Camera Obscura is set in the same world as The Bookman, Lavie’s first steampunk novel, the events of The Bookman are mentioned several times in passing and the main storyline takes place some three years later. Although I recommend reading The Bookman first (simply because it is one great Steampunk novel), it is not essential for understanding Camera Obscura. Lavie Tidhar’s latest novel is highly enjoyable on its own.
In Camera Obscura, Lavie continues what he started in The Bookman. Fictional and historical characters from various times are blended into the story in a most delightful, and in some cases rather unexpected way. The main protagonist is Mylady De Winter. The only thing connecting her to EDIT: Alexandre Dumas‘ character is the name.
Camera Obscura (once again published by Angry Robot) starts in Asia, in best Wuxia fashion and quickly turns into a murder mystery set in Paris.
The novel contains two converging and intertwined narratives. The main story line is centered around Mylady De Winter , the second follows an Asian boy named Kai who is in possession of a strange alien figurine.
Lavie’s steampunk Paris is a fascinating, dark and dangerous place. Just like Great Britain in The Bookman, France has strange rulers, but I shall not put a spoiler here. The rulers, who came to power during an event called “Quiet Revolution” are a secretive council and employ a number of disreputable characters for special tasks. Mylady de Winter is one of these, others are the Marquis de Sade (a very steampunked version of him) and a certain Teutonic fringe-scientist whose first name is Viktor.
The murder mystery soon develops into something far more sinister and it seems half the world is after something that was in the victim’s possession.
Mylady de Winter willingly and unwillingly encounters representatives from numerous Chinese secret societies (all warriors in best Tiger & Dragon tradition), scheming courtiers, elements of France’s underworld and people from other parts of Europe. Through these meetings we learn a lot about the world Lavie Tidhar has invented, it becomes significantly more substantial.
Eventually, Mylady de Winter finds her way to Vespuccia (North America). Here too, we meet an ensemble cast of historical and fictional characters. And it is in Vespuccia, in the presence of such notables like Sitting Bull, William F. Cody and Winnetou, that the story comes to a very dramatic end, leaving the reader speculating about what tale Lavie’s third steampunk novel will tell.
The story itself is told in very much the same style The Bookman was. Most of the story is told from the perspective of Mylady De Winter with short episodes of Kai’s (life’s) story in between. Occasional flow-of-consciousness brings some flavor and insights into the minds of the main characters. The plot also never stops moving and there are some dark surprises and twists along the way. These concern the plot and the protagonists, although many of the characters will be familiar to the reader, their role might be not. At some not clearly definable point, a new element enters the tale and all of a sudden the reader gets the sense of a terrible urgency, a vast and heavy shadow looming over everything… But I shall say no more about this.
All these elements make Camera Obscura an incredible hard book to put down. A colorful cast of characters, a gripping tale of loss, gain, secrets and cosmic dread, all woven into a hauntingly familiar and yet very strange steampunk version of earth.
Camera Obscura is also much darker than The Bookman, the abysses of human and near-human existence are explored and are a major force driving the plot. Possession (of one kind or the other), artificial extension of life, and certain vile things only possible with advanced technology, all play a part.
Camera Obscura shows the reader some inner and outer demons. It is quite a different reading experience than The Bookman. Since I am a big admierer of Lovecraft, I obviously think this is a positive development.
A few weeks back I was wondering if Lavie would manage to dethrone himself and make Camera Obscura my new favourite Steampunk novel.
I think Camera Obscura is required reading for every Steampunk out there. The full reinforced squadron, ten out of ten Zeppelins!