The Bookman, by Lavie Tidhar

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The Bookman

Lavie Tidhar’s The Bookman introduces us to a bold alternate world flavored by Western literature. I lost count of all the literary references in this tale about an orphan (called Orphan, for clarity) who suddenly becomes very interesting to the government and several revolutionary groups. On top of the literary references, there are giant, sentient lizards; automatons; pirated; and aliens. This book has everything.

Orphan has a good life at the beginning of The Bookman. He has a job and the woman he loves, Lucy, has just agreed to marry him. But then Lucy is killed at a celebration for the new Mars probe and Orphan is tempted into skullduggery by a promise from the mysterious Bookman to resurrect her. From then on, Orphan never has a chance to rest as he is variously chased, shanghaied, and trying to escape from whatever shenanigans he lands in.

Orphan knows he is a pawn in the middle of everyone’s games. (Even if he couldn’t work this out for himself, one of the characters literally tells Orphan that he is a pawn.) Our erstwhile protagonist is really more a vehicle that takes us into the weird, alternate history of this world. We follow Orphan as he travels from revolutionary-infested London to Paris to the Caribbean as various players move him around the imaginary chess board.

To summarize the plot further is futile; so much happens in The Bookman! Besides the real fun of reading this book is seeing what Tidhar does when he plays around with fiction. I got a kick out of Scotland Yard Detective Irene Adler and Prime Minister James Moriarty. There are more books in the series and I am very tempted to track them down, just to see what Tidhar comes up with next.

Everfair, by Nisi Shawl

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Everfair

Eddie Izzard explains colonization in such a way that it highlights the absurdity of people just showing up on a coast and claiming it in spite of the fact that people already lived in that area. As I read Nisi Shawl’s Everfair, I was reminded of Izzard remarking on British colonists’ “cunning use of flags.” In the opening chapters of this alternate history, the same plot of land in what is, in our reality, southern Congo is claimed by three different groups: King Mwenda and his tribe, the Belgians, and the Everfair colonists. Mwenda’s people have been in that part of the world for as long as they can remember but, in the world’s eyes, the land belongs to the Belgians, who can sell it off to the Everfair colonists through the cunning use of paper. By telling us the story of the people who live on this contested land, Shawl raises the matter of flags to a high-stakes human drama.

At first, Everfair is bewildering. Shawl introduces us to character after character. Some are trying to get Everfair off the ground (Everfair is the name the colonists choose for their new “country.”) Others are trying to get rid of the Belgians. Still other characters are just trying to find a place for themselves in the world. Until the plot really gets rolling, when everyone goes to war with everyone else, it’s hard to tell who to pay attention to. Some characters, like Lisette Toutournier or Tink, were more interesting to me, but they aren’t always the movers and shakers in Shawl’s world.

Everfair covers the history of the colony from the 1880s through the end of World War I. The cast never really gets winnowed down but, as I spent more time with each character, I felt like I started to get a handle on the story. That said, I think Everfair would have been more effective if the cast had been smaller or if Shawl hadn’t been trying to cram so many sub-genres into the setting. As it is, there are times when the book feels like it’s trying to be a history text with dialogue and steampunk elements.

The fact that Everfair takes place in a completely different location from most alternate histories and steampunk novels was my favorite thing about the book. In spite of its unwieldiness, this book felt very true to Congo and the Scramble for Africa. The crimes of King Leopold’s government towards the Congolese tribes is emphasized throughout the book, as is the misguidedness of Christian missionaries and the arrogance of the utopians who also claim the territory. Shawl has created a fascinating, unsolvable political and social snarl for her characters based on real history.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 6 September 2016.

King of the Cracksmen, by Dennis O’Flaherty

King of the Cracksmen

Liam McCool is caught between a rock and a hard man. When we first meet him in Dennis O’Flaherty’s rollicking King of the Cracksmen, he is helping a pair of Molly Magees to blow up the a hated company man’s house. After the house goes sky high, he returns to his boarding house to discover that his sweetheart has been murdered. To top it all off, his boss back in New York wants him to report back on the double now that his job spying on the Mollies is over. All McCool wants to do is get revenge for his sweetheart, but everyone else is pushing him towards a big role in the Great Game.

There isn’t much room to catch your metaphorical breath in King of the Cracksmen. The plot steams ahead like one of the Acme robotic police that are patrolling O’Flaherty’s alternate United States. In McCool’s world, John Wilkes Booth’s assassination attempt failed and Andrew Jackson sold the Louisiana Purchase to the Russians to balance the budget. O’Flaherty takes you from the coal fields of Pennsylvania to New York to Washington, D.C., to New Petersburg (formerly Minneapolis) and back to New York for an exciting showdown.

Along the way, as McCool is set to tracking down revolutionaries, demented heads of Public Safety, overly ambitious policemen, and New York gangsters, he starts to fall in love with crusading reporter Becky Fox—who turns out to be an agent of an organization that is determined to return the United States back into the nation it was before the Department of Public Safety. Meanwhile, O’Flaherty shows us the marvels of a steampunk alternate Gilded Age. There’s almost too much in this novel and no time for deep introspection. But then, King of the Cracksmen is billed as “A Steampunk Entertainment.”

I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 6 January 2015.

The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter, by Rod Duncan

The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter

The word Luddite is now a gentle insult for someone who doesn’t like technology. Two hundred years ago, it referred to people who smashed the “infernal machines” of the Industrial Revolution and followed the fictional Ned Ludd. This is the point of divergence in Rod Duncan’s Gas-Lit Empire series. In The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter, set about 150 years after the Luddites managed to grind technological advancement to a standstill, the United Kingdom has been split into two countries: the Kingdom of England and South Wales and the Anglo-Scottish Republic. The Kingdom was home to our protagonist, Elizabeth Barnabas, until a corrupt aristocrat bankrupted her father’s circus and she was sold into indenture to pay off her father’s fabricated debts. She fled north.

During the five years between her escape to the North and the opening of The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter, Elizabeth has been working as an intelligence gatherer. Or, to be more accurate, she has been disguising herself as a man and pretending to be her own twin in order to make a living. We meet her as she is meeting (as her brother, Edwin) with the Duchess of Bletchley, from the Kingdom. The Duchess asks Elizabeth to find her missing brother. Their meeting is interrupted by armed men. This is just the first time we see Elizabeth having to make a quick change and a quick escape.

Elizabeth is in sore need of money. Her houseboat payment is coming due. If she can get enough money, she can return home to the Kingdom and leave the repressing Republic behind. Though she receives many warnings, Elizabeth takes the case. Clues lead her to Harry Timpson’s traveling show, the Laboratory of Arcane Wonders. She is far from the only person on the trail of the Duchess’s missing brother. The International Patent Office—which squelches technology and scientific innovation—are after him. Timpson is after him. The chase leads all over the border zone between the Republic and the Kingdom.

I was immediately hooked by the world Duncan created. What would the world look like if the Industrial Revolution had been halted, even reverse? What really made this book for me was Elizabeth Barnabas. Her unusual upbringing in a traveling circus and her five years of forced independence have made her clever and strong. She’s a wonderful character and it was a treat to watch her work through the challenges the cropped up as she find out why everyone wants to get their hands on the Duchess’s missing brother.

The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter is the opening book in a series and I will be eagerly waiting for the next installment of Elizabeth’s adventures.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 26 August 2014.

The Kraken King, Parts I and II, by Meljean Brook

I received free review copies of these stories from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher.

The Kraken King, Part I

Kraken, balloon-borne marauders, and boilerworms! Oh my! Zenobia Fox has her work out cut out for her when she sets off from Denmark to accompany her friend, Helene, to the Red City of the Far East in The Kraken King and the Scribbling Spinster, by Meljean Brook. Zenobia is a writer of adventure stories, based on the adventures of her famous, wealthy brother Archimedes Fox. She has been kidnapped more than once and, when mysterious attackers destroy the airship she is travelling on, she suspects that it’s happening again. Ariq, known as the Kraken King, rescues her and her party and spirits them away to his smuggler’s paradise in western Australia.

The Kraken King, Part II

Zenobia and Ariq’s story continues in The Kraken King and the Abominable Worm. The pair set off in search of the raiders that downed Zenobia and Helene’s airship. Along the way, Zenobia continues to fight against her attraction to Ariq—though he really wishes she wouldn’t. The two did not get off to a good start in part one, due to a misunderstanding. Meanwhile, the entire party is attacked by a boilerworm. A boilerworm is a remnant of Imperial technology that has invaded the Australian outback. They’re attracted to heat and absolutely lethal. Brook leaves us hanging at the end of part two, to make sure that every reader who has enjoyed the ride so far will be dying to see what happens in part three.

In Zenobia and Ariq’s world, the Golden Horde managed to survive through history and conquer Asia, Europe, and parts of Africa and Australia. Technology has a distinctly steampunk flavor, though some characters spot nanobot-enabled enhancements. The world has a distinctly neo-Victorian feel, but with a generous (and gratefully received) dollop of gender equality thrown on. I loved that Zenobia got to ogle Ariq as much as he seemed to ogle her.

Brook has the same problem with one-sentence paragraphs I’ve been seeing in lighter literature lately. Despite that, The Kraken King is manages to conjure an intriguing world that I was eager to explore. They’re a modern day version of dime novels, I think, and they were a lot of fun to read. I really wish the publishers had released more of the stories at the same time so that I could have had a bigger ending and some resolution of plot threads.

Luminous Chaos, by Jean-Christophe Valtat

I received a free review copy of this book from Edelweiss, on behalf of the publisher.

Luminous Chaos

Imagine a city at the far north of the world, close to the Arctic Circle. This city was built with magic and money and industry and strange science. The city is peopled with Inuit and adventurers and wizards. The city is frozen in time, adrift from the rest of the world. Jean-Christophe Valtat introduced readers to New Venice in Aurororama and continues the unlikely adventures of its inhabitants in Luminous Chaos.

Brentford Orsini has just handed over the reigns of his regency to a political enemy, but that’s democracy for you. That enemy sends Brentford and six of his friends and allies to Paris on a made up diplomatic mission. Orsini can’t refuse because his other option is prison. Of course the mission goes wrong because Brentford has been ordered to take the most dangerous and unreliable means of transportation. The Psychomotive, piloted by a former explorer who has been reduced to being nothing but a head kept alive by machinery, ends up transporting the diplomats back to 1895 Paris.

Brentford and the diplomats spend the rest of the book trying to figure out how to travel in space and time to get back to their beloved, improbable city. While they are in Paris, they become involved in a conspiracy. In 1895, the founders of New Venice have only just begun their plans to create a Hyperborean city. Brentford and his friend, Gabriel d’Allier, can’t resist trying to learn more about these founders because the origins of New Venice have been lost to them over time. Meanwhile, the diplomats run afoul of virulently nationalist elements of the French police. Valtat ratchets up the tension by killing off several major characters.

The charm of Luminous Chaos lies in the dense and dazzling world building Valtat does. The diplomatic mission arrives inauspiciously in Paris through the Montparnasse Train Wreck. They run into members of the Parisian literary scene in delightful cameos from August Strindberg and Marcel Proust, among others. They visit the catacombs and seances. On top of all this, Valtat layers a generous helping of mad steampunk science and occultists meddling with forces they ken not. Luminous Chaos is a book to be savored.

Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl, by David Barnett

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher.

Gideon Smith and
the Mechanical Girl

Gideon Smith, a trawlerman’s son, has grown up with the tales of Captain Lucian Trigger almost since he could read. So when his father’s boat is found abandoned one morning, Smith sets out to find the Hero of the Empire to help him get revenge on his father’s killers. But David Barnett doesn’t make things easy for his hero in Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl.

Before Gideon makes it out of Sandsend, another abandoned ship arrives from Varna. (If you’ve read Dracula, this should sound familiar.) Mysterious mummified frogmen show up. Bram Stoker arrives in nearby Whitby looking for inspiration and runs into the Elizabeth Bathory, widow of the late Count Dracula. When Gideon actually gets out of town, he helps a mechanical girl escape from the laboratory of a man who appears to be Albert Einstein’s father. There are references to Frankenstein, the Sherlock Holmes stories, and an archaeologist named Jones. (Jones is considered to be a hack by the other treasure hunters in the book.)

I was enjoying the pastiche that Barnett set up, giggling over the many literary references I ran across. I wasn’t expecting the book to be anything better than a clever alternate history/steampunk/metafictional mashup. But Barnett surprised me. As Gideon travels to London, then Egypt, on his quest for revenge, there are interesting meditations on what it means to be a real hero, what bravery is, and how to love someone unexpected. Instead of feeling piecemeal, Barnett’s alternate British Empire lives and breathes. I had a great time reading this book, and I marveled at the ending. Barnett weaves all the various mysteries and impossibilities to create an ending that actually satisfies as well as sets you up for the next Gideon Smith adventure.

The Damnation Affair, by Lilith Saintcrow

I received an ebook copy of Saintcrow’s The Damnation Affair as a prepub from Netgalley.com

The Damnation Affair

Lilith Saintcrow’s The Damnation Affair is a standalone entry in the author’s alternate history/steampunk Bannon and Clare series. You really don’t need to read the first book, though you might want to in order to get a better handle on the curious world Saintcrow created.

Our heroine is Catherine Barrowe-Browne, a Boston society girl who takes up a post as schoolmarm in a town called Damnation in order to tack down her wayward brother. As soon as she arrives in the desolate town, she strikes the fancy of good guy Jack Gabriel, the town’s sheriff. So far, the story is pretty much par for the course. But then the zombies turn up. As Catherine tries to find her brother, Gabriel keeps the town safe from zombie incursions and investigates a curious occurrence in the mountains around Damnation. It seems that someone (it doesn’t take much of an effort to work out who) woke up something evil and hungry while trying to find gold. As the town’s positions gets more and more dicey, the plot works up to a very interesting plot twist near the end that changes how you see Catherine and Jack.

Even though the setting remains a little vague and the characters a little shallow, this is a fun read. I really enjoyed the twist; I really was not expecting what happened. And I am very curious to see what happens to these characters next, if Saintcrow works them into the main series as I expect she will.

Heart of Iron, by Ekaterina Sedia

Heart of Iron

I can’t believe I actually finished this book. The plot was so preposterous that I should have stopped reading it and went and found something better. But I finished Ekaterina Sedia’s Heart of Iron anyway, most likely because her other book, The Secret History of Moscow, was so good. But Heart of Iron actually got worse the further into it I got.

Heart of Iron has a promising start. Our heroine, Sasha Trubetskaya, lives in an alternate Russia where the Decembrist Revolution succeeded and the serfs were freed. Engineering and science are on the rise, leading to an early technological revolution as well. Sasha is a lighthearted girl for the first few chapters, but when she gets the opportunity to go to university she seizes it with both hands. She makes friends with Chinese students and a mysterious English student. So far, so good–except that the plot makes a left turn at this point and starts heading into WTF territory.

The Chinese students start disappearing. I could go along with that. What I couldn’t go along with was Sasha’s self-appointed diplomatic mission to China with her English friend, Jack, in tow. For some reason, Sasha thinks that if she can arrange an alliance between China and Russia, her friends will be released from prison. Sasha never questions why her mission might fail. It never occurs to her that as the daughter of a minor noble who has only just made her social debut she has zero political clout. It’s fun to watch her disguise herself as a hussar and travel across Russia by train and airship, but there was always the question in my mind about who would listen to her if she actually made it to her destination. Not only that, but in any reasonable book, Sasha would run a fair risk of getting killed because Sedia decided to complicate matters by sending her heroine right into the middle of the Taiping Rebellion. It’s just absurdity piled onto absurdity at this point. I couldn’t even enjoy the steampunk elements because I was having too much trouble suspending my disbelief about everything else.

I don’t often say it, but I can’t think of anyone who could really enjoy this book.

The Map of Time, by Felix J. Palma

Map of Time
The Map of Time

I’m not sure how I’m going to write about Felix Palma’s The Map of Time without getting deep into spoiler territory. Normally, I can get away with a mostly vague summary of the plot(s), slap on my hypothesis about what I think the book is trying to say, and sign off with a recommendation about whether it’s worth reading or not. But the plots of this book are so inextricably bound up in what the book is about that I don’t think I can tease them apart without going into such detail about the plot that I will pretty much ruin the experience for anyone else who wants to read the book. Plus, I have some serious reservations about whether this is a good book or not and I am dying to criticize it (in more than the academic sense).

Let’s see how far I can get before I resort to the spoiler warnings. Anyone reading this should probably brace themselves anyway.

The Map of Time is divided into three unequal sections. All three are linked by characters and events. What changes is the perspective of the narrator–an omniscient character who repeatedly claims the ability to see everything, everywhere. This narrator pops up sporadically, and it’s easy to forget his presence until he announces himself again.

The first section of the book contains the story of Andrew Harrington, a rich somewhat dissolute man who has the misfortune (in more than one sense) to fall in love with Mary Kelly, a Whitechapel prostitute who is doomed to be one of Jack the Ripper’s victims. After her death, Harrington numbs himself with drugs and alcohol for eight years before deciding to try and kill himself. His cousin and friend, Charles Winslow, however, concocts a wild plan involving the writer H.G. Wells to help Harrington change history and save his lost love.

The second section involves a young woman who is so bored with her own time and the limitations of life for Victorian women that she convinces herself that she is in love with a romantic hero from the distant future. Wells gets involved again as the girl and the hero manage to tangle themselves up in their romance and the intricacies of time paradoxes. It’s kind of fun to watch them whip themselves into frenzy.

The third and smallest section of the book is, surprisingly and somewhat disappointingly, when the most interesting (at least for me) plot happens. This time, H.G. Wells takes center stage and finds himself fighting for his life (and the lives of fellow authors Henry James and Bram Stoker) and the future of his world as he knows it. If they entire book had consisted of this section, expanded to its full creative potential, I would have been a very happy reader. As it is, I am merely a thoughtful reader, mildly entertained.

I give up. I have to start spoiling the book. SPOILERS AHEAD.

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When you read the inside jacket of the book, you expect a time travel novel. But in the first section, when Harrington ostensibly uses the time machine featured in Well’s novel, it turns out to be a fraud cooked up by Harrington’s cousin to shake him out of his suicidal funk. And in the section section, where the time travel apparently occurs through an act of magic, the whole show turns out to be a hoax as well. But in the third section, we finally get to see some “real” time travel. And that’s partly while I feel cheated. I had to read through nearly 500 pages to get to it and then it’s all over at just over the 600 page mark.

I try not to force my expectations on a book as I read it and let the author take me where they want to go. But I can’t help but feel mislead not only by the book jacket but also other reviews of the book I read. As I read The Map of Time, I was reminded of a story I’ve heard in several different versions where some tourists go into an attraction after paying a lot of money and, after realizing it’s a fraud, convince their friends to go too so that they don’t look like total rubes. The first two sections of this book are all smoke and mirrors, while the third section is over in a comparative flash. And I can’t excuse the book on the grounds of bad translation because what I’m disappointed about is the plot.

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END SPOILERS

Okay, I feel a little better having gotten that out my system.

This is a hard book to sum up. I want to say the book is about fraud and deception and manipulation. But this book is also about time paradoxes and interconnectivity. Characters weave in and out of each others stories, making crucial cameos or revealing important information. It was, I’ll admit, a lot of fun to see the connections and see the stories behind the main story.

So, can I recommend this book to other readers? I’m still not sure because what you read on the inside book jacket is not what you get when you actually read the book. The book takes a long time to get going, so you’ll have to be prepared for a very slow burn before any action takes place. One other piece of advice, don’t be too tied to your expectations because this book will not by what you expect.