This week I’m recommending `Ink and Bone’, a riveting Fantasy novel by Rachel Caine. I have never been tempted to try Caine’s Morganville Vampires or Weather Warden series but I was attracted to this book because it was described as `Volume One of The Great Library’. I am a sucker for stories which feature libraries and this one is set in a version of our world in which the Great Library of Alexandria was never destroyed. `Ink and Bone’ was published this year (2015) and is already available as an ebook or a paperback. Which of these you choose may influence how you feel about this novel. To understand why, you will have to read this review…
Jess Brightwell and his family are citizens of London in an England that has been at war with Wales for many years. The most powerful organization in the world is the Great Library of Alexandria, which has `daughter libraries’ in every country. Thanks to the magic of the Alchemists who dwell in the Iron Tower, these libraries are protected by animated statues. The `Doctrine of Ownership’ states that `the Great Library must, for the protection and preservation of knowledge in trust for the world, own all such knowledge.’ Printing seems never to have been invented and only branches of the Great Library are allowed to keep original hand-copied books and manuscripts. It is a crime for ordinary citizens to possess originals but the discovery of `mirroring’ means that permitted knowledge can be accessed through `Library blanks’. In addition, everyone must use their personal Codex to write a daily record of their life which will one day be deposited in the Great Library.
The Brightwells appear to be respectable but are actually black market book-sellers. Callum Brightwell has already lost one son to this dangerous trade but he still forces his identical twin boys, Jess and Brendan to act as runners, delivering smuggled books to `ink lickers’. Jess has a genuine love for books and learning and at the age of sixteen he passes the entrance test which entitles him to be trained in the Great Library itself. Callum threatens to throw his son out on the street if Jess doesn’t agree to be the family’s spy inside the Library. As he leaves London, Jess witnesses a suicide bombing by a member of the anti-Library terrorist group known as the Burners.
During the train journey to Alexandria, Jess makes friends with two of his fellow `postulants’, gentle giant, Thomas, and Khalila, `the smartest girl in the world’. Scholar Wolfe, the formidable proctor in charge of the international group of students, makes it very clear that few of them will be good enough to be offered a contract by the Library. Jess works hard but lives in constant fear of being sent home for failing one of Scholar Wolfe’s tests or of being exposed as a book-smuggler. He falls for Postulant Megan, who has her own dangerous secret, but it isn’t clear whether he can trust her. When Wolfe is ordered to take the whole group on a perilous mission to war-torn Oxford to rescue some original books, nothing goes to plan. Wolfe and his students struggle to survive as they try to work out who it is that wants them dead…
Although it is set slightly in the future, `Ink and Bone’ has a Steampunk feel because the rulers of the Great Library have only allowed a limited number of technological developments. Instead Library-controlled Alchemy is used for tasks such as transmitting messages, tracking fugitives on maps and even transporting objects and people. Sometimes Caine’s magical equivalents of modern technology seem rather strained but she has obviously done her research on Ancient Egypt. Not many people know that Alexandria was once renowned for the mysterious art of theurgy – the summoning of divine manifestations – which could involve bringing statues to life. The lions, sphinxes and Horus falcons which guard Caine’s libraries are genuinely scary. Right from the first chapter we are left in no doubt that they will kill intruders. In this London, royal statues can be threatening automatons and St Paul’s cathedral has been brilliantly reimagined as a `beautiful and deadly’ Serapeum – a temple of knowledge.
After a grim prologue, which illustrates the dangers and rewards of book-smuggling, `Ink and Bone’ tricks the reader into a false sense of security by imitating the opening chapters of the first Harry Potter novel. Like Harry, Jess is summoned to a London railway station to catch a special train which will take him to the school where he will study magic. However, Harry Potter didn’t have to cope with seeing someone burn themselves to death during his first visit to Platform Nine and a half. Jess’s train journey and the way that he befriends one boy and one girl and makes an immediate enemy of Dario, his aristocratic room-mate at Ptolemy House, all seem comfortingly familiar. Then Scholar Wolfe sets his students a potentially lethal test on their very first day. This is a dark and violent book, which paints a realistic picture of the horrors of war, terrorism and repressive regimes.
Given the plot of `Ink and Bone’, I should warn you against getting too attached to any of the characters but you probably will anyway because they are so well drawn. None of the teenagers is a mere stereotype. Dario, for example, is not just a snobbish bully. He’s allowed to be clever, brave, and loyal to his own honour code. Some of the postulants have hidden agendas, which only gradually come to light, and all of them change in the course of the story. Enigmatic Megan could have been written as a straightforward heroine but her fear of being forced into a life she doesn’t want makes her ruthless towards others.
`Ink and Bone’ has two outstanding heroes – yes, two. The first is viewpoint-character Jess; the second, more surprisingly is Scholar Wolfe. Jess has plenty of normal teenage problems to cope with, such as a dominating father, sibling rivalry, first love, and finding that he’s no longer the cleverest person in his group. He is also a reluctant spy and thief and a loner who longs to trust people and serve a worthy cause. At first, Jess only thinks of Wolfe as a harsh and terrifying teacher but he gradually comes to perceive the Scholar as a courageous fighter for truth and a man with a complicated family and love life of his own. Imagine what the Harry Potter books would be like if Professor Snape was the co-hero all along and you’ll get the picture. It is a clever way of making sure that this series can be enjoyed equally by teenagers and adults.
The other feature which makes this book stand out is Caine’s balanced treatment of the Great Library and its opponents. The Library’s motto is `Knowledge is all’ . Between-chapters quotations show that over the centuries an organization founded to preserve knowledge for all humanity has come to control and even supress knowledge. Through Jess’s eyes, we see what a great instituition the Library could and should be and that many of its staff are dedicated and selfless. So it is all the more horrifying when Jess discovers just how far the ruling elite of the Library will go to preserve their power. The anger of the Burners, whose motto is `A life is worth more than a book’ becomes understandable but their methods still seem pointlessly destructive. This is a novel which deals with very contemporary issues of freedom of information and mass surveillance. It reminded me that nothing I read on my Kindle is private, so I switched to a print copy half way through the story. In either medium, this is a series worth trying. Until next time….