This is a fascinating book, the first in a new series called 'The Great Library' by Rachel Caine, the author of the long-running Morganville Vampires series. It rattles along at a rate of knots and can be enjoyed simply as a ride, but there's some real depth here that's well worth exploring. It's the sort of book that book clubs live for, not only because it revolves around books.
It starts unconventionally, with a prologue that feels thoroughly Victorian. A young boy by the name of Jess Brightwell is a smuggler of illegal books, who runs through the streets and alleys of London trying to avoid the Garda in their red coats. He manages to get past their barricades, only to end up in front of the Serapeum, having to outrun its giant lion automata which protect that library. He survives to deliver the book under his shirt to its customer, who promptly eats it page by page because it's unique, the one and only hand copy of 'On Sphere Making' by Archimedes. Jess is horrified but it's literally out of his hands. Of course, once we recover from the horror of the book eater, we can't fail to realise that we can't be in the London we might expect and, sure enough, the last line of the prologue tells us that we're in 2025.
This near future world is a thoroughly alternate one to ours. As if to counter the creation of book eaters, Rachel Caine posits a world in which the Library of Alexandria never burned. However, that's not quite the utopia that we might imagine. Sure, it preserves vast amounts of human knowledge. Sure, it spreads that knowledge worldwide by ensuring copies of works are sent to daughter libraries called Serapeums (or perhaps Serapea), one of which exists in each major city. Sure, it makes these works available to readers instantly through the power of alchemy. However, that's just the good side.
Here's the not so good side. For a start, private ownership of books is forbidden, with the sole exception of journals, which are entirely private until their writers' deaths, at which point their ownership moves to the Library. Knowledge is controlled by the Library, with censored sections utterly unavailable to the public, and it's controlled ruthlessly, because Scholars see their work as a sacred calling and so books are more important than lives. That view spurs some to revolution; they call themselves Burners and they commit such heresies as burning their journals and themselves on train platforms.
You can see the constituent parts, of course. The Library of Alexandria survives but becomes the Vatican Library. Information flow is restricted to a single channel to control the masses, with such material as the privileged few deem inappropriate kept from view, just like Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia or any fascist state. While the technology in use is alchemy, the 'blanks' that Scholars use feel rather like e-book readers, hamstrung by rather advanced DRM (which proponents call 'digital rights management' but opponents dub 'digital restrictions management' because the point isn't to grant rights but to impose restrictions). Put these all together and you have a heady mix of perspectives on books, information and freedom.
And, of course, our avatar in this world is Jess Brightwell. He's brought up in a family that smuggles real books, but his father buys him a placement in the Library, as long as he passes the tests, which turn out to be rather involved. Off we go into the more conventional part of the book, which is the sort of fish out of water in school story that reminds of Harry Potter but merely appends a long line of such stories that go back decades, if not centuries.
What matters, though, isn't merely the pressure of tests and teachers or the introduction of bullies and friends, though there's plenty of all the above; it's the moral battle to figure out what's right and what's wrong. In this world, it's easy to be pro-book and pro-Library or pro-book but anti-Library. The Library has been a force for good for millennia but that doesn't mean that it isn't holding us back and, if change is acceptable, then what change makes sense? Even the Burners, who would normally be fringe lunatics, have very valid points here. It's good for any school story for the hero to be thrust into shades of grey, as that's much of the point of going to school, but it's especially good here because of the philosophy it generates.
Some of this is neatly bolstered in between chapters in what Caine labels ephemera, documents selected carefully from the Library's archives to add insight into our story. She pits real people against each other in these documents, from which extrapolation is easy. Thomas Paine vs Alessandro Volta. How's that for a starting point for discussion: the philosophical case for freedom vs the history of scientific literature? It's 'Ink and Bone' in microcosm.
Just as we get used to the setting and start to figure out that we're not on anybody's side because all the sides have flaws and another should clearly be created, combining the best aspects of each philosophy, the novel takes a fresh turn that's at once a logical step forward and a paradigm shift. Suddenly, a story that we've categorised neatly into 'school fiction' becomes instead 'war fiction', as those students who have survived the teacher's daily cull (only six from a large class can make it as Scholars) are thrust into a dangerous mission during times of war.
Wales and England are at war and the fall of Oxford is imminent. That puts newly discovered original books in the Oxford Serapeum at risk and they must be brought out at all costs. Beyond ratcheting up tension, this ratchets up the hard decisions, with Jess forced to make more than one on the spur of the moment. Caine seems really happy with placing her characters into mortal danger and the horns of a dilemma all at the same time and she's really good at it.
I'd say that this is a book to devour, but that would bring back unfortunate images of book eaters, whose culinary habits are the only real black and white issue in the entire volume. Instead, I'll just recommend it absolutely, for reading and for discussion. It's a fantasy (and I've deliberately underplayed the fantasy elements to avoid spoilers), it's a romance and it's an adventure. It's a school tale, a war story and a road movie. It's an alternate history that resonates and it's an alternate future that we can discuss all day long. On all the above, it's worth your attention. ~~ Hal C F Astell