Ink and Bone: Is a life worth more than a book?

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsInk and Bone by Rachel Caine fantasy book reviewsInk and Bone by Rachel Caine

Imagine a world in which the Library of Alexandria still existed, a world in which all of that accumulated knowledge and human history was still accessible to any literate person. That sounds pretty amazing, right? What most people might not take into account, however, is how drastically different that world would be from our own with the benefit of said knowledge and the attendant power given to its keepers. Ink and Bone, the first volume of a planned YA series by Rachel Caine, explores the ramifications of the Great Library’s continued existence and its effect on the course of human society. Readers who expect this to be a light, happy tale would do well to remember the old adage about the corruption potential of absolute power.

The year is 2025. Alexandria’s Great Library has spread its influence around the world over millennia, seeding populated areas with pyramidal Serapeum and small daughter libraries tended by black-robed Scholars. Jess Brightwell is a sixteen-year-old bibliophile from a well-to-do family which, ostensibly, has made a name for itself by importing foreign goods into London. Their legitimate business is a front for his father’s thriving book-smuggling enterprise, one for which Jess’ twin brother Brendan seems to be tailor-made. But Jess would rather study books than sell them, and for a multitude of self-serving reasons, their father pays for him to take the Library Scholar exam; to everyone’s surprise, Jess scores well enough to study at Alexandria University itself. Should he do well, he will earn temporary or permanent placement within the ranks of the Scholars, able to travel the world in service of the Library.

Jess’ train ride to Alexandria and his first few weeks at University have a tone and atmosphere which is strongly (distractingly) reminiscent of Harry Potter’s first trip to Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Introductions happen, test scores are shared, and speculation is made about what the future holds for their potential careers. With little effort, I could tell you which of the four Hogwarts Houses his fellow students would be sorted in, especially friendly Thomas Schreiber (of Berlin), studious Khalila Seif (of Riyadh), and Dario Santiago, who enters the story as a Spanish dark-haired version of Draco Malfoy. There’s even a stern, black-robed teacher who seems like a blend of Professors Snape and McGonagall. To Caine’s credit, Ink and Bone emerges as its own narrative once classes begin in earnest and as the year’s thirty-two new students are put through their paces, each jockeying for one of the six slots the Library is willing to fill. The plot becomes additionally complex as Jess learns more about the Great Library, the machinations of power held by those who truly run the world, and his very small place within that vast world.

The city of Alexandria itself is beautifully realized, with towering statues of Egyptian gods and wide stone streets, and the technology which Jess takes for granted is both entertaining and imaginative. Steam carriages clog city streets, terrifyingly lethal automata guard the Libraries from unauthorized entry, and most interesting of all, books are not printed on paper. Rather, the Library loans or sells blanks which are updated through alchemical means to show whatever information the Scholars deem is correct. Caine is careful to make the distinction that Ink and Bone’s alchemy is a logical function of scientific formulae, not hand-waving or mysterious magic. Original works are forbidden, fueling the black market trade which keeps the Brightwells flush with cash and creating a class of extremely wealthy people known as “ink-lickers,” who purchase original texts for the singular purpose of eating the pages. There’s also a thriving revolutionary group, the Burners, who believe that human lives are more valuable than books, and use Greek fire to attack Libraries as an act of protest against the monopoly on information.

The conflicts Jess faces are well-portrayed, particularly when he must decide whether to be his own man or stay in his father’s pocket. His relationships with his classmates deepen over time in completely believable and enjoyable ways, and characters which seem flat and predictable at the beginning prove to be well-rounded and evoke plausible emotional reactions from each other (and this reader). Jess has skills, but is neither the best nor brightest student, and can only succeed in his given tasks by accepting help from his friends — and they must rely on him, as well. The only aspect which felt unbelievable was the instantaneous trust and depth of love between Jess and Morgan, an Oxford girl with a dangerous secret of her own. I simply couldn’t believe that two people who had only known each other for a few days would be willing to risk everything for one another, and their romance felt tacked-on as an excuse to create unnecessary drama.

Setting aside the dreaded YA trope of insta-love, Ink and Bone is massively enjoyable and compelling. It’s the sort of book that, once the plot picks up steam, is extremely difficult to put down. The world is unique, the characters are mostly complex, and I’m eager to find out what happens in the next installment of THE GREAT LIBRARY. Highly recommended.

Published July 7, 2015. Young Adult. In an exhilarating new series, New York Times bestselling author Rachel Caine rewrites history, creating a dangerous world where the Great Library of Alexandria has survived the test of time.… 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 he 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.…

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but recently settled in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are Bradbury, James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, and Philip Pullman.

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10 comments

  1. This sounds like something I would really enjoy. Thanks for the excellent review Jana!

    • Skye, I think you’d like this one a lot. (And thank you!) If you do get a chance to read it, I’d love to hear your take on it!

  2. dr susan /

    I have warned people to remember what Rachel Caine’s other books are like, so they do not expect a happy exploration of an incredible library. Ink and Bone is quite dark.

  3. I just had my eye on this. Think I’ll now have to put my hand on it as well now . . . Thanks!

  4. Great review, Jana. I’ll have to keep an eye out for this one. It sounds intriguing.

    • It is, and it’s enjoyably complex. The sequel should be out next summer, if you’re interested — or if you want to hold off on reading this one until you know more about the series.

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