The first book in Rachel Caine's 'The Great Library' series, 'Ink and Bone' (review here), was a fascinating young adult adventure through school, war and a dystopian near-future world in which the Library of Alexandria is alive and well, but controlling the flow of information across the globe. To suggest I was eager to follow up with book two, 'Paper and Fire', is a great understatement.
Of course, we have our grounding now and we know who our heroes are, even if they're still figuring out where they stand themselves. I don't blame them at all, because Caine doesn't make it easy for any of them. They're constantly stuck between a rock and a hard place, the way things are and the way they should be, what they thought was the case and what reality turned out to be instead.
That's especially true for the lead character, Jess Brightwell. While he was accepted into the service of the Great Library, as he had hoped, he isn't being moved in the direction he wanted. Instead of becoming a scholar, working with books, he's shifted into the High Garda, the security arm of the Library. That's a great irony because he comes from a prominent book smuggling family and he's still smuggling books in Alexandria, both for them and for himself (private stock, you know), making him the sort of character he should catch rather than the sort he should be.
He's also working for Glain Wathen, one of his fellow students but not one to whom he was close. She's Welsh but he's English and the two nations are still at war, the former continuing to make strides in their progress towards London. This is a great way for Caine to pit trust against friendship, to teach us how we can trust someone but not like them or vice versa. She does a magnificent job of introducing complexity without her readers necessarily catching on. These are incredible books for kids to talk about in school, because they'll open their minds without them realising.
The core cast continues as the first book left off, even where they've been dispersed. Jess and Glain work together and Santi, the boyfriend of their former teacher, is a few ranks above them. Wolfe, that teacher, is also around too, still a square peg in a round hole who can't be dealt with in the usual ways. After Jess and Glain work a drill that turns out to include an assassination attempt against Wolfe, we expand to two other fellow students, Khalila and Dario, opposites who apparently attract.
The other two students whom the Library hired from their class are more subplots than they are characters for quite a while. Thomas was taken away at the end of the first volume, having unwittingly committed a heresy by creating a printing press to help out the Library. He's supposedly dead but, relatively quickly in this book, we're given the suggestion that he's alive but being held prisoner. Morgan, Jess's girlfriend of sorts, is an alchemist of great talent and so was whisked away to the Iron Tower, to be kept there not as a prisoner but as an employee, merely one who can't leave. She finds a way to communicate with Jess but not to get out of the tower. So, the characters with freedom naturally find the will to retrieve those who have none.
Of course, there's a lot more going here than just a couple of rescue attempts, but I can't go into most of it either simply or without providing spoilers.
What I can say is that there's a heck of a lot here. Our characters grow with each of their discoveries and the worlds of the Library and at large grow along with them. Some of those discoveries revolve around automata, one of the reasons that these books often have a steampunk feel even though they're actually set a decade or so ahead of us in time. Thomas isn't the only tinkerer at the Library and we start to delve beneath the surface on that front. It's fun to play in a world where everyone has a Codex, the equivalent of a smartphone/Kindle, but our heroes are shocked when they meet electric light, air conditioning and elevators.
We explore quite a bit, of course. We delve deeper into the Library itself, visiting parts of it that we may not have expected to visit and seeing behind a number of metaphorical curtains. We explore some of the sights of Alexandria, including the Pharos, the lighthouse in which both Khalila and Dario work, and the tomb of the man for whom the city is named, Alexander the Great. We also wander a little further afield too, to other major cities when the story requires it.
And, at the heart of it all, is the dominance of the Library, a fantastic dilemma for readers. It's an utterly engaging dream, a repository of lost knowledge restored to its rightful place and expanding constantly for millennia. No reader's heart will fail to thrill to the continued existence of the Library. But it's not a nice place and the people who run it are not nice people. It has done much but it has blocked much as it controls the flow of information and cuts it off entirely as and when it deems fit. Through Jess and his colleagues, we search for a balance between these two polarised positions, which is often a heady ride indeed.
While this may well qualify as young adult fiction, it speaks to me as an adult and shouldn't be hidden on the children's shelves. Caine weaves ideas into her pages as much as she puts words together, but she's a writer whose talent goes beyond the philosophical. There are scenes riddled with the tendrils of danger and, even though I expected threatened characters to survive, I felt the danger they found themselves in.
And she has a habit of setting up readers to see what they dream of, only to tear it away. There are scenes late in this book that are going to be difficult for readers to read, not on the level of characters and story but because of their inherent emotional impact to the readers that she's hooked. I guess it's no spoiler to suggest that book burning exists in a volume entitled 'Paper and Fire', but it's no harder to deal with the trauma when it comes. I do thank her for not letting those scenes linger.
Book three is coming but I don't know when, perhaps July 2017 to keep on a yearly schedule. Caine seems to be a prolific author, but her prominent series have apparently ended: the 'Weather Warden' books from 2003 to 2010, with a spin-off quartet between 2009 and 2012, and the 'Morganville Vampires' series from 2006 to 2013. She hasn't written under her real name (which isn't Rachel Caine) or her other pseudonyms for over a decade. So I presume this is a focus for her now and we can expect more books. I look forward to them! ~~ Hal C F Astell