Isaac Inchbold, the humble proprietor of Nonsuch books, is an unlikely hero for a novel that takes us into an international fight for possession of ancient and secret knowledge. Even at the beginning of Ross King’s Ex-Libris, Inchbold would have told you that nothing very interesting should have happened to him. But then a summons from a mysterious aristocratic Lady pulls him from his cozy shop and away from his pipe. Before long, Inchbold is dodging deadly men in black doublets, coughing his lungs out in shabbily organized archives, and following clues to try and find a previously unknown volume of the corpus Hermeticum.
There is far too much plot in Ex-Libris to try and sum up as briefly as I normally do. Suffice it to say, this novel has two narrators. Inchbold tells his story from years later, looking back at his bewildering and terrifying experiences in 1660. Emilia Molyneaux, a lady in waiting for Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia, takes us further back in history, to the winter of 1619-1620 when the Thirty Years’ War erupted. The lost book links the two narratives as they work their way towards each other in time. We learn how this missing book was originally found in Constantinople, brought to Prague, and was spirited away to a Dorsetshire mansion before it was probably stolen by Parliamentarian soldiers. What we don’t know is what happened to the book after it was stolen. The mere rumor that someone is looking for it reignites a contest to possess it between Inchbold’s employer and agents of Catholicism.
As Inchbold looks for his assigned MacGuffin manuscript and Emilia is chased across the Holy Roman Empire and part of England, the novel gives us a blend of fiction and history about Hermeticism, alchemy, the Counter-Reformation, diplomatic relations between England and France, Sir Walter Raleigh’s failed expedition up the Orinoco River, bookbinding and restoration, Rudolph II‘s book and esoterica collection, and much more. In the middle of all this history, the conflict over the missing book is a constant reminder that the fight to control information is not new. The Reformation, to grossly oversimplify it, was about the right to think for oneself rather than receiving carefully curated information from an established authority. Galileo and Copernicus‘ fight to publish and share their heretical (but correct) ideas about astronomy are a frequently cited example of how the Catholic Church fought to maintain its worldview against a scientific revolution and the Protestants, both “enemies” aided by the printing press.
There are times in Ex-Libris where the plot is shoved to the back burner by King’s research. I’ll admit that there were some pages I skimmed because I couldn’t keep track of it all and didn’t see how it applied to Inchbold’s hunt. The best parts of this book are the nail-biting cliffhangers towards the end of the book, when our protagonists are almost captured by mysterious Catholic agents or when disasters threaten to destroy rare books. Being a librarian and confirmed bibliophile, I would be hard pressed to say which worried me more. That’s a lie. I was more worried about the books.
Readers who are looking for something more like The Da Vinci Code, with a quest for a MacGuffin that could change history forever, may chaff at the frequent detours into deep history. (The dialogue and gender politics are much better in Ex-Libris.) There are also some great twists near the end of the book that did a lot to make up for the slower passages. Readers who like historical fiction that can serve as a fairly accurate history tutorial may like Ex-Libris, especially if they’re interested in books and book history. This is definitely a book for bibliophiles. There’s more than enough to geek out about.