I'm going to have to admit it now (and I will probably admit it again, often): I like to pick out books based on which covers catch my eye. And the cover
of Tom Bedlam stood out amidst the less... cityscaped new books at the library, and so I picked it up. Usually this doesn't lead to good reading--which might be obvious after my review of Vurt. But there's a reason these two reviews are getting posted so close together (other than the fact that I finished the two books only about a day apart). Tom Bedlam is actually good.
The dust jacket claims that Tom is looking to "create the family he dreamed of in childhood." This is my complaint right now. This is basically the only one. The dust jacket kind of lies. This book is the story of Tom Bedlam's life, from taking care of his mother in a tiny London tenement to searching London after years abroad for his friends, daughters, and relations. There is no conscious searching for something as pie-in-the-sky as an ideal family. In fact, those things mostly fall into place in a flurry of coincidences that, thankfully, never become overwhelming enough to break the suspension of disbelief. The novel is full of interesting and varied characters, and Tom is just pliable enough to take them all in stride.
There are also Shakespeare references, which is just a shining gleeful thing for me, because they're subtle and done well. The whole thing, actually, could be twisted into a sprawling, thoroughly observant adaptation of King Lear. To explain exactly how would spoil things, and to read it as King Lear would involve a lot
of twisting, but the option is there. And literately so. George Hagen has a great deal of my appreciation for that.
The women in Tom Bedlam are, perhaps, the most colorful characters. Each one is a Cordelia in a way--honest, sharp-witted, and with a unique personality. Audrey, one of Tom's childhood friends, grows up with him through letters and remains a powerful force throughout the book. Tom's daughters each have an echo of Tom's past in their actions, but grow into truly unique people. Perhaps this slack-jawed wonder at characterization is a symptom of me having my nose in science fiction and fantasy and other less character-driven genres too often, but I can't help but think Tom Bedlam does its characters well. And speaking of genre, let me thank the muses for pointing me at a novel that does genre (period fiction, woe of the people) without making it suffocating. The novel spans the Victorian Era to the first Great War and there isn't a hiccup in style. It's easy to read, yet the characters are true to their times.
Now, I suppose before I say "This is completely worth reading!" I should warn that it's not a fast-paced book. The hops in time are occasionally sudden, and sometimes the story drags its feet in a period for no immediately discernible reason. I forgave it for that, because it was pleasantly light reading. Even though the book is Serious, it doesn't take itself seriously, and there are moments in it that actually made me laugh out loud. Yes, these were somewhat dorky moments that were usually a result of some wordplay or another, but that's just how I am.