The Great Game by Lavie Tidhar

Creativity in fiction can come in many forms.  It can manifest in characters so real that you want to slug them when they do stupid things.  Sometimes it comes from a deliciously convoluted plot that keeps you reading until all hours.  And occasionally, a novel throws caution to the winds and goes for the absolutely insane.  The Bookman Histories falls into that last category, and the most recent installment, The Great Game, lives up to that reputation.

(Description nicked from B&N.com.)

“When Mycroft Holmes is murdered in London, it is up to retired shadow executive Smith to track down his killer – and stumble on the greatest conspiracy of his life. Strange forces are stirring into life around the globe, and in the shadow game of spies nothing is certain. Fresh from liberating a strange alien object in Abyssinia – which might just be the mythical Ark of the Covenant – young Lucy Westerna, Holmes’ protégé, must follow her own path to the truth while, on the other side of the world, a young Harry Houdini must face his greatest feat of escape—death itself.

As their paths converge the body count mounts up, the entire world is under threat, and in a foreboding castle in the mountains of Transylvania a mysterious old man weaves a spider’s web of secrets and lies.

Airship battles, Frankenstein monsters, alien tripods and death-defying acts: The Great Game is a cranked-up steampunk thriller in which nothing is certain—not even death.”

This has got to be one of the wackiest series I have ever read.  Fictional characters rub elbows with true-to-life figures, historical events and doings from novels blend together with merry abandon, and in some spots the author has simply made up the most incredible things (such as a ruling class of sentient lizards).  Somehow, it all works.  If you simply accept the premise that absolutely anything can happen in this tale, spotting the references and sly hat tips becomes part of the fun.

I liked this novel better than I did the previous one.  It doesn’t spend a huge amount of time playing “find the MacGuffin”, but instead it moves on to the consequences of the last two books’ events.  This story gives the impression of a lot of pieces moving on a chessboard—there’s a lot of action and a lot of things that happen, but in the end, you can see how everyone is positioning for what comes next.

I’m not necessarily sure that I’d class this novel as “steampunk”, although I suppose that’s as good a label as any.  The steampunk elements are lightly used and mostly confined to airships.  You do get some strange contraptions in this series, but their workings aren’t described in any great detail, so in many cases you can draw your own conclusions about how things work.  I actually like that, because I don’t think this story would benefit from focusing too much in that direction.  The strengths come from the plot, not from the trappings around it.

What I’ll be very interested to see is where Tidhar takes the story from here.  It’s obvious that he’s turning it more towards science fiction with the incursions by beings from other dimensions, but it still retains a lot of the feel of a fantasy novel.  Given how unique the entire series has been, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the author is carving out his own genre.  It makes reviewing his work that much harder, but then again, it makes his work that much more interesting.

While I’ll freely admit that this series isn’t for everyone, the more open-minded (and perhaps playfully-minded) among you will enjoy this weird and wonderful tale.  The Great Game hearkens to the best of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next novels, but they definitely have their own uniqueness and style.  Surprises and twists on the familiar will satisfy anybody who loves that which is irreverent and defies the rules.

This review appeared on Owlcat Mountain on February 6, 2012.

Series: The Bookman Histories
ISBN: 9780857661999
Publisher: Angry Robot
Page Count: 416
Publication Date: January 31, 2012
Acquired: Provided by the publisher as an e-ARC
Author Website
Read an excerpt