Lavie Tidhar has done it again. The previous two novels of The Bookman Chronicles, The Bookman and Camera Obscura, each were different genres, and so is The Great Game.
This time, Lavie has written a Steampunk spy thriller in best James Bond/pulp fashion. As previously Mr. Tidhar garnishes his tale with a colourful mix of historic and fictional people each fitting seamlessly into his version of a Steampunk earth. In The Great Game this web is especially complex and hard to disentangle until the end of the novel, when most questions are answered. There are still a few loose threads.
The plot itself centres around a race by various secret services to find out what the Erntemaschine is, and what the events surrounding it mean.
The plot is fast-paced, the book is action-packed, the cast of characters astounding. Just to give you a glimpse: The Great Game features (in no particular order) Harry Houdini, Sitting Bull, Irene Adler Winnetou and Karl May (those two belong together, look it up), Alfred Krupp, Charles Babbage, Bram Stoker and Van Helsing. There are more. They all interact, and it makes sense. Lavie has not only taken the characters, he has also woven the way in which the fictional ones manifest in their respective novels into the telling of his own tale, making The Great Game a very fascinating and facetted read. What I found most captivating was the way the various lifelines and corresponding plot threads interacted. Further, although some of the events are told retrospectively, they all influence the current events of the plot directly. Everybody involved is partly responsible for what is happening now.
Lavie’s style, as usual, is very gripping and plunges the reader right in the middle of the tale. Every scene was vivid before my mind’s eye, there was not a single page or paragraph I skipped.
Among the pages filled with drama and action, there is also room for romance, lovers reunited under highly unusual circumstances. And the humour… I laughed or smiled on several occasions, especially when Lavie introduced Karl May, and Harker’s description of the man in his diary should go down as one of the great quotes in literary history.
Before I forget: Please take your time and also look at the edges of the story. The Great Game, like the other two novels of The Bookman Chronicles, contains some highly fascinating details which make the world come alive. The subculture of Punk Lézards is the most obvious example, but there is more.
The only complaints I have: As far as I am informed, The Great Game is the last of The Bookman Chronicles, it ends in a massive cliffhanger. The end is screaming for a sequel, and it is too short, I finished it too quickly.
In short: Lavie Tidhar has once again created an outstanding Steampunk novel. Gripping, multi-facetted, and fascinating. It is hard to put down once you begin and it is also surprisingly philosophical. The actions of the Erntemaschine have some quite transhumanists results for those directly affected.
10 out of 10 Zeppelins.
A word of warning, though: I think the novel makes more sense if you have read The Bookman and Camera Obscura first, since the events in both books are referenced and The Great Game sheds some more light on previous events. Some details in The Great Game make more sense with knowledge of what was going on before.