The Great Game
by Lavie TidharFor some writers a world of steampunk and spies would be enough. But Lavie Tidhar isn't prepared to let his readers off so lightly, layering strangeness after strangeness into his Bookman stories as if there were a closing-down sale at the ideas warehouse. This is the third in this series of novels, and if anything it's even more rife with alien technologies, lizard monarchs, giant robots, breathless action, and all manner of weird stuff going down.
Retired secret agent Smith is pulled out of his easy but dull life to investigate a couple of murders of his former colleagues. He's suspicious of Fogg, his new superior, who he doesn't think is telling him the whole truth about the deaths. Soon the story explodes with action and Smith comes under heavy fire in his new role. This is absurd, James Bond-style violence, the kind where crazed goons attack in waves and then drop like flies in DDT, amidst some hilariously unlikely and enthusiastic mayhem.
However Smith's story is only one strand in a complex narrative. We're also introduced to the Observer, an inhuman creature that seems to be a sort of gatherer of souls, with all capacity for empathy of a toaster. Following his story takes a little of the mystery out of the novel, but there's plenty of it left as we don't know why the Observer does what he does or how he'll react if he's eventually caught.
Another thread is the story of Lucy Westenra, a tough secret agent who's most at home dancing to the music of gunshots and exploding airships. She's on a mission that involves ancient alien artefacts and deadly tripod-like machines like something out of War of the Worlds. Then there's Harry Houdini, who goes off on the trail of yet another death. I'll try not to spoil the surprise, but the circumstances that turn Houdini from escapologist to reluctant detective are quite unusual.
The author has been greedy: not content with borrowing characters such as Victor Frankenstein, Quasimodo and Tom Thumb for Camera Obscura, in this story he's worked in Miss Havisham, most of the cast of Oliver Twist, Bram Stoker, Van Helsing and more. The plot gets pretty complicated, and there's a mass of shadow organisations, conspiracies and alien incursions. It's a mash-up of all of the most colourful literary characters from that era, given a glamorous steampunky makeover and pitted against dastardly foes. Some of these characters are only used as bit parts before being added to the high body count. Meanwhile the foes have a habit of gloating as they slowly explain the brilliance of their plans, instead of simply shooting the main characters when they have them at their mercy. That's characteristic of this novel: it's fast-paced and insane, and the way it all gets tied together with the most absurd situations and unlikely escapes is all part of the fun.
Lucy is a bit of an Amazon, but she's likeable nonetheless. Smith also has the reputation of being a hard assassin, but he's past his prime and this vulnerability makes him a touch more sympathetic. By contrast, Harry Houdini comes across as much more like a normal person, out of his depth in the world of intrigue. I was rooting for all three characters, which is an improvement over Camera Obscura's Milady de Winter, who is only mentioned briefly in this book.
In chapter 21 it says: "they were all operatives, all playing the Great Game. And once you played, you were never out." This is a reference to a quote from Rudyard Kipling, and the rivalry between the Russian and British empires at that time. This sort of thing gets repeated once or twice too often, as though it means something profound. However The Great Game is far more playful than it is weighty, and I didn't get the impression that the author was out to make any earnest points with this piece of fiction. The book revels in the heady atmosphere of places like Paris and London on the brink of a new age, vivid and eerie places that frequently dissolve into chaos as the Dickensian old world butts heads with a shiny, confusing mechanical future. It's great, over-the-top period fun.
22nd February 2012
Review © Ros Jackson