EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT 2/5: The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar

This week, SF Signal is running a 5-part excerpt of Lavie Tidhar‘s upcoming steampunk novel, The Bookman.

What’s it about?

A masked terrorist has brought London to its knees – there are bombs inside books, and nobody knows which ones. On the day of the launch of the first expedition to Mars, by giant cannon, he outdoes himself with an audacious attack. For young poet Orphan, trapped in the screaming audience, it seems his destiny is entwined with that of the shadowy terrorist, but how? Like a steam-powered take on V for Vendetta, rich with satire and slashed through with automatons, giant lizards, pirates, airships and wild adventure, The Bookman is the first of a series.

Be sure to read Part 1, then continue here to see Part 2…


Who was Orphan and how had he come to inhabit that great city, the Capital of the Everlasting Empire, the seat of the royal family, the ancestral home of Les Lézards? His father was a Vespuccian sailor, his mother an enigma: both were dead, and had been so for many years. His skin was copper-red, his eyes green like the sea. He had spent his early life on the docks, running errands between the feet of sailors, a minute employee of the East India Company. His knowledge of languages was haphazard if wide, his education colourful and colloquial, his circle of friends and acquaintances far-ranging if odd.

He learned poetry in the gutter, and from the public readings given by the great men and women of the age; in pubs and dockyards, in halls of learning and in the streets at dawn – and once, from a sword-wielding girl from France, who appeared mysteriously on the deck of a ship Orphan was helping to load with cargo bound for China, and recounted to him, in glorious, beautiful verse, a vision of God (he had never forgotten her) – and he learned it from the books in the public library, until words spun in his head all day and all night, and he agonised at writing them down on paper, his hand bleeding as the pen scratched against the surface of the page.

Who was Orphan? A poet, certainly; a young man, that too. He had aspirations for greatness, and had once met, by chance, the ancient Wordsworth, as the great man was leaving a coffee house in Soho and the five-year-old Orphan was squatting in the street outside, talking to his friend, the beggar Lame Menachem. The great man had smiled at him then, and – perhaps mistaking him for a beggar himself – handed him a coin, a half-crown showing the profile of the mad old Lizard King, George III, which Orphan had kept ever since for good luck.

At present, Orphan was engaged, himself, in a “work of composition of the highest order”: he was busy crafting a long poem, a cycle of poems in fact, about life in this great city. He was moderately proud of his efforts, though he felt the poem, somehow, lacked substance. But he was young, and could not worry himself too long; and, having seen his old friend Gilgamesh, the wanderer, and ascertained his (relative) well-being, he proceeded with a light heart to his primary destination of the evening, which was the newly rebuilt Rose Theatre in Southwark.

Orphan walked along the river; in the distance the constant song of whales rose and fell like the tides as the giant, mysterious beings rose from the dark waters for a breath of air. Occasionally he paused, and looked, with a poet’s longing for the muse, at the cityscape sprawling before him on the other side of the river. Smoke rose from chimneys, low-lying and dense like industrial clouds, merging with the fog that wrapped itself about the buildings. In the distance, too, were the lights of the Babbage Tower, its arcane mechanisms pointed at the skies, its light a beacon and a warning to the mail airships that flew at night, like busy bumblebees delivering dew from flower to flower. Almost, he was tempted to stop, to scribble a hasty poem: but the cold of the air rising from the river compelled him onwards, and at his back Big Ben began to strike ten, hurrying him on. Already he was late for the performance.

Lucy wasn’t there and must therefore have been inside; and so he bought a ticket outside the theatre and entered the courtyard, where people still milled about. So there was still time, he thought. He bought himself a mug of mulled wine and sipped at the hot, spicy drink gratefully before making his way inside the building, into the groundlings’ floor.

In the spirit of authenticity the Rose was lit not with gas but burning torches, and their jumping light made the shadows dance and turned the faces of people into fantastical beings, so that Orphan imagined he was sharing this space with a race of lizards and porcupines, ravens and frogs. The thought amused him, for it occurred to him to wonder how he himself appeared: was he a raven, or a frog?

He settled himself against the balustrade separating the groundlings from the lower seats and waited. There was a slim, dark-haired girl standing beside him, whose face kept coming in and out of shadow. In her hands she held a pen and a notebook, in which she was scribbling notes. She had a pale, delicately drawn face – seen in profile it was quite remarkable, or so Orphan always thought – and her ears were small and pointed at their tip, and drawn back against her head so that she appeared to him in the light of the moon coming from above like some creature of legend and myth, an elf, perhaps, or a Muse.

He leaned towards her. “One day I will write a play for you they would show here at the Rose,” he said.

Her smile was like moonlight. She grinned and said, “Do you say that to all the girls?”

“I don’t need to,” Orphan said, and he swept her to him and kissed her, the notebook pressed between their bodies. “Not when I have you.”

“Let go!” she laughed. “You have to stop reading those romance novels, Orphan.”

“I don’t-”

“Sure.” She grinned up at him again, and kissed him. Two old ladies close by tutted. “Now shush. It’s about to start.”

Orphan relented. They leaned together against the balustrade, fingers entwined. Presently, a hush fell over the crowd, and a moment later the empty stage was no longer empty, and Henry Irving had come on.

At the sight of the great actor the crowd burst into spontaneous applause. Orphan took another sip from his drink. The torchlight shuddered, and a cold wind blew from the open roof of the theatre, sending a shiver down Orphan’s spine. On stage, Irving was saying, “…The bridegroom’s doors are opened wide, and I am next of kin. The guests are met, the feast is set: may’st hear the merry din-” and the celebrated performance of the stage adaptation of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner began.

Orphan, though he had seen the performance before, was nevertheless spellbound anew. As Irving’s booming voice filled the theatre the strange and grotesque story took life, and the stage filled with masked dancers, enacting the wedding ball into which the Ancient Mariner had come like an ill-begotten creature rising from the Thames. The story took shape around Orphan: how the young mariner, Amerigo Vespucci, took sail on his voyage of exploration under the auspices of the British court; how, on Caliban’s Island, he discovered and shot the lizard-like inhabitant of that island, by that callous act bringing upon himself unwanted, unwholesome immortality and on his masters, the British, the full might of Les Lézards, the Lizard Kings, who now sat on Britannia’s throne. It was an old, fanciful story, woven together of gossip and myth. Irving’s adaptation, Orphan knew, had been wildly popular with the theatre-going public – particularly those of a young, mildly radical disposition – but was decried as dangerous nonsense by the palace, though Prime Minister Moriarty himself had so far kept silent on the issue. Either way, it was becoming evident that the play’s stage-life would be kept short – which only added to the public’s enthusiasm. Speculation in the press as to Irving’s motivations in staging it was rife, but insubstantial.

When Vespucci began his return journey home, Lucy leaned forward, focused, as he knew she would. It was the portion that told of the coming of the whales: how they had accompanied the ill-fated ship all through the crossing of the Atlantic, and further, until they arrived at Greenwich and the city awoke, for the first time, to their song.

He edged towards her. Her hair was pulled back behind her ears, and her fingers were long, smudged with ink and with dirt under the nails as if she had been digging in Thames mud.

“How are the whales today?” he asked.

“Restless. I’m not sure why. Have you noticed the change in their song when you walked along the embankment?”

Leaning together against the balustrade, the crowd closing them in, it was like they had found themselves, momentarily, in a small, dark, comfortable alcove, a private space in which they were alone.

“You’re the marine biologist,” Orphan said. “I’m only a poet.”

“Working with whales is like working with poets,” Lucy said. She put away her pad and her pen. She had a small bag hanging over her shoulder. “They’re unruly, obtuse, and self-important.”

Orphan laughed. He took her hand in his. The skin of her palm always surprised him in its roughness; it was a hand used to hard work. Her eyes were dark and mesmerising, like lode-stars, and small, almost invisible laughter-lines gathered like a fine web at the corners. “I love you,” Orphan said.

She smiled, and he kissed her.

On stage, Henry Irving abandoned the role of narrator as the final act began to unfold. Now, with all the considerable verve and power he was capable of, he played Shakespeare, the poet and playwright who rose to prominence in the court of the Lizard King and became the first of the Poet-Prime Ministers. Both Orphan and Lucy watched as the Ancient Mariner shuffled onto the stage to deliver the story of his life to Lord Shakespeare: Orphan, who had a natural interest in books, observed it closely. It was a heavy, leather-bound folio, the spine facing the audience, with the title The Rime of the Ancient Mariner etched in gilt onto it.

“I pass,” cried the Ancient Mariner (a young actor, Beerbohm Tree, whom Orphan vaguely recognised), “like night, from land to land, I have strange power of speech,” (here he took a deep breath, and continued), “that morning that his face I see, I know the man that must hear me: to him my tale I teach!” and he passed the heavy book to Shakespeare, who took it from him with a graceful nod, laid it on the table before him, and opened it-

There was the sound of an explosion, a deafening bang (and for Orphan, everything slowed, as)-

The book disintegrated in a cloud of dust-

Not dust, shrapnel (and Orphan, moving in jerky, dreamlike motions, grabbed hold of Lucy and let himself fall to the ground, his weight dragging her with him, his body first cushioning her fall and then covering her in a protective embrace)-

That tore into Shakespeare/Irving and cut his head away from his body and sent plumes of blood into the air.

The air filled with screams. The stage collapsed. It was, Orphan thought in his dazed, confused state on the floor of the theatre, holding on to the girl he loved, the definite end of the performance.