I’m hesitant about proclaiming love for historical fiction. To me it’s just a genre that can be so hard to get right. Take too many liberties, and it’s not really historical any more, is it? But don’t take enough liberties, try to follow the actual course of history (as best we know it) too slavishly, and then it’s not really fiction…. The best historical fiction is the kind that follows the main narrative but tries to give the reader a glimpse at the people behind the dates and events, makes them come alive and gives us a sense of their emotions and motivations.
The Bookman concerns, obviously, the Bookman, that strange and mysterious terrorist who plagued Britain at the turn of the century. The story starts at the height of the Bookman’s reign of terror and continues through to the riots and uprising that eventually led to the devolution of royal powers to the reformed parliament. Throughout this backdrop of one of the Everlasting Empire’s most well-documented crises, Tidhar weaves the story of Orphan.
Unlike the majority of the cast of the book, Orphan himself is fictional—though he’s inspired by some of the rumours contemporary to the Bookman and the riots. Tidhar seizes on the “Return of the King” myth that one of the descendants of the last human monarch of Great Britain is somehow alive and has returned, at that moment, to retake the throne. He moulds this heir not into a prince trained in the art of statecraft and warfare but a street urchin, a poet fallen in with revolutionaries and in love.
In this respect, The Bookman is more a romantic adventure set against the backdrop of the Bookman crisis. Tidhar posits that if Orphan existed, than the Bookman would have known about him and tried to use him in the plot to take down Les Lézards. As the launch of the Martian probe draws closer, the Bookman traps Orphan and uses him as a pawn in a much longer game.
If you’re really into a naive young protagonist stumbling his way through an adventure mostly on luck and perseverance rather than any skill or intelligence, then you won’t have much to complain about here. Orphan isn’t exactly an outstanding or even memorable character, and that’s a shame. What’s worse, though, is that he’s practically the only interesting or well-realized character in the book. I don’t get it: Tidhar is writing in one of the most exciting time periods, with brilliant personalities like Irene Adler, Prime Minister Moriarty, and simulacrum Lord Byron … yet he uses them as little more than instruments of exposition.
Tidhar’s pale imitations of these historical juggernauts poke, prod, and otherwise shepherd Orphan through the required hoops of his adventure. This includes an all-too-brief side quest to become a pirate under the infamous Captain Wyvern. Yet again, though, Wyvern is a historical personality who graces the book for but a few pages, largely serving as a way for Orphan to finally make it to Caliban’s Island.
It must be a heady sensation, realizing as you’re reading up and researching a time period the number of famous people you might be able to include in your book. (I should note that Tidhar takes a few liberties here—by the time Adler is as prominent a detective as she is here, Mycroft has already retired from the civil service. And although Orphan’s meeting with the simulacrum Lord Byron is fun, I’m pretty sure he was on the Continent during most of the time this book takes place.) But if you include everyone in a tangential capacity, you won’t have time to develop any of them in much detail. And I don’t want to harp on this point too much; I’m just so disappointed, because Tidhar’s writing is beautiful. I love his dialogue, his description, and his action sequences. I just didn’t fall in love with the plot or the way it uses its characters.
Tidhar also does a great job portraying the political climate of that era from the perspective of an impoverished but somewhat educated person like Orphan. Whistle-stop tour of personalities aside, The Bookman captures a lot of the big issues of the day: the struggle for equal rights for automata and simulacra; the tension between advocates for free speech and loyalists to Les Lézards; the sense of unbounded scientific and technological progress, as seen in the Martian probe experiments. When you think back to the later reign of Queen Victoria and the Bookman, these are probably the sorts of things you think about.
Victoria was, of course, probably the Last of the Great Lizard Monarchs of our Everlasting Empire. Historians are still split on how they judge her decision to restore peace and promote stability by relinquishing some of her authority. Personally, I fall in with those who think she did the best thing, given the circumstances. In the long view of history, Les Lézards’ numbers were always the issue: it was either devolution or a truly bloody rebellion before her reign was out. And these days, old Lizard Lizzie isn’t that bad, eh? Long may she reign!
The Bookman is a serviceable, if not particularly amazing, adventure set at the turn of the century, in the last days of the absolute monarchy. Books themselves as booby traps. An heir to the throne on the loose in the streets of London. Pirates, submarines, hot-air balloons, and a mysterious island … it really is like something out of the science fiction of the time. I’ll give Tidhar his due: Verne would be proud. In the end, it’s not necessarily what I’m looking for when I read historical fiction, but it comes pretty close. Next time I might look for some alternate history, like one of those series set in a world where the Lizards never took the throne.