the low down on new books

Camera Obscura

Reviewed by Brittney

Just the Facts: by Lavie Tidhar. 416 p. To be published April 26, 2011 by Angry Robot.  Advanced review copy provided courtesy of the publisher in electronic format through NetGalley.

Verdict: ★★★☆☆

Who Cares? Adult Steampunk (Victorian Era Alternate History)

Not-So-Short Bio: There is no good short bio of this book out in the interwebs . . . probably because the plot is so quirky that it doesn’t distill well into a blurb!  So, I’ll give it a shot myself:  Milady de Winter (of Dumas fame) serves the “Quiet Council” of the French underworld as a secret agent  in an alternate Victorian era full of familiar literary figures (Viktor Frankenstein and Quasimodo to name a few) as well as characters who are rather unfamiliar (unless you’ve read Tidhar’s previous novel, The Bookman).  Milady’s directive is to track down a murderer and locate an object stolen from the scene of the crime.  She quickly realizes that the Council must not be telling her the entire story as other factions begin to gather in Paris who hold the same objective.  Milady must ultimately decide whether to fulfill her own personal quest for vengeance or complete the task set before her by the Council.

Eyewitness Account: So, personal caveat: this is my first “steampunk” novel – if you’re new to the genre, it describes a mesh of fantasy and historical fiction (usually set in Victorian-era industrial age) with the key element of including machines/automatons/robots that rival humans.  Camera Obscura is actually the sequel to The Bookman, but it can be read as a stand-alone (it took me about half the book to realize that Vespuccia was the alternate name for America, which was probably introduced in the The Bookman.)

Added to the coolness factor: strong and mysterious female protagonist, literary characters galore, alternate history revisions, eastern oriental secret societies, and nuns with guns

Didn’t quite float my boat: female protagonist didn’t sound or act female (most male writers seem to struggle with this, especially in action/adventure stories), most characters felt shallow/underdeveloped, and plot was too slow at the beginning and too fast at the end (now don’t I sound picky?).

This was a pickle of a review for me to write.  For all the clever and creative pieces of the story I liked, there were an almost equal number of things that either annoyed me or just fell flat.  Ironically, the closest books I can compare them to are not steampunk at all – Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series.  Fforde also writes a female protagonist in an alternate history with a plot full of literary characters.  However, where Fforde’s books are chock full of wit and whimsy in addition to evil villains and mass mayhem, Tidhar’s writing relies heavily on plot while skimping on dialogue and characterization.

So, if what you love is a good action film where lots of things get blown up and the superhero defeats all odds to save the day – definitely grab this book!  You’ll be astounded by the unusual mix of plot elements that Tidhar throws at you, and he should really try to market it as a film script.  If characters and writing style are really your thing, you should probably pick up The Eyre Affair instead.

Notable Quotes:

“The corridor was dark. As she ran ghostly figures materialised at the end.


Nuns with guns.”

Other Books Read by This Author: None.

What are other people saying? Traveler’s Steampunk Blog, Ramblings of a Borderline Misanthrope, Cybermage


★★★☆☆ Plot Development

★★☆☆☆ Characterization

★★★☆☆ Writing Style

★★★★ Original Idea

★★★☆☆ Page Turner

Overall ★★★☆☆


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