Imagine if the Royal Library of Alexandria had not been destroyed in flames.
In Ink and Bone, Rachel Caine uses this alternate history speculation to craft a universe where the “Great Library” has survived and flourished through the centuries, expanded with satellite institutions around the world. The cultural influence and political power of the Library is significant, holding absolute control over written knowledge. Ownership of printed books is illegal, but Library-approved materials are ‘mirrored’ from the original texts through alchemy by Obscurists to personal blank ‘book’ instruments of Library design called Codexes.
Where personal ownership of something is forbidden, a black market trade evolves to fill the desires of those who can afford it. For generations the Brightwell family business has served as a front for an expansive and networked system of book smuggling. From a young age, teenaged Jess Brightwell has been running books for his ruthless father to clients and couriers: a risky, dangerous job that has already claimed the life of an older brother. More difficult, Jess feels incredible attachment to printed books, and is horrified by the perverted desires of a group of buyers who buy the printed material simply for the privilege to tear out the costly, rare pages and eat them.
Realizing his son doesn’t have the emotional and moral detachment necessary to continue being a direct part of the family smuggling empire, Jess’ father sends Jess for testing and training for a coveted job with The Great Library itself, a position that would give the Brightwell family spying eyes and ears on the inside of the powerful organization.
Jess arrives to meet a collection of talented young applicants from around the world who are competing for a mere six spots. As Jess learns the traditions and techniques of the Library, while hiding his origin and goals, he finds that his fellow students may have secrets of their own: a potential mole from a violent radical group, a girl identified with Obscurist talent, running from her destiny. Challenging and mentoring them is Christopher Wolfe, an enigmatic and merciless Librarian with deep secrets of his own.
However, Jess and his fellow students soon discover that the competitiveness of their training, their secrets, and their personal ambitions must take a backseat to duty as potential Librarians. A giant cache of books has been discovered hidden in the library of a city now under siege on the front of a bitter war. With no more time to prepare, Wolfe and his students must risk their lives to save the books from collateral destruction.
Adding to this danger, one of the students (and friend to Jess) thinks he has come up with a wonderfully novel way to copy books, a mechanism that will change the world and give the Library a lot less work to do. But, others know all too well that such radical thoughts and inventions could prove even more dangerous than a war.
The ironic foundation of Caine’s universe in The Great Library series is intriguing. The destruction in our reality of The Ancient Library of Alexandria is now symbolic with horrific loss of knowledge and power. Any lover of books, history, or culture would think how wonderful it would be were the contents of that library still with us. Caine inverts this expectation and uses the library’s alternate survival to envision a dystopia where it has allowed stifling of Guttenberg’s world-changing invention, and establishment of a mystical, quasi-religious control over knowledge in society.
Ultimately in this novel, these themes serve as backdrop for the universe and the plot. The similarities in my mind between the Great Library’s Codexes and the Amazon Kindle aren’t fully exploited (though that may be a good thing). In other words, Caine’s novel isn’t necessarily a simple critique of anything in our current day merely disguised as alternate history. This isn’t to say there isn’t some complex exploration of the morality behind the Library as an institution. I found it interesting that the novel begins with The Great Library being viewed as something completely controlling and repressive, evil. Yet, as the novel progresses some nuance is unveiled, as the students and readers discover together that for all its horribleness, the Library is capable of doing great things. Such is power: capacity for great good, but also harm. This along with the sacrifice of individual desires for the greater good of society is the core theme in the novel.
The novel does start slowly, developing gradually with world building to accustom the reader to this alternate universe while simultaneously setting up a familiar boot-camp-like setting. Yet, I found the characters compelling and diverse enough to keep me turning pages. Most pleasantly, the shift in setting and tone from training and teenage relatinships to a bleak wartime mission allowed the story to feel fresh and enlivened at a point where other novels tend to lose steam. At this same point, as Jess becomes familiar, the relatively flat antagonism of Wolfe develops into a fascinating character of depth.
Ink and Bone was a satisfyingly entertaining read, but the downside to it is that it is just the first part of a story, a series. The ‘ending’ of this is rather disappointing in being a cliffhanger, and honestly I’m sort of tired of SFF genre books doing this. Publishers and authors may be able to tap into faithful readers this way, but how many potential readers out there won’t even bother committing to it to begin with, let alone once it’s long underway?