I reviewed the third book in Rachel Caine's 'Great Library' series last month, so it was fresh in mind as I zipped through this fourth. I was expecting it to be the last, or at least the one which wrapped things up so a new plot could take over, but I was surprised to find that it only comprises half of a finalé rather than a whole one. I wish I'd have had the fifth book sitting here ready to go, though I don't expect it to show up until July 2019, if the previous publishing schedule is anything to go by, because Caine doesn't seem to be particularly concerned about loose ends here. I wanted a lot of answers to a lot of questions and few were forthcoming. Thus far, at least!
The 'Great Library' series has generally been told in small stories that are set against big ones and, frankly, there isn't one much bigger than a world in which the Great Library of Alexandria survived and continued on to dominate the landscape of information for millennia. Think the Vatican in a world in which the printing press was never invented (or, to be more accurate, was invented over and over again but was successfully suppressed each and every time); a world in which all writing is connected, through a sort of internet of magic, but protected by the ultimate DRM, with the keys in the hands of the Library; a world in which the Library has its own army, not just of highly trained people but automata in the giant forms of lions or Egyptian gods. Oh yeah, there's a lot here on the grand scale!
This time out, the little stories, which generally follow the various members of the class of 2026 (I think), have become so tied to the grand scheme of things that they can't just be told from one perspective any more. 'Smoke and Iron' breaks up the narration between a number of the key players: our usual focus, Jess Brightwell; his classmates, Khalila Seif and Morgan Hault; and their teacher, Christopher Wolfe. This ought to feel strange, but it does flow very well indeed, with each of their stories gradually progressing a bigger story until they all coalesce into one.
Potential readers, stop right now and start out with book one! Spoilers are inevitable here and this series is worth reading all the way through.
Jess gets to kick things off, as a logical progression from the earlier books, in which his was the only narrative voice. It's relatively straightforward for a while, with him back in the Library but in disguise as his twin brother, seeking both a deal with the corrupt Archivist Magnus, the man in charge of everything, and assistance from the outside world of book smugglers and other opponents of the Library. Khalila's opening section is also straightforward, with her and her friends captives on board a ship that's bound for Alexandria, where they'll all be handed over to the Library and most will be killed. They take the ship instead, of course, and change that narrative flow, as they have a tendency to do.
Surprise kicks in when we shift over to Wolfe, who is already a prisoner of the Library, having been handed over by Jess while disguised as Brendan, with a grand plan in play. Our expectation is that he'll be immediately tortured, but that isn't the case. Caine is ever happy to keep us on the hop; for all that we have no doubt where we're going to end up, she does have a habit of surprising us anyway! For instance, there's a real inevitability underpinning this volume. While we're always sure that Jess and his cohorts will win out in the endbecause otherwise why would we follow their trials and tribulations through four books and counting?we do wonder here if the changes they've sparked into motion won't reach their natural end through sheer entropy even before they manage to achieve it themselves.
And here's where this series, set in a future extrapolated from an alternate past, feels rather contemporary. Many people think that enough is enough, that the powers that be have been corrupted too much, that change is not merely a shared goal but a true and welcome inevitability. 'Ink and Bone', the first book in the series, was published in April 2016, most of a year before Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, but comparisons are there to be made and it's hard not to make them. I don't believe that Caine is writing about him specifically, but she's tapping into a general sense of discontent, as well as a polarisation that can only go so far, that feels eerily familiar.
It's worth mentioning that it's hard to find good guys here, even though we have no doubt which side we're on. Jess is the closest thing we have to a hero, though he's from a family of inveterate book smugglers who care a great deal more for money and influence than they do for whatever someone might consider is the right thing. And yeah, I still haven't got past the 'book eater' scene that the Brightwells enable early in the first book; it traumatised me! On the other side, the Archivist Magnus is the clear villain of the piece, but he's still running the Great Library, an institution which does an immense amount of good, however corrupt he happens to have become at its head.
World opinion about the Library has changed dramatically since the beginning of this series, although there isn't an organised opposition. Countries like Spain, Russia and the United States don't automatically find themselves on the same page when they oppose the Library, especially when the Burners come into play. As horrifying as some of their ideas are, they're not clearly wrong or evil either. Caine invites us to figure out our own moral stand, even as she suggests that it ought to be somewhere in the middle, where Jess and his band of misfit rebels find themselves, fighting for the soul of the Library rather than to overthrow, occupy or destroy it.
For all the inevitability in play here, there are some great passages. There's a fantastic one when Jess realises he can't merely pretend to be his brother; he must find a way to convince himself that he's Brendan in order that others might believe him and he won't break under an inevitable inquisition. There's another fantastic one with Morgan, back in the Obscurist tower that she hates so much, being shocked to discover that the Obscurist Magnus is both willing and able to kill for no better reason than to make a point.
The biggest problems with the book revolve around that inevitability and the fact that this isn't the finalé that we initially think it will be. For all that it doesn't really end at all, it merely promises to continue in the next volume, it finishes pretty quickly. Loose ends are abundant. Plot strands are left in full flow. There is a pivot between this book and the next one, but this is emphatically book four part one rather than just book four. It's tough to look at it in isolation and we just don't know how it's all going to play out yet. For now, this is an interesting way to continue the series but we can't really know how appropriate it all is until we read book four part two in a year's time. Tick tock. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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