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I enjoy both the Victorian era as a historical period and the now-popular steampunk genre, so this book was an obvious choice for me. Sadly, it though it came well-reviewed, the book was a bit of a disappointment for me.

Minor plot spoilers follow.

The world of The Bookman is a familiar one for fans of steampunk fiction: an alternate Victorian Britain filled with Babbage-inspired gadgets, automatons, and ubiquitous airships. There are, to be sure, some differences in what we might expect. For one, the British royal family and much of the aristocracy are a bunch of humanoid lizards. The prime minister is Moriarty and the Chief Inspector of Scotland Yard is Irene Adler. And a terrorist calling himself “the Bookman” is blowing stuff up with bombs disguised as books. Sounds like a great premise, doesn’t it? That’s just the background for the novel. The story itself revolves around a young man named Orphan, tangentially involved in a political dissident group, gets involved in some intrigue when his fiancée is killed in one of the Bookman’s bombings.

For fans of Victorian era fiction, numerous characters from the literature make cameos, including several characters from the Holmes Canon (Sherlock, Mycroft, Moriarty, Irene Adler, and Sebastian Moran), as well as Flashman, among many others. Here, too, we see many actual historical figures, including Jules Verne and Karl Marx. Some of these characters play major roles (e.g., Adler, Marx), while others function more as “Easter eggs” for more bookish or historically-minded readers. At one point in the story there is also a lengthy list of unusual books that Orphan encounters, among them The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by Emmanuel Goldstein (which really amused me). I absolutely did not catch all the literary references included in this list of titles and authors, and those more learned than I should be able to figure out the origins of each.

Thus far, based on that description, you’d expect that I’d soundly endorse this book, wouldn’t you? Sadly, I cannot. At times, the plot seemed to move at an almost glacial pace, just meandering along for the most part, and the setting – unusual as it is – required a good deal of set-up (this is unfortunately a common problem with science fiction tales, since the settings are wholly or partially unfamiliar to the reader). The characters, in particular the protagonist Orphan, are only thinly sketched. I never particularly came to know or like Orphan, and to be honest, I never especially cared what happened to him.

I wanted to like this book, I really did. It includes a lot of elements I enjoy – steampunk, Victoriana, bibliophilia, etc. – but they just weren’t enough to make this more than a merely mediocre book. This is definitely a case where the whole is far less than the sum of its parts. Though most reviews of the book have been positive, I didn’t enjoy The Bookman enough to recommend it or pick up the forthcoming sequel. I give it 2 stars out of 5.

Review copyright 2011 J. Andrew Byers