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  • Review: Dexter Palmer – The Dream of Perpetual Motion

    The Dream of Perpetual Motion
    The Dream of Perpetual Motion

    Of all the Steampunk novels I have read until now, The Dream of Perpetual Motion is the strangest and most bizarre tale. If I had to sum it up in one sentence it would be this:
    Shakespeare’s The Tempest set in a Steampunk world while Shakespeare was on a bad trip.

    Mr. Palmer draws heavily on The Tempest in his novel, I also recommend everyone to get themselves at least somewhat acquainted with the plot of The Tempest and the protagonists and their role. Knowledge about this play adds a lot to the joy of reading The Dream of Perpetual Motion. The original features on several occasions and we meet strange versions of Prospero, Miranda, Caliban and Ferdinand. They are all protagonists in The Dream of Perpetual Motion to varying degrees of importance. Prospero has some resemblance to his namesake in The Tempest, but he is a dark version of the Shakespearian character. A technological necromancer more at home with devices and machines than humans and other living beings. Miranda shares the innocence of Shakespeare’s Miranda but this innocence also harbours a dark secret. Caliban, any closer description of Caliban would spoil too much so I shall have to skip him. Personally, I found him the most likeable of the Taligent family. Ferdinand is a character from the margins. We also meet other, strange characters like the drivers of shrink-cabs (taxis which also sort your psyche out) and a sculptor who for 25 years did nothing but portray Miranda. Now he is an obsessed and insane wreck and a chilling testimony to corrupted art.

    The plot itself begins in the childhood of the narrator, Harold Winslow. He narrates the story from his cabin aboard a giant Zeppelin, the Chrysalis. We learn that as a child he lived in poverty with his father and elder sister in Xeroville and by fortune or fate his life became intertwined with that of the city’s ruler, Prospero Taligent, and his adoptive daughter, Miranda.
    The story follows several strands, some in the recent past of the narrator’s life, some recollections of his childhood and youth, which makes the novel a bit difficult to follow at times but it all makes sense in the end.
    All lines converge , all the riddles are solved and all the mysteries revealed. Although The Dream of Perpetual Motion is not the easiest novel to get through (my only point of contention), Dexter Palmer manages beautifully to draw the reader into the the story. Once one has gotten into the plot, it is hard to put the book aside.
    We learn about the city through Harold’s eyes and as his life progresses it becomes clear that everything is not headed towards the scientific Utopia which is the promise the future holds when Harold is a child. Instead, we witness the decay of a society under the influence of too many machines and too much science and logic for its own sake.
    In between there are almost dreamlike sequences when Harold recalls his visit to Prospero’s tower. The Tower is a strange and haunting amalgam of smoke, mirrors, strange inhabitants and high technology. It is haunted by Prospero’s dreams, both those he made real and his final dream, which eludes him almost until his death.
    Prospero’s dreams are what is revealed to be the driving force behind everything in Xeroville. Prospero wants to be a benefactor, a loving father and a philantropist. But he cannot really understand his fellow men and all his endevours eventually end in frustration and horror. As the story progresses, Dexter Palmer starts paint a chilling picture of an increasingly alien and yet hauntingly familiar culture and society, dominated by a monolithic cooperation and its dictates on human lives. Reality itself becomes mutable just as it is inside Prospero’s tower. It begins with the seeping-in of casual insanity in places we do not expect and ends with the unravelling of Prospero’s and Caliban’s true nature and the final fate of Miranda.
    Also, although I would hesitate to call The Dream of Perpetual Motion an action-novel, the tension never leaves the story. It always feels like there is a revelation, something marvellous, unexpected or horrifying waiting on the next page. When a revelation does occur, Mr. Palmer still manages to have it come from an unexpected angle and thus surprise us.

    The Dream of Perpetual Motion to me is a moral tale of the wonders of technology gone mad, of human endeavours being corrupted by misunderstood motivations and ill-placed good intentions. It is a haunting and harrowing tale and it is not for the casual reader. This said, I believe it is already a classic and I would not be surprised to one day find it on a “required reading” list for a Shakespeare seminar. Dexter Palmer’s debut let’s him take a place among the masters of Steampunk literature. It is my hope that the somewhat open end of this tale leaves enough space for a sequel.

  • George Mann – Ghosts of Manhattan

    Ghosts of Manhattan CoverI was once again lucky enough to be able to do a pre-release review of a most excellent novel, Ghosts of Manhattan:

    After having done a review on Lavie Tidhar’s The Bookman I was eager to see how Ghosts of Manhattan would measure up against it.
    At first I was not too impressed. The plot seemed too transparent, I thought it was obvious after about 50 pages who the eponymous Ghost was and who was most likely the villain, I was wrong about the latter. I also realized that I measured Ghosts of Manhattan along the wrong standards. Ghosts of Manhattan is not a mystery tale, it is straight forward pulp. After I got that, the novel suddenly became very enjoyable.
    Ghosts of Manhattan is a dirty, gritty, action-packed noir tale. The hero, The Ghost, is haunted by memories which are only hinted at until the finale and from which he takes part of his strength to fight crime. The New York he is trying to protect is a city with the Mob like a festering wound at its core, it is the New York of the Roaring Twenties, only darker.
    Along with the Ghost comes the full range of characters you would expect in a noir setting: The driven, untouchable cop in the form of Donovan. Celeste the beautiful jazz-singer from a seedy bar, the hero’s love-interest with a dark secret. Countless expendable goons and The Roman at the head of the pyramid of crime, terrorizing the city for his own nefarious ends, which run far deeper than I expected. The characters are very believable within the setting despite and maybe because of the cliches they are. The Mafia wants to bribe the good cop, when money fails they threaten violence against him and his wife. The second-in-command of the mob is a sleazy, demonical rat, the good cop a tough but fair guy who can take a beating.
    In best pulp fashion, the action starts quickly and keeps going at a very fast pace right to the last chapter. The tension also never leaves this novel, there is always something happening. Fistfights, shoot-outs, mad chases across the roofs of New York, every page holds another thrill.
    However, this noir tale goes further and deeper:
    There is the steampunk, or maybe in this case, dieselpunk background it is set against. We get steam-powered cars, rocked-accelerated biplanes, tesla-coil power generators and creatures of strange science. This all ads flavour to the story, from the technology used by all protagonists, from weapons to heavy equipment, to the history of the world and the reason The Great War came to an end and what led to the cold war between the USA and the British Empire.
    There are also elements to the triad of principal characters: The Ghost, Celeste and The Roman, that you would not get in a normal noir setting, but I may not say more, lest I spoil it for the reader.

    Now for the few downs of the novel:
    As I said before, the plot is a little too straight forward and transparent for my tastes. Also, The Ghost resembles Batman too much. This may be excusable by the fact that you do not have too many options when it comes to pulp heroes with a dark secret or mysterious past, still, the parallels are too obvious.

    Also (SPOILER ALERT), The Ghost of Manhattan effectively has two separate endings. The first one comes with the, unfortunately inevitable, loss of Celeste. The second comes a few pages later, with the discovery of another mystery that was already hinted at in the margins of the novel. I would have much preferred a more ambiguous demise of Celeste, something that would have made a rescue possible, but who knows what the future holds in a world where reality is not all it seems and there are forces at work beyond mortal comprehension (END SPOILER)

    To sum up:
    All in all The Ghosts of Manhattan is a very enjoyable read. It is pure pulp entertainment. Once you get into the flow of the narrative, it is hard to put the novel down again. It drives you ever onward to the seemingly inevitable conclusion.
    Yet, the conclusion is not inevitable. The Ghosts of Manhattan ends with a major twist and a scene which promises a sequel.
    Ghosts of Manhattan makes for excellent entertainment on dark, rainy evenings. Best enjoyed with your favourite piece of Jazz or Swing playing in the background.


  • The World House – One piece of insane genius

    For this entry I shall divert from the usual topics of this blog and point your attention to a book I just read. Guy Adams‘ The World House, one of the most bizarre, exciting and engaging books I’ve ever lain my hands on.

    Cover of The World House by Guy AdamsIt took me a while to really get into the story of The World House. With the introduction of a number of characters and their story about how they ended up in the World House, it takes a while for the story to gain momentum.
    As soon as the story gains momentum, there is no slowing down. Guy Adams takes his readers on a trip they will never forget.

    The story is told from the perspective of several characters who end up in the World House and who by luck and chance form three seperate teams or groups in order to survive. Each group knows nothing of the others and only at the end do members of two groups meet. For the most part we follow the protagonists as they struggle to survive in this bizarre house that exists somewhere and somewhen outside our space-time continuum; the usual laws of physics do not seem to apply. Some rooms are just rooms, others contain jungles, oceans or mountains. There is also a library which holds the biography of every person on earth and maybe more.

    The unfortunate tennants of the World House have to face challenges beyond their immaginations, from spectral terrors haunting the dark gulfs between the rooms to denizens of a sentient ocean. With the exception of a noted explorer from the 1930s everyone we meet is an everyday person. They do not have any special skills, they just try to cope in a world which is literally insane. It is really easy to identify and emphasize with Miles, Alan, Sophie, Penelope and the others, they are just like you and me. Mr. Adams describes the World House with an amount of detail that is bordering on the insane, insane because there are so many details which are simply insane. At the heart of the house sits a mad imprisoned godling, and Mr. Adams makes sure you, the reader, feel its presence just as much as the protagonists do.

    Another pearl within this brilliant narrative is Sophie. Whenever the story is told from her perspective, it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. She has a special way to see and think about the world, you’ll see…

    And you will be surprised about the end and will be just as eager to get your hands on the sequel as I am now. So, if you enjoy strange and bizarre tales and especially if you love Neil Gaiman’s work and wonder what his tales would be like on a bad trip, get yourself a copy of The World House it is one insane and exciting ride of a read.

    Get it here: The World House

    UK visitors, get it here: The World House

  • The Bookman – A pre-release review

    Lavie Tidhar was kind enough to honor me with an opportunity to review his upcomming steampunk novel The Bookman.

    So here are my thoughts and impressions:

    The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar

    Since this is a pre-release review of The Bookman, I shall try to put as few spoilers into it as possible.

    Set in an alternative version of 19th century earth, with a point of divergence to our timeline sometime in the early 16th century, The Bookman is without a doubt the most enjoyable, fascinating and captivating book I have read in a long time. It has managed to claim the throne as my favorite steampunk novel from Moorcock’s A Nomad of the Time Streams.

    The Bookman is steampunk on multiple levels. Not only because of the plot and the world with its automatons, simulacra and the giant space cannon, it is also in itself an intricate work of art, very much like clockwork. The story’s depth is revealed piece by piece, gear by gear, during the entire length of the novel up until the end, which makes for a very exciting and captivating read.

    The reason for its ability to have constantly kept my attention is simple: Whenever I thought I finally understood what was going on and what motivations the protagonists had, another layer of the plot was revealed, another important detail added. This way, a number of theories about what was really going on were shattered and The Bookman kept on surprising me.

    It took me very much until the last chapter to piece all the details together, combine all the different gears and cogwheels to one beautiful apparatus, to grasp the full expanse of what was actually going on right from the start of the novel. Finally in the end I understood and was left with the images of a truly fascinating story and world in my mind.

    But it is not only the depth of the plot, its many twists and mysteries which kept me glued to its pages, it is also the cast of characters and the many striking details of the world, which make this book so enjoyable.
    Lavie Tidhar creates his own reality in which I, while following the main protagonist Orphan, met well known fictional characters and real historic people and sometimes the person and their fictional invention. Jules Verne plays a part in the story and is very much involved in the machinations of the novel’s namesake, the Bookman. He is accompanied by Robur and he takes Orphan on a ride on board the Nautilus and also The Nautilus.

    Others are only mentioned in conversation, like Dr. Marbuse, Lovecraft’s Herbert West, even Sherlock Holmes.
    Further real-world Victorian notables who play their part range from Karl Marx to Isabella Beeton.

    Books, rather unsurprisingly, in many ways also play a significant role in this novel. Books lead the way, books are powerful and books blur the borders of reality. There is a room where Orphan investigates a bookshelf stacked with books that feel strange to him. The titles on the shelf include The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism and De Vermis Mysteriis.

    Blurred reality, illusions and deceptions are recurring motifs in The Bookman. This too, adds to the fascination of this novel. After a while I knew that there would be another twist and another layer revealed, yet I could not say when this would happen and what impact it would have on the story and the development of the plot.

    However, it is only the reader and the characters who get deceived. The plot itself remains coherent; all the events which unfold make perfect sense and reveal the complete picture in the end.

    One final fascinating element of the novel I shall not go pass without mention is Lavie Tidhars use of mythology. Many elements of earth’s mythology, mostly from the ancient Near East, flow into the novel. Orphan also encounters a number characters who, for one reason or another, are in possession of acient secrets and long forgotten tales. Mentioned in the margins are surprising details of The Bookman’s version of earth and its history, which in combination create a whole new mythology with Les Lezards, The Bookman, The Binder and Orphan as the focal points and keystones.

    At the end of the novel, there are still many unanswered questions and some events to which the story has built up towards finally happen.
    Although the story of The Bookman is finished and Orphan has gained what he wanted, there are many things the sequel can latch onto.
    I am looking forward to the next chapter of this saga: Camera Obscura

    So, I can wholeheartedly recommend The Bookman to any and all Steamunks out there, it is one captivating read, set in a beautiful, strange world, not really like our own but also not too far removed.

    Get it, you won’t regret it!

    You can get it here: