Book Review: Ink and Bone by Rachel Caine
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy
Series: Book 1 of The Great Library
Publisher: NAL (July 7, 2015)
Mogsy’s Rating: 5 of 5 stars
I spent most of the last week bouncing up and down telling everyone I know about Ink and Bone. In case I haven’t already gotten the chance to corner you with my mad ravings about this book, let me just tell you right now: this is an outstanding novel. Needless to say, it is going straight on my Favorites shelf and on my list of best books of 2015. There’s still almost half a year to go but I already know it’ll be hard one to beat. Books of this caliber don’t come along often.
Ink and Bone tells a tale of alternate history. As we all know, the invention of the printing press had an enormous impact on humanity, revolutionizing the way information is acquired, processed, and spread. But what if that never happened? Imagine a world where Johannes Gutenberg’s creation never came to light, a world where great minds like him were systematically silenced every time a new proposal for a method of printing came close to being realized. Imagine no ink plates, no moveable type, no presses – all innovations that were deemed too dangerous by an all-powerful ruling class that seeks to gather and control all knowledge, deciding who should have access to it, how and when.
Jess Brightwell lives in such a world, where the only books that exist are original works or copies painstakingly written out by hand. By law they are all property of the Great Library of Alexandria, that powerful bastion of knowledge that never succumbed to destruction in this reality. The scholars of the Library strictly govern the distribution of books to the public, using a complex alchemical process to deliver content instantly to an individual’s personal Codex or blanks. As a result, traditionally bound books have become very popular on the black market, as has the illegal trade of smuggling them into the hands of private collectors and other rare book hunters. It’s risky, but the Brightwells have prospered in this business, and Jess’ father has decided to take it to the next level by sending his son into the Library’s service, hoping that having an inside man will benefit the family in the long run.
But being a Library servant is a position of prestige, and as such, the trials used to seek out the best of the best are rigorous, brutal, and not always fair. I’ve always been fond of stories about magic schools, but Rachel Caine took the basis of that idea and made it all her own. Together with about two dozen other hopeful postulants, Jess Brightwell travels to the bright, magnificent city of Alexandria, home of the Great Library. Because knowledge is deemed paramount, training doesn’t just involve learning how to run one of the many daughter libraries present in every major city of the world; postulants are also taught to guard and protect it, keeping original works out of the public’s hands even if it means dying for the cause.
As an avid reader, I of course find it difficult to argue with the importance of knowledge. But to place its value above human lives? This should clue you in to the kind of place our protagonist has landed himself, and even with his book smuggling background, Jess is unprepared to learn about the corruption at the heart of Alexandria, or just how deep it lies.
Despite its secrets (or perhaps because of them), the dark underside of the Great Library was a wonder to explore. Imagine a world where the personal ownership of books is forbidden – what a horrifying thought. But the story also appealed to a part of me that understood all too well why some people would resist the rule of the Library, or risk their lives to own a genuine paper book for the chance to hold a hefty volume in their hands, take in the heady scent of age and ink, as well as feel the hard leather of the binding or the crispness of the pages. Ink and Bone had that addictive and intoxicating effect on the delighted bookaholic in me, and I just couldn’t get enough.
The novel is also so much more than that. I’ve never understood what a book hangover felt like until now, wishing I’m still in Jess Brightwell’s world. What Rachel Caine has created here is a rich and vibrant tableau, filled with beauty and amazing wonders but also no shortage of pain and darkness. Scenes of clean and shining Alexandria are juxtaposed by the ugliness of war in England as well as the destructive Greek Fire of the rebel Burners. The same alchemical processes that bring knowledge to the masses are also used to oppress them, keeping a watchful eye out for sedition or powering the nightmarish automatons that guard the Library from its enemies. All told, the world building is phenomenal but so is character development. Jess and his fellow postulants are part of an unforgettable cast, every one of them endearing themselves to me with their unique and individual personalities. Rare is it also to find an adult character in a YA novel as complex as Scholar Christopher Wolfe, who was not at all what I expected, and he quickly became a favorite.
Once I started reading this book, I just couldn’t stop. It has raised the bar for the YA I’ll read for the rest of the year. But it doesn’t matter whether you’re a teen or an adult. Ink and Bone is for everyone, and a must-read for all who treasure the gift of the written word. A perfect mix of breathtaking fantasy and edge-of-your-seat dystopian fiction, this is a masterfully written novel guaranteed to hook you in.