In our history, the Library of Alexandria was destroyed by the Romans. In the world Rachel Caine created for Ink and Bone, the Library and the Serapeum thrived and grew into a world power through its control of information. The premise of this book is catnip for me, a librarian. Put the Great Library Caine created is the farthest thing from libraries in our world that I can imagine. This Great Library is sinister, stifling, and apparently invulnerable. I’m pleased to report that the story and characters I found in Ink and Bone more than live up to its fabulous premise.
Jess Brightwell is one of the last people one might expect to become a trainee at the Great Library. His family are notorious book-smugglers, feeding Londoners’ need for original, non-Library controlled texts. And yet, against all odds, his father has bought him an attempt at the entrance exams. Jess passes and heads to Alexandria for training. He knows that the Great Library and its army/police force, the Garda, are far from benevolent. At first, he thought that all he had to worry about was keeping the Library from finding out that his dad is calling in favors. It shouldn’t have shocked Jess when he found out just how far the Library is willing to go to keep its lock on the world’s knowledge.
There are letters and documents in between each of the chapters, revealing that the Library has repeatedly quashed one of the greatest inventions of our world: the printing press. Once, the Library saved knowledge from destruction, but what would happen to it if printing made books ubiquitous? One horrified Library official wrote after they found out about Johannes Gutenberg’s work:
Without the Library’s steady guidance, this devise [the printing press] would allow the uncontrollable spread of not only knowledge, but folly. Imagine a world in which anyone, anywhere, could create and distribute their own words, however ignorant or flawed! (19*)
This is the opposite of the mission of every library I’ve ever worked for. The leaders of the Great Library parrot their motto, “Tota est scientia” (knowledge is everything) every chance they get, though it’s clear that power and money are everything to them.
There are a few things in this book that remind me of the plot structure of other YA novels: lifelong friends meeting on a train to school, the protagonist meeting an instant antagonist in another student, almost instant attractions. But these are minor problems and do not take away from a rather gripping story. Caine keeps the stakes high. Mistakes at the Library of Alexandria are usually fatal. In what appears to be one last attempt to finish them all off, Jess and his surviving classmates are sent into a war zone to retrieve rare and unique books from the Bodleian Sarapeum. (In this reality, Wales and England are at war. Wales appears to be winning.) Jess and most of his classmates make it out of Oxford, but the Great Library is not done trying to kill them. For a book about libraries, there is an astonishing amount of bloodshed. I love it!
Ink and Bone also serves to establish a series. While there is a lot of action in its pages, it’s clear that bigger challenges await Jess in the next volume of the series.
* Quote is from the 2015 kindle edition by New American Library.