quite easy with Smith and his actions.  All of our characters, however, are united by one thing; their role in the game (which is, of course, afoot!).  And in no small part it is the effect of the game on our characters which this novel is about; they have very different outcomes, having gone in as very different and differentiated unique characters, each fantastically well-written, but each put painfully through the wringer and, mercilessly, ground down.

In the end, especially as this can stand-alone whilst referring back to events in prior novels in the Bookman Histories, I heartily recommend The Great Game; not only a satisfying read, but an enjoyable, fun, and interesting one too.

The Great Game will be out at the end of this month in ebook form and in the US/Canada, and on February 2nd in paperback form for the rest of the world.  Review based on an eARC provided by Angry Robot Books.
Tidhar's sequel to The Bookman has many of the hallmarks of the first novel, though describing it as a sequel is overstating the case somewhat - rather like the Bas-Lag novels of China Miéville, Camera Obscura is set in the same world as The Bookman, refers to events and characters in The Bookman, and builds on The Bookman... but has a separate plot and set of characters, in a separate part of the setting, with a separate style (to some extent).

Camera Obscura opens in Paris, not under the sway of the Royal Lizards and in the wake of its Quiet Revolution, and travels across large swathes of the world - we see Vespuccia, the America of Tidhar's imagination, and we see something of the immigrant experience (based on the so-called triangle trade of the 18th and 19th centuries).  However, as Camera Obscura goes on, things that were fresh and funny in The Bookman - the literary alusions, the sly jokes, the quiet asides, the wink at the reader - became wearing; the world-building was based on jokes and japery, on amusing ideas, on conceits and not concepts, and that's not enough to sustain a second full novel.

The characters that inhabit the world were mostly equally problematic; mostly sly alusions to literary or historical characters from Viktor von Frankenstein to Cardinal Richelieu, via Count Karnstein and Buffalo Bill Cody, they're very two-dimensional, basic, silly characters that are little more than throwaways to both be jokes and propel along the plot; Tidhar's delight in taking these characters and reducing them down to pointlessness is palpable, and it is strange to see such generally strong figures reduced to a sort of weak tea.  Lady Cleopatra de Winter is our one exception, and thankfully she's the main character; a relatively well-developed character, even when she starts to descend to the farcical level of the rest that change is arrested and her motivations, characterisation and power work really well.  Centring the book on anyone but her would probably have proven fatal, and solving some of the mysteries surrounding her past or exploring them further equally so, but her semi-enigmatic nature works rather well.

The plot... once more delves into the ridiculous, but the readable ridiculous.  It's convoluted and complex and in parts serves as little more than a vehicle for Tidhar to hang set-pieces or episodes that really should have been separate short stories on, but on some level it works; fast-paced, not too serious, with interlinked motivations and plots coming together in a huge climax that... well, makes sense, but the twists it takes to get there are more than a little strange, and indeed, the finale of the book is utterly insane, without reservation; Tidhar, with the brakes off, seems to produce some really strange and psychedelic prose.

Overall, Camera Observa demonstrates that The Bookman was a premise stretched to breaking point, as TIdhar snaps it completely here; the problems of the first novel are brought to the fore more, whilst its strengths move to the backburner. A fun, easy read, but by no means a good one.

Review based on an eARC provided by the publisher, Angry Robot Books. Released in April 2011
The Bookman is a strange story, part-steampunk, part-David Icke conspiracy theory, part-mystery novel, part-thriller, and part-Vernian adventure.  In none of these ways does it disappoint; Tidhar's attention to detail and his world-building makes the novel a treat to read an an immersive experience, however strange and unbelievable (Icke!) it may be.  He's created a novel that combines many features, and takes the best of them to be his benchmark; some are simply used, others are actively improved upon, and Tidhar hasn't stinted on the references to other works - both classics and steampunk - with Moriarty, Adler, and Verne all playing major roles.

Tidhar's characters are not the most well-rounded - in some ways, they're flat - but Orphan (who is, yes, an orphan, and thus immune to pirates) is a decent character all the same, both human and a feeling being.  Although Orphan's feelings are relatively simple - rarely does he feel conflicted! - they are also fair, and sensible emotional responses to the situations he is thrown into; and the interactions and actions or Orphan make sense with his motivations, which is always a plus.  The other characters are, with some exceptions, little more than background, but well-drawn background, with feelings - some, at least - of their own; and Gilgamesh at least has an excellent mystery to him, revealed at the end.

The plot of the novel is a convoluted and complex one; a working Turk features in the novel as one of the masterminds, alongside the Lizards and the Bookman, and the interlocking overlapping competing plots of all these figures do tend to use Orphan as simply another pawn - but also the queen, the most important piece on the board; why he is so important is revealed towards the end of the novel, in a nice piece of revelatory semi-infodump.  The strands of the plot, and its convolutions, are drawn together to form a nice tight piece by the end.

So overall, Tidhar has created a good and original steampunk novel, both serious and humourous; a recommended read.


Squeaking of the GrimSqueaker....

February 2012

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