“Camera Obscura” by Lavie Tidhar – A Review

"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.

“The Black Lung Captain” by Chris Wooding – A Review

(Golancz, 448pp, hardback £18.99, paperback £12.99)

"The Black Lung Captain" by Chris Wooding

I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while. “The Black Lung Captain” is the sequel to Wooding’s steampunk romp “Retribution Falls”, a book which I thoroughly enjoyed reading last summer. I heartily enjoyed the first in the series, as a real adventure story, with a host of imagination and a fantastic sense of fun, and this one had a lot to live up to.

The books are set in a fictional world, whose most notable difference is the aerium-fuelled airships dominating the sky. We rejoin the crew of airship the Ketty Jay some time after the events of “Retribution Falls”, and finds them in a similar situation of poverty as at the beginning of the first day. So when the mysterious Captain Grist shows up, offering vast riches at the plunder of a crashed ship, Captain Frey jumps at the chance. Only it’s not quite that simple. Que a madcap race across Vardia, battling pirates, religious orders, and feral creatures that used to be men.

Wooding is a YA writer by trade, and the real selling point of his fiction is just how fun it is. Despite being a fairly sizable book, I found I raced through “The Black Lung Captain” simply because I was enjoying it so much. Peter F. Hamilton’s quote on the front cover sums it up really: ‘The kind of old fashioned adventure I didn’t think we were allowed to write any more…

Throughout the story, the overwhelming niggle at my mind was the similarities it bears to Joss Whedon’s science fiction-cum-western Firefly. A group of dysfunctional outcasts, led by a charismatic “honest” pirate, and including a disgraced member of the upper classes, and his “damaged” young relative. A crew struggling to make ends meet with a shortage of jobs available. It all seems awfully familiar.

Except, as I quickly decided, it doesn’t matter all that much. Darian Frey isn’t Malcolm Reynolds, and the Ketty Jay isn’t Serenity. The similarities between the two arise inevitably, I think, out of the close gene pool that the pirate genre occupies, and Wooding mixes it up fantastically here. The characters are fun, the world is immersive, and some of the writing will take you right back to childhood fantasies of pirates. In particular the aerial battle at the end was magnificently described, and had me on the edge of my seat.

“The Black Lung Captain” is, like it’s predecessor, pure entertainment, and can be massively enjoyed on that level alone. But what’s happening here is the beginnings of real growth in the characters. There’s already going to be another instalment (“The Iron Jackal”, in August 2011), and hopefully that will continue the trend that has begun here. The characters that the book finishes with are very much different to those it began with, having each undergone a lot more personal growth than the collective growth shown in the first book. All of the characters (barring, unfortunately, Malvery) are expanded on, and at some point face their own demons, and their reactions are very human, very believable, and entertaining.

So I recommend this book. Approach it with an open mind, and a sense of fun, and you will enjoy it. It’s not “War and Peace”, but that’s no bad thing. It will have you gripped ’til the end, and spoiling for an adventure of your own.

And by the way, I found that Mumford & Sons “Sigh No More” album was the perfect soundtrack for “The Black Lung Captain”.