Rachel Caine’s Ink and Bone is a book where evil librarians rule the world. As silly as that premise sounds, the book is actually quite engaging.
Our hero is Jess Brightwell, He is the son of a book smuggler in a London where the Library of Alexandria never burned down. Jess’ father, however, believes that his son loves books too much to ever truly to be useful in the family business (where their clients could literally devour a book right in front of them) and so buys him a placement at the Library itself with the intention of him acting as a mole for his criminal family.
The scholarly Jess is excited about the prospect of studying at the Library, even if the intense education at the hands of Scholar Wolfe is pushing him to his limit. He still manages to find time to make friends, including a girl named Morgan who, like Jess, has secrets that she doesn’t want the Library to uncover. As Jess’ education nears its conclusion, he will discover there is something rotten at the core of the Library and how it will do anything to maintain its power, even sacrifice those who serve it.
Despite Ink and Bone being an alternate history, the world really isn’t that different from our own. Important historical figures, like Johannes Gutenberg and Thomas Paine, and place names, like America, still exist even with a point of divergence in the first century. The Library is apparently very powerful with references to it being able to wipe out nations or forcibly remove the populations of major cities, but are somehow unable to get the English and Welsh to stop fighting long enough to prevent the destruction of the Library’s branch at Oxford.
The Library reminds me of the Catholic Church at the height of its political power, when a Pope could get an emperor to beg for forgiveness, and with the way people venerate books in this timeline it sort of acts like a quasi-religion. That being said, Christianity, Islam Judaism and even a form of Egyptian neo-paganism still exist. Furthermore, there is also magic in the form of alchemy that can power robots, but we don’t need to discuss how that works in this review.
So Rachel had to smash a lot of butterflies to create her world, but I still think Ink and Bone is worth a read. The Library maintains its power through its monopoly on knowledge and what it decides to share with the masses. In that sense the Library reminds me of the state in Nineteen Eighty-Four, specifically the party slogan of “who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” Yet the Library isn’t as efficient as Oceania in controlling the people, thus there is room for rebels both outside and inside their ranks to bring the whole system down. Sounds like a perfect setup for a few young rebels to try and shake things up.
Now Ink and Bone is a young adult novel, similar to The Merchant of Death or Leviathan, but I think all ages could easily enjoy this book. Its pretty dark for a YA book, with one disturbing image involving a mechanical gate being unable to fully close because of all the bodies in the way. It does not shy away from adult themes either, especially since Jess and his friends are in their late teens by the time they start studying at the Library. Jess is also an interesting character who, because of his background, doesn’t come off like the Gary Stu you see in other series.
Admittedly there was one moment were a major plot twist was told to the reader before even Jess figured it out and…I have no idea why that was kept in. It was an odd moment where the author forgot to “show, don’t tell” and should have been edited out, but I don’t remember any other major mishaps from the author. The writing is good, the dialogue is believable and there aren’t too many info dumps.
Ink and Bone, however, is only the first book in what is being called The Great Library series, with the second book, Paper and Fire, coming out in July. So the ending is pretty eventful (in an Empire Strikes Back kind of way) and leaves itself open to a sequel. Thus those expecting closure at the end will be severely disappointed.
Nevertheless, I do recommend you check out Ink and Bone by Rachel Caine. Although the alternate history is lacking, it is still an entertaining and dark young adult book that even older adults can enjoy.