Because all of life is stories.
“You have ink in your blood boy, and no help for it.”
According to the mythology, the Great Library of Alexandria was burned to the ground, lost along with it was an incalculable wealth of human knowledge and history. In reality, it’s possible a series of fires and sabotages, ordered by generals, popes, even Julius Caesar were responsible for the destruction, over time, of anywhere between forty thousand to a half million scrolls. Imagine if half a million pages of human history disappeared today, wiped forever off of the face of the Earth. Lost. If you aren’t horrified, you should be. This happened, though the story is steeped in myth and propaganda.
But what if it didn’t?
What if the Great Library was allowed to remain, to grow, to spread its daughter libraries across the world from Egypt to Rome to America and to everywhere in between? What if the Library grew so great and powerful that it became an entity unto itself, free from the restrictions and weight of being bound to any one nation? What if the Library grew so powerful that all original copies of books were held within, and the keeping of such works was a crime that could be punishable by death?
If you can imagine that, then you might imagine a world not unlike the one crafted by Rachel Caine, in her newest novel Ink and Bone.
I’d never read one of Caine’s books before. Vampires weren’t really of interest to me, and I admit to unfairly judging them because of the craze that swept the nation. But this book is about libraries. This book is about books and knowledge and the written word and the mystery that surrounds them. It was written for librarians and booksellers and bloggers and bibliophiles. It understands what it means to have ink in your blood, all the way down to your bones. And for that I loved it.
The book also contains a slew of goodies that I always appreciate in my reading. Libraries are guarded by steampunk automata designed to look like lions and sphinxes and Egyptian gods. Thieves and those that would harm the library or the written word are hunted by these mechanical creatures, and no quarter is given. A closely guarded magic of books and machines and mathematics is hidden behind a cloak of secrets, lies, and deadly consequences for those that stumble down the wrong path.
Caine’s cast of eclectic characters, from English book smuggler Jess Brightwell to Muslim wunderkind Khalila Seif and German engineering prodigy Thomas Schreiber, find themselves in the most dangerous schooling of their lives. But if they succeed they will be given the chance to become Scholars of the Library, meaning new lives of prestige and all the knowledge they could ever want unlocked. The tests of the indomitable and inscrutable Scholar Wolfe prove difficult and stressful enough, but when a cache of rare original books is discovered in a war zone, it will take everything from them just to make it through alive. In these moments though, secrets have a way of coming out. Allegiances become grey and uncertain. Things that were once as clear as day become shrouded by a fog of war and a conspiracy hundreds of years in the making. For people like Jess, testing to become a Scholar is dangerous enough. His is not the only life that depends on the fickle nature of privacy, integrity, and the power of the written word.
It’s fairly obvious from the early goings that something is not entirely right with the way the Library carries itself around the world. Though most of the world agrees to the way the library works, owning blank books that are more or less the equivalent of tablets to gain free access to any book in the Codex, some people are uneasy with one source holding all of the information. Banning some of it. Wiping some off the map. Some believe it holds humanity back. Others wish only to move forward the cause of the Library, like Scholar Johannes Gutenberg, whose printing press is destroyed before it can be used to upend the system the Library has entrenched itself in. We spend much of the book questioning whether the Library truly is for the good of humanity. While it seems that they aren’t as overtly evil as something like The Capitol of The Hunger Games it is clear that a growing unrest is leading quickly toward a time of change, or a time of violent bloodshed.
Caine moves us through the book swiftly, meaning a few of the characters end up slightly underdeveloped in my opinion. Really though this may just be me wishing that a few of them got more screen time than others. A book with a lot of moving parts character-wise can’t always indulge in that though, and Caine makes sure that everything flows together and we are given enough information to both remain engaged in the story and connect with the main players.
By necessity, the first book in this series won’t and can’t answer all of my questions. It doesn’t show me all of the cool stuff I want to see or explain how all of it works. There are more books coming (Please oh please send us more books) that will have to answer those questions. I’m dreaming of prequels filled with historical figures shaping the future of the Library. How did it influence the Revolutionary War? Did World War II even happen? What kind of role did some of our greatest minds play in creating the behemoth that the Library has become? Hopefully the “Ephemera” that break up each chapter continue to offer looks into the past of the alternate history that Caine has constructed around a singular turning point in the history of our world.
Like I mentioned before, I had never read a Rachel Caine book before this one. I’m glad that this is my introduction to her. Ink and Bone may not be classified as a Young Adult book (It sits nicely in a place where it could be shelved in YA, New Adult, or just plain SFF) but it hits many of the same rhythms that have made works like Divergent, The Hunger Games, Partials, and so many other dystopian futures the massively popular success stories that they are today. In fact, like with many dystopias, the true horror of them is the fact that people can’t seem to see that they are living in one before an inciting incident reveals to them what their lives have been surrounded by. At first, the world of The Great Library seems phenomenal; free and apparently unlimited access to any information around the world, and a populace hungry for that knowledge. The sins hidden beneath though, reveal themselves soon enough.