BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Milady Cleo de Winter, an agent of the Council, searches out a mysterious object before it falls into the wrong hands.
PROS: A great combination of steampunk, historical setting, and even martial arts-type action; multi-layered.
CONS: Author’s sparse prose lays out bits and pieces, so can take a while to grasp what’s going on at points.
BOTTOM LINE: Camera Obscura is a fun read.
Having not read The Bookman, the prequel to Camera Obscura, I have no basis for comparison between the two, but the start of Camera Obscura feels almost like something out of a Jackie Chan film, but instead set in a steampunky Paris. As it develops, there are elements of Verne and Wells, even, as well as a purely Tidharian aspects.
A mysterious object of great power has gone missing and several parties are after it, some for nefarious purposes. Agent Milady Cleo de Winter is sent on a mission to find it and along the way finds herself investigation a series of murders connected with the object. As she delves deeper into her chase and investigation, she herself faces great danger, torture and revelations about the world she lives in which rock her world.
Camera Obscura is an entertaining read all the way through, though I did find Tidhar’s tendency toward choppy sentences led to some difficulty following things at times. Combined with a complex plot with many interacting characters representing various interests (from the Chinese government to the Victorian court to the Parisian underworld), that can make for a lot to process. But the book moves at such a quick pace, I was never lost for long and there was always some interesting new twist to keep me intrigued and turning pages.
Don’t let my reference to Jackie Chan mislead you, while there is humor here, the book is mostly dark and some of the torture scenes and murders are hard to read. The reader certainly suffers along with the character. At the same time, the characters never cease to be fascinating and I found myself intrigued by the settings, which become characters in themselves. From the underwater squid-like dwellings of Scab to the Little China of Paris, each location is richly detailed, dripping with nuances and characters which bring it to life. It’s easy to feel “there” along with Milady throughout her journey.
It did take me a while to catch on to the purpose of the Interludes. They deal with characters whose connection to Milady and her journey is only revealed later in the book, and they often have a different tone to the chapters dealing with her. Don’t let this mislead you though, there is a purpose for everything Tidhar does here and he does an admirable job of bringing it all together in time.
Altogether I found Camera Obscura a fun entry into the world of Lavie Tidhar. I may have read some short stories before but this really got me into this author’s mind and made me want to seek out and read more of what the Israeli writer has to offer.
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the forthcoming space opera novel The Worker Prince (blog), the collection The North Star Serial, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. He’s also hosts of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter.