Themes Explored: books, history, library, totalitarian government, libraries, romance, fantasy, dystopia, magic, smuggling, book thievery, black markets, bibliophiles, though control, mind control, student-teacher dynamics, angst, civil war, starvation, terrorism, death, alternate history
Synopsis: Ruthless and supremely powerful, the Great Library is now a presence in every major city, governing the flow of knowledge to the masses. Alchemy allows the Library to deliver the content of the greatest works of history instantly—but the personal ownership of books is expressly forbidden.
Jess Brightwell believes in the value of the Library, but the majority of his knowledge comes from illegal books obtained by his family, who are involved in the thriving black market. Jess has been sent to be his family’s spy, but his loyalties are tested in the final months of his training to enter the Library’s service.
When his friend inadvertently commits heresy by creating a device that could change the world, Jess discovers that those who control the Great Library believe that knowledge is more valuable than any human life—and soon both heretics and books will burn. (Adapted from Goodreads)
Review: The Great Library of Alexandria, probably one the most famous libraries in history, formed part of the research institute at Alexandra in Egypt. This library was founded and maintained by a long succession of the Ptolemies in Egypt from the beginning of the 3rd century BC. A president-priest headed and organized the library. Ptolemy III founded a daughter-library in 235 BC at the Temple of Serapis (known as Serapeum), the main library was located in the palace precincts. No one knows the exact location and layout of the library. However, the library is said to have encompassed an area with gardens, dining rooms, reading rooms, lecture halls, and meeting rooms. Unlike modern libraries, the Alexandria Library served as a cultural center and research facility.
Today, the Great Alexandrian Library is most famous for burning down and the loss of thousands of scrolls and books. In essence, the library has become a symbol for loss cultural knowledge. No one really knows who burned down the library and when the burning occurred. Possible sources for the partial or complete destruction are a fire set by Julius Caesar in 48 BC and an attack by Aurelian in 270 AD. According to Socrates of Constantinople, the Coptic Pope Theophilus destroyed the Serapeum in 391 AD. However, Egyptologist differ in opinion as to whether or not the Serapeum still acted as a daughter-library. What if the Library never burned down and civilization never lost countless volumes of books on mathematics, science, philosophy, and history? What if the Great Library of Alexandria still stood as a beacon of knowledge and research? Enter the dystopian-fantasy novel Ink and Bone.
Ink and Bone is technically classified as a fantasy novel with elements of historical fiction. However, the book felt more like a dystopian, especially since the main narrative occurs on 2025. The Great Library of Alexandria rules the world with an iron fist. This library resembles an authoritarian government with stifling rules, violent methods to deal with people who do not conform to governmental ideas and approved thoughts, and thought suppressing laws. Personally, I thought this twist was brilliant and original. I mean, how many novels cast a library and research librarians as tyrannical villains?
In this brave new world, all physical books are forcibly confiscated, digitized, and destroyed. Anyone who can afford one owns a Codex, a form of e-reader whose contents are remotely controlled by the Library. All material is Library approved and monitored. Every citizen is required to write in a journal that is confiscated at death and archived. Now whenever the government forcibly removes a commodity from public consumption, a black market inevitably arises. Jess Brightwell, the main protagonist, comes from a book smuggling family. After the death of his elder brother, Jess’ father grooms him to take over the family business. However, Jess does not particularly enjoy the smuggling business. So, sensing an opportunity, his father buys him a spot in the Library Training Program. And now Jess is off to learn the ways of the oppressive library.
Because this is an alternate universe, the history of the world took some different trajectories. Johannes Gutenberg never invented the printing press; the Library snuffed him out for heresy. The Welsh are waging a savage war against England, and winning. America is little more than a barely cowed rebel state. Let’s just say all the Americans have strong “Burner” sympathies. Burners are people who burn original books in protest of the Library’s teachings. Also, the Library maintains its own military. Things are a little different in this odd world.
The book begins with a bang and the author maintains a suspenseful tone throughout. Parts of the narrative moved rather slowly, but the climax at the end was fantastic. While the book is ominous, it is not scary. Well, unless you are terrified of living in a world ruled by an authoritarian Library bent on wrenching every original book out of your cold, dead hands. Anyways, the novel is written in third person and mainly deals with Jess. He is an intelligent kid who really appreciates books and hates seeing them destroyed. Jess is a jack-of-all-trades with a nimble mind. However, I had a difficult time relating with him at certain points.
Part of the problem with relating is Jess’ odd relationship with Morgan. They meet once and Jess if hopelessly smitten. He does some rather dumb stuff in order to prove his affection for her. I do not like it when authors’ contrive a romantic subplot out of thin air. There is little-to-no character interaction or development, they just look at each other and are “in love”. This is not how it occurs in real life and comes across as hokey in print. Regardless, Morgan is a great character. She is an English survivor of the war and is trying to keep her skills hidden form the omniscient library.
For the most part the supporting characters are well-written and utilized. Jess is the protagonist and Scholar Wolfe is the secondary protagonist. Wolfe is in charge of training the new postulants. He is quite interesting and mysterious. Unfortunately, he is not given enough page time to fully do his subplot justice. Hopefully this is rectified in the sequel. The Library serves as the main antagonist. At the beginning of the story there were twenty supporting characters. By the end there are only six. Perhaps my favorite element of the book is the Library internal missives sprinkled throughout the narrative. It is a great way to show the machinations of the Library without detracting from the main narrative.
Overall, I was quite surprised by the quality of the writing and the originality of the narrative. Rachel Caine mainly writes young adult vampire fiction. I tend to not view that genre favorably, especially the horrendous cover art. Anyways, I was pleasantly surprised by Ink and Bone and look forward to reading the sequel when it comes out next year.
Ink and Bone, NAL, 2015, ISBN: 9780451472397