The Bookman

Posted by : atcampbell | On : February 4, 2013

The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar

Six people attended this meeting at the North Village Branch Library. Our topic was The Bookman, a 2010 steampunk novel set in a 19th Century England ruled by giant lizards where historical characters move amongst literary figures of the era, particularly from the the Sherlock Holmes mythos. In this story, a young poet protagonist encounters a plot involving terrorists, robots, aliens, and a mysterious and deadly figure called “The Bookman.”

None of us at the meeting had read anything by Lavie Tidar before.  We all started The Bookman but only one had finished it, although two others said they would probably also finish.

A couple of readers read about 1/4 of the book and gave up, citing “standard and dated steampunk tropes”, “pointless name-dropping”, and “nothing interesting.” One of these said the book “thought it was more clever than it actually was.”

Another reader complained that this book’s prose was so purple that he felt he was reading an entry in the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.  He felt the prose style combined with the writer’s pompous pseudo-intellectual narrative approach were ineffective. He also disliked a long conversation scene between the narrator and an arcade-style robot during a chess game; he found the scene was exhausting and the chess play was poor. However, he did enjoy some of the book’s images, including a black airship that the conspirators in the book feared.

The reader who’d actually finished the book felt that it should be considered as a whimsical tale, similar to Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories. She felt The Bookman’s story followed the logic of children’s tales. She enjoyed the book’s examination of humans vs. robots. However she grew tired of the protagonist’s naivete. She also wished the author had invented more concepts himself, rather than lifting so much from the work of other authors like Jules Verne.

Another member felt the writer populated the book with varied and interesting elements like giant lizards and robots, but simply didn’t have a strong enough story to carry the book. He felt that other writers including Jasper Fforde, Kim Newman, and Howard Waldrop had done better work with similar material. This member also noted The Bookman is not an entry-level book, since it depends on knowledge of other speculative fiction  (by Verne, Wilde, Conan Doyle, Lovecraft, etc.) to understand fully.

Our final member simply said that the story and characters never worked for him, and the author never built a film for him to watch in his head.

After the meeting, many of us got together for a nice meal at Noodles and Company.

–A. T. Campbell, III