Tuesday, April 26, 2011

"Camera Obscura" by Lavie Tidhar (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official Lavie Tidhar Webpage
Order "Camera Obscura" HERE
Read FBC Review of The Bookman

INTRODUCTION: Before reading The Bookman, I have heard of Lavie Tidhar in connection with his short fiction published in various places, so the fact that I enjoyed quite a lot his debut novel of last year was not surprising. When the second novel in his steampunk alt-history milieu was announced with totally different characters and set mostly in France this time, I was a bit apprehensive since I really liked Orphan and the cast of The Bookman.

"How will the books connect, will the series keep cohesiveness, will the milieu stand expansion?" - were several of the questions I was thinking about when I read the blurb below:

"CAN'T FIND A RATIONAL EXPLANATION TO A MYSTERY? CALL IN THE QUIET COUNCIL. The mysterious and glamorous Lady De Winter is one of their most valuable agents. A despicable murder inside a locked and bolted room on the Rue Morgue in Paris is just the start. This whirlwind adventure will take Milady to the highest and lowest parts of that great city - and cause her to question the very nature of reality itself. "

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: I liked the author's debut The Bookman for its many references to popular 19th century culture, the imaginative steampunk setting and the main character Orphan, though I found it lacking balance on occasion. Camera Obscura is set in the same milieu some 3 years later but features mostly completely different characters and takes place largely in France's sort-of republican society as opposed to the Imperial Britain of Les Lesards - sort-of since AI's as embodied in the Council lead there after the Quiet Revolution.

The references naturally are Dumas first and foremost - Milady as agent of the Council, the Gascon - aka D'Artagnan as police officer of all things - the Monsignor aka the Cardinal as a Council AI - but also Poe's Rue Morgue locked room mystery and oddly enough, Winnetou makes an unexpected appearance later as agent of the Vespuccian state whose president is Sitting Bull.

The Island of Dr. Moreau - though the doctor is in retirement for now - and the (in)famous Marquis de Sade - sort of but with all his parts intact as he points out to Milady - are among other attractions as is the Chicagoland fair in Vespuccia and much more.

Camera Obscura is much tighter than The Bookman and has the essential structure of a steampunk thriller with its McGuffin - the object that will change the world as the heroes know it, etc, etc - and for which brutal murders are committed and agents from everyone who is anyone in the world compete.

So we have the Chinese Imperial court represented by polite Colonel Xing and striking Madame Linlin, Les Lezards represented by Mycroft Holmes, rogue Council agents, Vespuccian agents, mystic Chinese triads, though of course our heroine, the Dahomey former circus girl that is now known as Milady de Winter - after her last sadly deceased husband - and who is a rough and tough agent of the Council is leading the charge to get to the magic piece of jade that is our McGuffin here and she is mostly irresistible.

While starting as a murder investigation - of course a locked room mystery as the Rue Morgue hint makes it clear, and to top it all for those who read the original Poe, the ape possibility is mentioned too here - Camera Obscura picks up speed soon and becomes a really thrilling adventure in which you got to buckle up and enjoy the ride with the occasional over the top moments just adding to the fun. Sade at Charenton and Ampere's "toys" are among other highlights of the first half beside the ones mentioned earlier.

The context above which fits very well the story the author tells and the characters he uses for it, took the novel one level above the usual fast and fun adventure and the flamboyant Milady made as great a lead as Orphan in The Bookman.

Overall, Camera Obscura (A+/A++) was quite a positive surprise in some ways - I hoped for an entertaining volume on par with The Bookman or at least one that was not too repetitive or with too much "middle volume" syndrome - and instead I got a superb more-or-less standalone volume that expands the inventiveness of the debut while keeping the story better focused and having as great a character cast as there. Camera Obscura raised the Lesards series to a must for me since now with more backstory and higher stakes I am truly curious where Lavie Tidhar will take it next.

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