Middle Child Press: Review: Camera Obscura

2.03.2014

Review: Camera Obscura



Caught by the cover of Lavie Tidhar’s novel Camera Obscura, I downloaded The Bookman Trilogy in 2012.  The reason I was so captured was because of a discussion had on the Blasian Narrative a few years back.  Here it is: 
 
Probably one of the most beautiful covers I've seen in YEARS.


Anyway, based on that beautiful image, I purchased the trilogy because I’m a completist, if nothing else.  I was so stoked because here is a steampunk novel with a sistah on the cover.


Disclaimer:  While the steampunk genre fascinates me, I know next to nothing about its fundamental elements.  I have my opinions about the quality of Tidhar’s work, but as I’m not 100% on how much of it is essential to be classified as steampunk, feel free to offer your opinions on my opinion of his books.

The first book in the trilogy is called The Bookman, and all I can say is that Mr. Tidhar has a lot of great ideas; maybe too many.  He crams all of his ideas into this one book, and as a result, it is extremely messy.  It’s mostly description; perhaps a third of the book contains meaningful dialogue.  I started reading it back in February of 2012 and finished it about six weeks ago.  It was so…difficult…to read that I had to take to listening to my iPod in order to distract my mind enough to concentrate.  I didn’t give two shits about the protagonist and his inability to take control of things.  When the book reached its climax, I just didn’t have it in me to give a fuck about it.

But it gave me some background on the second book, which is the focus of this post.  Milady Cleo De Winter is a 6’2” dark-skinned, Afro-sporting, twice-divorced gunwoman for some obscure Shadow Council.  We are told much about Milady, and Mr. Tidhar continues his practice of “tell, don’t show” established in The Bookman.  Any author worth her or his salt knows that this isn’t the way to create meaningful characters.  Cleo, who is just a boss chick on principle, isn't really fleshed out.  We know what she does, but we don't know who she is.  We know that she has two dead ex-husbands, and it is implied that she killed them both.  We know that’s she’s a skilled markswoman; she packs a Colt and is a surgeon with it.  We know she was once a part of P.T Barnum’s sideshow, and we know that she’s a determined detective.  We know that her mother died when she was young and she grew up on the streets.  We know that the Council uses her; she's nothing more than a blunt instrument, a weapon. 

With the exception of her shooting ability, the above information is not shown, and it feels disconnected, like an afterthought.  I identified with Milady immediately because she's black, but had she been a white character, I wouldn't have even bothered with this hot mess of a book. I simply didn't care about what happened in terms of the story; same as before.  Cleo is an epic character that is wasted.

The most interesting thing to happen in this novel is when Milady runs up on the main villain and he cuts off her arm, her leg, and then pops out her eye.  Another Council employee restores her by giving her a powerful bionic leg, a jade eye, and...wait for it...a fucking Gatling gun to replace her missing arm.  This shit was epic right here.  But alas, again...it's all wasted, because I didn’t see where it truly advanced the story in any way.  The jade eye connects her to some mystical being, but you’re left wondering…“And? So?” 

About the story itself?  *Kanye shrug*  I remember something about a Ferris wheel and an insane asylum.  But Camera Obscura's gotten good reviews, so clearly I've missed something...but I haven't lost a blink of sleep wondering what it was.

I guess that's what happens when an Israeli man tries to write a sistah as a protagonist. Though he gets points for the attempt, it is still a most epic fail.  Middle Child Press was founded because Ankhesen and I got sick of bullshit like this.  Our partner-in-crime, JVNX, said it best:  “I'm so tired of that half-assed crap."

Sistah authors and other WoCs, I can’t but insist the necessity that we tell our own stories.  Not only tell them, but tell them well…even if it takes years.  We can’t afford to trust other races, cultures, and genders to do it for us unless we want to keep getting eau de garbage like the aforementioned story.  It is shit like this that I keep in the forefront as I craft Jo, Neveyah, Lee-Lee, Monica, Cressida, as well as Sheila Stephens & the Velimir clan.  The women that come after us need to be able to take what we’ve left them and construct WoC literary empires that we can be proud of.