TITLE: Ink and Bone (The Great Library #1)
AUTHOR: Rachel Caine
GENRE: Fiction, Fantasy, Young Adult
PUBLISHED: July 7, 2015
PURCHASE LINKS: Amazon
MOBILISM LINK: Mobilism
When I started out this year, I promised myself I would try to read more young adult novels. As I explained elsewhere, a lot of recent YA novels have disappointed me in terms of their quality, which led me to feel disillusioned about the genre as a whole.
However, others have pointed out to me that might be the case only because I have not really tried looking - an argument I suppose is true. I dismissed the genre offhand based on examples that might not have really appealed to me in the first place. Therefore, it behooves me to take better care in my selection process, and see if that does not filter the gold from the dross. After some thought, I decided to take a gamble with Ink and Bone by Rachel Caine.
Ink and Bone is set in a reality wherein the Library of Alexandria did not burn down and has since seized control of all knowledge humanity possesses. Using an item called a Codex, anyone can access almost any text from the Library’s archive at any time and view it for as long as they want, but the general populace is forbidden from owning actual, physical books. Because of this reality, a thriving black market exists for original copies; books not in the Library’s control.
Jess Brightwell’s father is a black marketeer, and has made a good living off his trade. But in order to expand, he needs someone on the Library’s inside - and Jess is going to be it. Not that Jess has any problem with that; he doesn’t like being under his father’s thumb and forced to participate in the business in ways he doesn’t like, so if being a spy in the Library is the price he has to pay, he will do it.
But as Jess undergoes training for an eventual post at the Library and makes friends along the way, he begins to realise that the Library is far more rotten than he supposed. And as he begins to reveal the Library’s dark heart, he finds himself caught in a web of intrigue and secrets that he cannot escape - which will force him to make some very hard, very heart-wrenching choices.
One of the first things I noticed about this book are the parallels to other novels - most notably Harry Potter and The Book Thief. This novel bears the greatest resemblance to the former: there are train journeys, lessons learned, tests taken, friends made, and enemies encountered. Anyone who has read Harry Potter is familiar with these tropes; indeed, readers are likely to put labels to specific characters, calling them the book’s “Hermione” or “Snape” or “McGonagall”, and so on.
However, despite those similarities, key differences distinguish this novel from others like it that have emerged in the years since Rowling’s series shot to popularity. For one, Jess Brightwell is not quite so naive as Harry: he is a mite more cynical, a touch more suspicious about the intentions of others. It also makes him an excellent narrator because he can read people quite well - not without error, to be sure, but well enough that through his eyes, the reader can get a reasonably accurate grasp of the other characters.
And speaking of characters, this book does better on the diversity front than Harry Potter: one of the most important supporting characters is a young Muslim woman named Khalila, whom most readers will likely peg as the novel’s 'Hermione'. Aside from the fact that there is even a Muslim woman in this novel to begin with, the role Khalila plays and the effect she has on the other characters is notable. Everyone understands that she is the “brains” of their operation, and when one character continually insists on calling her a “desert flower,” she makes sure to put him (for it is a he) in his place with a pointed reminder:
‘I’m from Riyadh,’ she told him. ‘It’s not the desert, it’s a modern city, with roads and carriages. And desert flowers have spikes.’
All too often, characters from places outside of Western Europe and the United States are often portrayed as “exotic.” In Khalila’s case, the “desert flower” epithet forcefully moulds her entire identity into some fairytale-like existence of windblown tents set amidst desert dunes, where the men are bold and the women are mysteriously beautiful. By pointing out that she is from Riyadh, and stating that it has all the modern conveniences (“roads and carriages”) anyone might expect from any “civilised” area of the world, she is reminding the character she is speaking to (and the reader) that she is not “exotic” at all.
Fortunately, aside from that one particular character, Khalila is portrayed quite normally throughout the novel. For one, her hair remains covered throughout the novel, as might be expected of a Muslim woman who adheres to that specific aspect of her faith, but though the other characters and Jess himself observe this to be the case, none of them think this unusual. They also respect her decision not to consume alcohol, even though the rest of them do:
… Wolfe and Santi were, at first, the only ones allowed wine. Santi had only a little, but Wolfe steadily filled glasses, emptied a bottle, then another. He called for a third, and glasses for each of his students. Dario applauded that. Khalila declined, but everyone else accepted.
Note how, after stating that Khalila declined, there is no mention made of anyone insisting that she drink with them. This item is important because it means all the characters understand Khalila’s decision not to drink alcohol; moreover, they respect it. In any other novel, this might have been a small scene in which everyone remarks on how “unusual” it is that Khalila does not drink alcohol, but it is simply mentioned as a matter of course, a part of events, and is not mentioned again. This is a very good way to handle characters from minority backgrounds: mention what makes them different from the mainstream, but do not linger on it. Instead, the cultural differences are normalised as much as possible because, in a world where different cultures live side-by-side, such differences can and should be treated as normal.
Despite this representation, though, I wish more people of colour, aside from Khalila, appeared front-and-centre in this novel. That is just wishful thinking on my part, though. I hope other people of colour will appear in the other books in the series.
Another key difference between this novel and the Harry Potter books is how quickly the stakes escalate, and how real the danger feels. A part of me supposes that is the case because the author does not plan to write a seven-book series, but I appreciate how tangible threats feel in this novel. Even better, it does not feel forced; in some novels, the looming threat can feel melodramatic, or be lost in the midst of other plot concerns (specifically: romantic plot concerns), but in this novel, the romance does not drown out the danger on the horizon.
And speaking of romance, that is one thing I wish had been handled a bit better. The romance in this novel lacked sufficient buildup to feel truly convincing so that by the time the two characters involved confess to one another, I had to stop myself from some exasperated sighing at the melodrama. Now, again, I must emphasise that I am not against romantic plot lines in YA novels; I merely insist that the plot be as well-built and as carefully thought-out as everything else. In the case of this novel, however, the romance felt rushed; therefore lacked believability for me. I am only too glad that it is not the novel’s primary focus so is rendered tolerable.
As for themes, this novel plays with some very interesting ones: most notably, how institutions will do anything to protect their power - a crucial theme, given how in the real world, various institutions are doing all they can to hold on to power, even if they no longer deserve to do so. It also incorporates themes about growing up and finding a sense of identity and purpose, which are typical of the YA genre. Unfortunately, those themes are not developed with the depth of nuance I generally prefer - though I suppose that is to be expected since this book is the first in a series.
Overall, Ink and Bone proves a pleasant surprise for me; a YA book that did not offend my sensibilities as badly as other books in the genre have before. It goes by quickly and is very entertaining, though those qualities have resulted in a certain lack of depth in terms of exploring the novel’s themes. Still, the characters are relatively diverse and well-written (though I do wish the romance had been better plotted), and I am seriously considering picking up the next novel in the series - indeed, of seeing this series through to the end. I have not felt that way about a YA series in a long time - not since The Hunger Games - so I hope the good experience I had with this novel continues on in the series.