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.