Jess Brightwell's world is ours, with one critical difference: the Great Library at Alexandria--the center of knowledge of the ancient world--never burned. Instead, it grew, encompassing and protecting all the other great libraries through the ages, amassing power and wealth beyond imagination.Wow. I just. . . wow. Yeah, that pretty much covers it. This was a fleurking phenomenal book. I could not put it down and when I was done with it, I jumped right back to the beginning and read it again and enjoyed the hell out of it just as much the second time through. It was just that good.
In a world where owning original books is a crime, Jess's family conducts a black market business in the smuggling of rare volumes. . . but when Jess is sent to apprentice at the Library, he quickly discovers that there are secrets and darkness inside those walls beyond anything he'd ever imagined.
Knowledge is power.
There is so much good stuff in this book, it's crazy. The characters are amazing, the worldbuilding is incredible, the plot is awesome. I am just so impressed with the whole thing. I cannot recommend it enough. Go read it. Go read it now. I'd say "I'll wait", but you'll probably get so wrapped up in it that you'll forget to come back, and I'm totally cool with that.
If you're looking for something a little more specific than just generally gushing, don't worry. I'm getting there.
I would usually cover the characters first, but my thoughts on that are a little lengthy in what is already going to be a lengthy review, and you're probably going to tune me out halfway through, so I'll start with the other stuff instead so it doesn't get missed. Because this was a book that hit every button for me and I don't want anything to be missed.
First, the story itself. The story sucked me in from the very beginning. From the minute those creepy-as-shit lions made their entrance in the prologue, I was hooked. This book has so much going on and the action just does not let up. The phrase page turner was invented for books like this. Every time I thought something like "well, okay, this is as big as it's going to get, it's going to slow down from here" it somehow managed to get bigger. To get darker. To get better.
I don't want to talk too much more about it though because some of the best twists would be huge spoilers and I don't want to do that to you. So I'll just go with giving the story two thumbs way up and move on.
The worldbuilding itself, as I mentioned above, was incredible. There are several of different worlds to build in this book. The London underworld where Jess grows up. The modern Alexandria, home of the Great Library. The war zone in Oxford. All of them feel real and rich and brilliant.
As to the world overall, I will say I was somewhat handicapped for this book, though not in the way I typically am with alternate history. On the whole, I don't usually enjoy alternate history. My brain ends up picking at the details and I get bogged down in trying to figure out the ripple effects. I have the same trouble with time-travel stories most of the time too.
The central idea of this world is that the Great Library of Alexandria never burned down, but instead continued on and eventually ended up ruling the world. Now, this is not a period of history I'm terribly familiar with. Things I know about the Library of Alexandria:
- It was a big important library.
- It burned down a long time ago.
- That makes history people and book people sad.
You might have noticed the stunning lack of specificity in my information there. So, you know, I can't really speak to how well Caine handled the changes that go along with the Library's survival, because I have no idea what was going on in that time period. Or really even exactly what time period we're talking about.
Yes, yes, I know. I'll just turn in my Official Book Nerd card at the desk and see myself out.
What I guess I'm trying to say is this: if you're looking for someone to analyze the accuracy of Caine's proposed world here, I'm not your gal. However, speaking as someone who knows virtually nothing about the Library of Alexandria except what this book tells me it could have become, I have no trouble at all believing it. Caine presented a very plausible world that I really enjoyed reading.
And, as a bonus, I had no worries about getting bogged down in figuring out the ripples because I had no idea what they would be. Ignorance really is bliss sometimes.
The Library, by the way, is the best villain ever. So creepy and multifaceted. It had a very Big Brother vibe to it. Not in the way everyone invokes Big Brother today, like when they're talking about Facebook or Google or the NSA, but the Library in this book actually reminded me quite a lot of Orwell's Big Brother in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
It was a little strange though, because while the Library is portrayed as having gone horribly corrupted and wrong on the inside, you can't really root for the guys who are opposed to the Library either. I mean, it's not like the book burners or the smugglers were winning any sympathy points. Basically, Jess is presented with a bunch of bad choices and has to figure out how to survive among them all. Which is one of my favorite kinds of story.
Oh, and while I'm in here talking about the Library, I do have to note that there were a few times when the book, while extoling the virtues of the original works the Library preserves, was verging on the edge of lecturing about the dangers of ebooks. As someone who reads ebooks exclusively, I didn't much care for that bit. I get that the characters would be all about "real" books rather than the library's "blanks" (which are basically just ebooks by alchemy instead of the internet) but there were times when it felt a little over the top to me. Not many, but enough that I felt it was worth noting.
Now, assuming anyone is still with me, on to the characters. Jess is our POV character for the book and Caine did a marvelous job writing him. Right from the very beginning I was drawn into his struggle. He's an interesting character with a lot of depth and he really came to life on the page for me. More on that in a second.
The secondary characters were also very well written. Through the course of the story Jess ends up in Alexandria teamed up with a little clique of trainees for the Great Library. At first I was disappointed because it seemed there was a somewhat stereotypical make up to this group. The insufferable rich slacker roommate, said rich guy's sycophants and hangers on, the gentle giant who builds tiny beautiful things, the girl who knows everything and is pretty and has the nerve to also be a good person, the tough girl who has no time for your bullshit. . .
But even though they give the initial impression of being just another mediocre group of sidekicks, it quickly comes through that they're not. This group works well together and evolved and the story supported them wonderfully rather than the other way around.
And then the most truly amazing thing hit me: it wasn't just that they were evolving as characters, it was also that Jess was evolving as a character and seeing them differently. Caine managed to immerse me so fully that I forgot to account for the POV character's filter.
Jess has grown up isolated in a criminal underworld, living as the son of a book smuggler in a world that treats books like venerated holy relics. His secrets and his temperament have left him unable to ever really connect with anyone. For him, everything is a story in one way or another and the story is all that matters. Of course he initially sees these people as nothing more than the image they present. He doesn't trust his own depth, so he has no frame of reference for even seeing theirs.
But then, as the story progresses and he grows stronger and closer to them and faces violence and conspiracy and death with them, he starts to see them more clearly. They started out flat and uninteresting to me because Jess wasn't paying attention. And then, slowly and subtly, they came alive to me because he was. It was beautiful.
Rachel Caine is a freaking genius.
So, as I said at the beginning, this is an awesome story set in an incredible world filled with amazing characters. It's just an all-around great book. I recommend it to everyone and can't wait for book two in the series.