Camera Obscura (Angry Robot)
by Lavie Tidhar
Review by Mel Jacob
Angry Robot Mass Market Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780857660947
Date: 26 April 2011 List Price $7.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Tidhar creates a pastiche of various subgenres in his gritty steampunk horror novel, Camera Obscura, the latest release in his Bookman series. Set initially in Victorian Paris, the novel presents an alternate reality where a council of machines and humans rule the city and the Republic of France. A lizard sits upon the British Throne and controls the British Empire. A strange plague attacks citizens and Milady De Winter is assigned to find the reason and stop it.
Cleo, once a former circus performer billed as the "Ferocious Dahomey Amazon" and later married to the English lord De Winter, tracks an unknown killer and a mysterious object sought by all major powers including the British and the Chinese. Armed with a Colt Peacemaker, she combs the street of Paris for clues to the most recent murder of a Chinaman.
Along the Chinese border, a young boy Kai, shocked by his father's brutal slaughter, flees with a strange object, an Emerald Buddha in the shape of a lizard. He eludes the killers and wanders into the jungle. Strange voices counsel him and urge him onward. A devotee of superhero comics, he wants to avenge his father. The Buddha helps him hide and shows him strange visions.
Characters from Victorian novels intermingle with historical personages. Mycroft Holmes, Marquis de Sade, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Andre-Marie Ampére, the fly eater from Count Dracula, Tom Thumb, the Phantom, all enliven the novel. Literary allusions abound.
The Council keeps dead people alive by putting their brains into mechanized bodies. In the case of apparent plague victims, it freezes them for study. The plague consists of a grey matter that covers the skin and can reanimate the corpse. Meanwhile, Kai and Milady along with the Phantom suffer visions of massive ships in space.
Tim Akers' steampunk fantasy The Horns of Ruin features a strong female protagonist similar to Milady De Winter. Stephen Hunt does the same in his steampunk fantasy novels. Like them, Tidhar has a heart-stopping climax to end his novel. With so much happening and such an admixture of subgenre, the reader may wonder at times exactly what Tidhar wants to achieve. Like Hunt, he mixes in aliens in space. Those not enamored of horror would do better to look elsewhere. Those looking for something different with literate writing will find it here.