“You have ink in your blood, boy, and no help for it. Books will never be just a business to you.”
So my local library just launched an ebook service which is a) amazing, b) about blinkin’ time!
In the course of perusing the offerings of the library, I stumbled upon Ink and Bone by Rachel Caine. Now, I had heard of her as the author of the popular vampire series The Morganville Vampires, but I have never actually read any of them (still scarred by the travesty that is Twilight) but just look, LOOK, at the fabulous cover of this book.
It fascinated me.
It called to me.
It whispered in my ear promising that the words inside would match the elegant beauty of the pictures outside.
So I read the synopsis and that was it. I borrowed this book and the sequel and read them in one day. Both of them. I barely stopped to eat.
In the world of The Great Library, the 48AD fire that destroyed the library was stopped before much damage could be done. Instead of becoming a footnote in history, The Great Library of Alexandria grew in wealth and power and is now a separate country, a superpower that unquestionably holds sway over other countries in the world. Protected by its own standing army, The Library controls access to books and to knowledge. The Library and its daughter libraries around the world- the Serapeum- hold the original copies of books which are translated in the Archive by a form of alchemy only known to the Library and its Scholars. People who wish to read a book can request it from their Codex, a ‘blank’ book that will then translate (using the same alchemy) a copy of the book from the Archive. The Codexes and blanks reminded me very much of the concept of Ebooks but instead of electricity to power them and the internet to supply the books, we have alchemy.
As with all worlds where one institution holds the power over something, there is a thriving black market of book smugglers, a persistent Resistance in the Book Burners, and even an element of the perverse in the ink-lickers who take a very much socially unacceptable pleasure in literally eating the pages of the books they buy.
We are introduced to all this through Jess Brightwell. He is born into a family of successful book smugglers in London and spends his childhood ‘running’ books through the streets of London, avoiding the High Garda (armed forces of The Library), and delivering the original books to whoever has the moeny to pay for them.
He also loves books, and when his father, a man with little familial affection, recognises that is love for the books will interfere in his ability to run the family business he buys a place in the next class of Postulants- young people from around the world who travel t the Library in Alexandria and compete for a chance to be a library Scholar. The plan is for Jess to aid the family business from inside the Great Library machine.
What follows has been described as The Book Thief meets Harry Potter meets Farenheit 451 meets 1984 and although I feel that does not accurately describe the book at all, I would be hard-pressed to come up with the words to do it justice.
What I can tell you is that the world-building is incredible. Just amazing. This world feels real, I can absolutely see this happening. Wales and England being at war? Plausible. France being conquered by the forces of the Library after a failed rebellion? Believeable. Automatons and Greek Fire used as weapons of war? Totally.
The care and attention that went not creating a plausible world has made this book into a something much more than a plain old alternative history. The subtle politics of the Library and their interactions with the rest of the world, the little changes in technology, the use of real historical locations- it all works.
As for the characters- it was refreshing that the main protagonist was male, this is so often not the case in YA books. Jess’s journey and character development is realistic and he isn’t irritating-not even when the love interest arrives.
The secondary characters are fairly well formed and fleshed out and actually there are at least three other characters who could have worked as primary protagonists- I suspect there may be a lot of fan fiction on the internet. The character most interesting to me is that Scholar Wolfe- his motivations are difficult to work out at first but as his back story is slowly revealed, he becomes more and more interesting (this continues into the sequel). I also liked a particular element of his story line, which I won’t spoil, that I wholeheartedly approved of in a YA novel.
I want to say a lot more about this book but I’m not supposed to write a dissertation for each review!
The central concept of this book, the world building and the insightful commentary on control of knowledge (which resonates more and more these days) make me recommend this book to everyone without reservation.