Science fiction and fantasy                                            

Camera Obscura

by Lavie Tidhar


The British Empire is run by lizards and Paris is a hotbed of murderous intrigue in this steampunk fantasy. It begins in the far east when a boy witnesses a big fight between monks and shady green-clad figures over a strange jade statue. The encounter changes everything for Kai and he decides to flee with the object that people are willing to kill to obtain.

In Paris a grisly murder presents a puzzle for Milady. She's a fierce, tall woman with a gun and a look that can probably melt lead, and she regards this investigation as her own. With the help of her mechanical cockroach, Grimm, she sets to work figuring out what the man was carrying before he died, and who the killer is.

Hard women, lifelike machines

Milady prefers to work alone so she dismisses the gendarmes and anyone else who wants to get involved in the search. But for a sleuth she shows a surprising lack of curiosity about the fine details of the case. Milady's hard-woman persona left me cold because she often appears indifferent to the fate of the people she meets, as though she's not quite engaged with the world she's in.

This version of Paris is dark and atmospheric, filled with a vast undercity of tunnels and catacombs concealing secret societies, desperate people and hideous revelations. Above ground there are automatons offering kinky pleasures, and society has been dramatically altered by the arrival of lizard-kind and the alien technical advances they have introduced. The line between machine and living things is very blurred because these automatons are as likely to behave enough like organic life as to make no difference.

A literary crowd

Milady's suspicions are heightened when she discovers something wrong with the flesh of the deceased. It's something that could be infectious, and it seems to be spreading. However, before you can file this as a zombie story with killer monks and a steampunk style, a dozen other elements crop up to change that view. There are extraterrestrials, psychic links, and a serial killer on the loose as well. Characters such as Frankenstein, Quasimodo and Tom Thumb turn up. It gets rather confusing, because many of the story's side characters would be strong enough to carry a plot of their own. Lavie Tidhar has borrowed characters liberally from Victorian literature, so there's an awful lot going on and it gets crowded. I don't want to spoil the surprise by listing any more of the key scenes or characters, but I will say that they eventually make Camera Obscura lose focus. By the end I wasn't sure what the point of the story was, other than to get the characters to a situation where they could flirt with impending doom and save the day.

From a certain point of view an abundance of plot is a good thing: it keeps the mysteries complex and harder to guess. There's also a lot of scope for exciting drama. This novel would undoubtedly look good if adapted for film, with something visually invigorating in every chapter. It's also brutally violent in places, and it's the kind of violence that retains its power to shock because of the way it's written.

However I didn't warm to Milady. She comes across as alternately uncaring, intellectually lax, and rock hard. The people giving her orders seem to be as wicked as those she opposes, and she doesn't spend enough time questioning their motives or her own direction. Without that depth in the main character the story, whilst stylish and exuberant, never quite hits the mark.

6th May 2011

Book Details

Year: 2011

Categories: Books

  Not For The Squeamish  

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3 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson