"Camera Obscura" by Lavie Tidhar
(Angry Robot Books, 394pp, paperback, £7.99)
So I’m going to start this review with a confession. I have yet to read Lavie Tidhar’s first novel, The Bookman. It’s been on my to-read list pretty much since it was released, but this past year that list has been distressingly static. After finishing Camera Obscura, however, it has jumped to the top of said list.
Fortunately for series-order anarchists like myself, whilst Camera Obscura is set in the same world as The Bookman it doesn’t seem to be a direct sequel. What it is, however, is an outstanding novel that appreciates full how to entertain and intrigue, and yet not shirk the big issues the story raises. Which is really what I’d expect of Lavie, to be honest.
The story follows Milady de Winter, an agent of the mysterious Quiet Council, as she investigates a murder and is catapulted into a wide-ranging conspiracy that takes her across the world, meeting a cavalcade of friends and foes, all pursuing an item which could mean the end of humanity. Which doesn’t get across an iota of the excitement in the story. There are many points I enjoyed about Camera Obscura, but for brevity’s (and decorum’s) sake, I’m going to focus on a few major points and try not to gush hopelessly over it.
The first is something I’ve already hinted at. The sheer pace of the story is something to be marvelled at in itself. Short chapters, to-the-point sentences, and the fact that Poor de Winter is tossed around like a metaphorical rag doll. There scarcely seems a chapter that she isn’t running for her life, or being knocked/drugged unconscious.
The storytelling here will keep you on the edge of your seat (now there’s a cliché for you) and you should be well prepared for the ten minute dip into you planned to turn into hours. It happened to me, and it’s both at once wonderful and intensely annoying. I emerged from the final page of Camera Obscura exhausted by the experience, but with a definite smile on my face. It’s fast, and relentlessly fun.
The second point, is the wonderful range of characters. They’re interconnected with the world Tidhar crafts really; familiar people and places, from history and fiction, worked into a rich and seamless fantasy. I particularly liked the lizard Queen Victoria, and Tom Thumb with his shop in Paris. He even works in a reference to Doctor Moreau, which hints at further things to come. And the main character of Milday de Winter was one whose boots are so easy to slip into that her trials and tribulations mattered deeply to me as the reader.
If I have to criticise something, then I’d have to say that the ending feels extremely abrupt. To race through a plot, foot down on the accelerator, and then to come to the finish line so abruptly was a little jarring. The climax comes only a few pages before the end, so it has a sense of suddenness, but also a sense of more story (and stories) to come. Hopefully that isn’t just wishful thinking.
As you’ll no doubt have gathered, I enjoyed Camera Obscura very much. It was an incredibly fun read, expertly written and immersive on an almost dangerous level. It’s a widely held belief in the circles of genre fiction that Lavie is well on his way to being one of the new monsters of science fiction. This novel is as good an example of why as you’re likely to find.