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.

Hugo and Campbell Award Nominations for Novel with Comments (by Liviu Suciu)

The nominees for the 2011 Hugo Awards and for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer have been announced. The winners will be announced on 20th August, at the Hugo Awards Ceremony held at Renovation, the 69th World Science Fiction Convention, held in Reno, Nevada. There are the usual categories but since my short fiction reading was appallingly low in 2010, I will include only the best novella nominees since at least there I read two of the nominees.

Demonstrating once more the age and demographic of a majority of its voters, the Hugo nominations for fanzine and fan writer are to pre-Internet stuff which is most likely read by a majority of Hugo voters and no-one else, while the editor short form category is almost the same as you could have had 100 10 years ago despite the huge changes in the short fiction market of recent times. Though it has Jonathan Strahan who is a big favorite of mine in short fiction editing, so at least I can "root" for someone there. For long form though there are some new names - finally - and as usual Lou Anders is my favorite for all the reasons mentioned HERE. For the full list you can head to the link above


Best Novel:

“Blackout/All Clear” by Connie Willis (Ballantine Spectra)
“Cryoburn” by Lois McMaster Bujold (Baen)
“The Dervish House” by Ian McDonald (Gollancz / Pyr)
“Feed” by Mira Grant (Orbit)
“The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit)

I have been delighted and a little surprised by the inclusion of “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” (FBC Rv of it, FBC Rv of The Broken Kingdoms) by N.K. Jemisin (FBC Interview with the author HERE (by Mihir) and HERE (Guest post by Kelly Link)) and of course that is my favorite hands down.

As originally from around there, not quite Turkey but the neighborhood - and not surprisingly based on how people from the appropriate "there" saw River of Gods and Brasyl, which I liked a lot but I am not from there - I disliked The Dervish House which is the kind of novel that modern Westerners tend to write about other cultures - researched and well intentioned, but mostly clueless beyond the physical descriptions.

I have been a huge Miles fan across the years, but I think the series should have closed with the awesome A Civil Campaign since Diplomatic Immunity read tired and what I read from Cryoburn is even worse, feeling like the author just went through the motions.

I tried Blackout since a few reviewers I respect were enthusiastic about it, but I was not interested enough to continue; I read too many books about England 1940 and the Blitz - I recently reviewed The Distant Hours which despite having the war in the background and not being sff is considerably more interesting. I keep wondering why the sf authors do not get even a little more adventurous and explore other moments in alt-history since after all the big bestselling alt-hist genre series of today is about the 30 Years War in Germany 1630's, showing that when done well, less Anglocentric periods can generate lots of interest.

I even opened Feed since I saw one or two enthusiastic reviews from people I respect, but it was still a zombie novel, so no interest.

Prediction for the Winner: The Bujold/Willis juggernaut is way too strong among Hugo voters, so I give 60% to Cryoburn and 40% to Blackout/All-Clear.


Best Novella:

“The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Window” by Rachel Swirsky (Subterranean Magazine, Summer 2010)
“The Lifecycle of Software Objects” by Ted Chiang (Subterranean)
“The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon” by Elizabeth Hand (Stories: All New Tales, William Morrow)
“The Sultan of the Clouds” by Geoffrey A. Landis (Asimov’s, September 2010)
“Troika” by Alastair Reynolds (Godlike Machines, Science Fiction Book Club)

Here I read two as mentioned and I voted for both in the Locus Poll, while I put some thoughts about them on Goodreads: “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” by Ted Chiang (Subterranean, Read it free HERE), “Troika” by Alastair Reynolds (Godlike Machines, Science Fiction Book Club) and both were very, very good but not quite the top of the game for the authors.

However Ted Chiang is simply the current master of sf novella/short story form and Alastair Reynolds is probably second or third with only Greg Egan for competition in sf (beside Chiang of course), so even "not quite the top of the game", means better than almost anything out there.

Prediction for the Winner: “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” by Ted Chiang


John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer:

Saladin Ahmed
Lauren Beukes
Larry Correia
Lev Grossman
Dan Wells

Here the rules are a bit arcane with two years of eligibility - Lev Grossman has been writing fiction for years now but as mentioned, rules are arcane - and it seems that for all authors this is their last year of nomination.

As it happens, here at Fantasy Book Critic we published a story by Saladin Ahmed: Hooves and the Hovel of Abdel Jameela - originally published in The Clockwork Phoenix 2 - and I have been reading the author's short fiction since, while his debut novel scheduled for 2012 is high on my anticipated reading list since I tend to like sff written about other cultures when done credibly - or at least my lack of real-life knowledge about them and the research that fits with what I read previously in other books allows me to believe it's credible.

Since I have strongly disliked The Magicians and I have not read anything by the other nominees, Saladin Ahmed is my clear favorite.

Robert has reviewed I am not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells and Mihir has interviewed the author.

Prediction for the Winner: this one is tricky but I expect Lauren Beukes or Lev Grossman to win at about 35% each, though I think Saladin Ahmed has a reasonable chance too at say 30%.