Ink and Bone (The Great Library Volume 1)
By: Rachel Caine
Release Date: July 2nd 2015
*Beware: Spoilers ahead!*
Ruthless and supremely powerful, the Great Library is now a presence in every major city, governing the flow of knowledge to the masses. Alchemy allows the Library to deliver the content of the greatest works of history instantly—but the personal ownership of books is expressly forbidden. Jess Brightwell believes in the value of the Library, but the majority of his knowledge comes from illegal books obtained by his family, who are involved in the thriving black market. Jess has been sent to be his family’s spy, but his loyalties are tested in the final months of his training to enter the Library’s service. When his friend inadvertently commits heresy by creating a device that could change the world, Jess discovers that those who control the Great Library believe knowledge is more valuable than any human life—and soon both heretics and books will burn…
In a world where the Library of Alexandria was never destroyed, thousands of texts from ancient scholars have survived to the modern age. These books-in fact, every book ever written-are available for access via the Library, but personally owning books is outlawed. Jess Brightwell’s family is part of the black market trade of the written word, and although Jess works in the family business, he’d rather be learning from these illegal books than selling them. When the opportunity arises for him to train at the Library, Jess agrees to be a spy for his family in order to be closer to the books he loves. But the Library isn’t as wonderful as he’d always expected it to be, and it soon becomes clear that the Library prizes books and the knowledge they contain over the lives of anyone in their way. Thrown into the middle of a war zone, Jess must decide if the ideals of the Great Library are more important than the lives of his friends, and making the wrong choice may get him burned.
The premise of Ink and Bone is every bookworm/librarian/historian’s dream: What if the ancient Library of Alexandria had survived? The knowledge contained within the library was immeasurable; who knows what history, scientific data, inventions, and ideas were lost in that great fire? Historians disagree as to whether there was one burning or several fires over the years, and some have proposed that much of the library’s materials had already been moved prior to its destruction, but the fact remains that we’ll never know just what was lost. Even the smallest scroll might’ve contained something with the potential to change the course of history.
But enough of my bemoaning this ancient loss, because in I&B, the Library (now brought to you by the capital letter ‘L’) still exists. Not only that, but it has become the most powerful entity in the world. Scholars of the Library can walk into war zones (mostly) unmolested, unrelenting stone automatons guard its entrances and hunt down criminals, and all literary information is disseminated from within the Library. It’s this last power that has caused discord throughout the centuries; because everything can be easily accessed from the Library, it’s illegal to personally own books. Of course, like any time in history when the government outlaws something, people find a way to get what they want (Prohibition, anyone?).
Jess Brightwell comes from a family of book smugglers, but his heart’s not in the business. He runs books for his father, but he spends his free time learning from those books before they disappear into a black market buyer’s secret stash. His father recognizes this love for books and, seeing the chance to get his hands on more original works, sends Jess to test for a position at the Library. Jess is clever, thanks in part to reading all those illegal books, and he’s well aware his father is using him. He doesn’t mistake this act as a kindness. He knows that he’ll be expected to smuggle books out of the Library, risking death by human hands or by the vicious, unforgiving automatons, but he can’t seem to deny himself the chance to be close to the things he loves the most. I was glad that Jess wasn’t naïve to his father’s reasoning; most families would be honored to have a child work for the Library, but Jess’ father simply sees a business opportunity. And Jess, although he’s not a fan of the family business, is willing to risk his life to keep his family from going under. Granted, if his family is found out, he’ll be punished as well, but Jess knows when to pick his battles. This way, he can essentially run damage control, using his insider knowledge of the Library to find black market books and prevent his brother from being sent to find the books himself while also getting his hands on more to read.
Jess passes his test and soon finds himself on a train to Alexandria, and it’s here he meets his fellow students, known as postulants. I loved the diversity between the postulants and its reflection of the diversity of the Library itself. The Library is of all nations and backgrounds, its workers chosen based on their intelligence, abilities, and dedication over any other factors. Of course, everyone has their secrets along with their skills (in fact, a lot of the students’ skills are related to their secrets), and Jess soon realizes he’s not the only one with ulterior motives for coming to the Library. Unfortunately, their teacher, Scholar Christopher Wolfe, is well aware of those secrets, and he’s willing to exploit them when necessary. But only when absolutely necessary, and he’s careful to keep the Library from finding out as long as those secrets don’t immediately threaten the other postulants. Wolfe may have ended up being my favorite character. Initially, he’s a hard-nosed jerk; it’s obvious he doesn’t want to train the incoming students, and he’s more than happy to push them into making mistakes as a reason to send them packing. But naturally there’s a complicated past to explain this icy attitude, and it has far less to do with the postulants than with the Library itself. Wolfe was born into the Library, and it didn’t take long for him to uncover its corruption. Things came to a head when Wolfe ‘invented’ a printing press; the Library shut down the project and destroyed all the work Wolfe had ever done, while Wolfe himself disappeared for a year. We’re not told what happened during that time, but it’s obvious it was traumatizing, and Wolfe came back even colder than before. The Library then continued his punishment by forcing him into his current teaching position, but Wolfe now knows how the Library really works, and he’s determined to change it.
Aside from Wolfe, I loved the development we see in the postulants. They all began as individuals competing for Library appointments, but they end up a team. It was great to see how the numerous tragedies the postulants faced pulled them together and morphed them into something loyal and powerful rather than leaving them attacking one another to gain an edge. What’s more, the different tasks they’re made to face reveal surprising facets of everyone’s personality: Khalila is a born Scholar, incredibly smart and dedicated, but she doesn’t hesitate to fight dirty and pull a knife when her friends are threatened. Dario is an entitled snob and all-around jerk, but he’s unexpectedly smart, and he’s willing to give credit when it’s due. Having grown up in a war zone, Glain is a natural soldier, but she refuses to blindly follow orders; her loyalty and protective nature must be earned. Morgan is on the run from the Library because of her unique powers, but she immediately throws herself in front of a vial of Greek fire to save her friends, even though it means forced lifelong service to the Library. Thomas is obviously smart, but his engineering skills are unparalleled, and while it was fun to see what he would invent next, it quickly became apparent that his inventions were going to get him in trouble.
And then there’s Jess. We already know he’s clever, we already know his life as a smuggler gives him an edge in scouting out danger and finding impossible-to-see hiding spots. What he discovers is his odd capacity for transferring books to the Library. It may seem insignificant, but while most people can only send two or three books at a time, Jess can handle transferring twenty at once. This skill wasn’t explored to a great extent in I&B, although it does allow the group to save hundreds of priceless texts during the siege and destruction of the Oxford library, but Wolfe finds it quite interesting. I’m sure this ability will come back into play in the next book, especially because I believe it has something to do with Jess’ appointment.
At the end of their training, Khalila and Dario are made Scholars, and Glain is assigned as a training sergeant. Jess, despite having demonstrated book and street smarts, loyalty, and a cool head in deadly situations, is made a private of the High Garda, the lowest position in the Library’s army. It’s a position that Jess is certainly not suited for, nor is it one he wants, but he accepts to remain in the Library’s service. And he’ll be training under Glain, so he’ll be in close proximity to at least one of his fellow former postulants. It struck me as interesting that the four students were given appointments that kept them in pairs, with those pairs kept relatively close together. Surely this was a calculated move on Wolfe’s part, but I have no idea what he’s planning. Like all good plans, I’m sure we’ll find out as things unfold, but it was an unexpected shock for everyone, adding a bit of drama to an otherwise fairly tidy ending.
You may be thinking I forgot Thomas. Poor brilliant Thomas. As I mentioned, Thomas is a genius engineer, and during training he begins working on an invention that would change the Library and the world. This invention will eliminate the need to hand copy books, it will end the book smuggling trade, and it will allow Morgan and the other Obscurists—those with the ability to perform alchemy and mirror original texts to make copies—to be freed from the Iron Tower. Thomas’ invention is the printing press, and he is only the latest in a long line of individuals to have designed such a device. Gutenberg was the first, Wolfe was the most recent, and all but Wolfe have been put to death for their innovation. Before Jess and Wolfe can come to the rescue, Thomas is taken by the Library to be questioned before being executed. This quick sentencing and punishment over nothing but a machine—albeit a “world-shaking” machine—left me stunned, not only because I liked Thomas but because this same thing had been happening for centuries, and the Library is terrified. Why is the Library so opposed to the production of a printing press? Such a device would greatly benefit the Library, yet they destroy any evidence of the machine every time someone ‘invents’ it. The only reason I can think of is that a printing press would eliminate the need to keep the Obscurists. The Obscurists are housed (read: imprisoned) in the Iron Tower, so how much is truly known about them and their unique abilities? Is there something else they do for the Library that their release would interfere with? Wolfe’s parents were Obscurists and he developed a press, which leads me to believe that the connection lies with the Obscurists.
It’s just another question to be explored in Volume 2. But what can we take away from Volume 1? We get a good look at the power of teamwork. Yeah, it’s cliché, but working as a team was the only thing that kept Jess and the others alive in countless situations. I appreciate that although there was a bit of romance, those relationships took a backseat to the relationship of the group as a whole. We also get a stark example of how something as good and well intentioned as the Library can become drunk on its power. The need to maintain that power can then lead to the quelling of any progress that may alter the status quo, even if it means murdering those working towards progress; intelligence can be dangerous, and sometimes the possessors of that intelligence are destroyed for daring to hope for change. Ominous life lessons, I know, but scarily relevant in today’s world.
Overall, Ink and Bone is a brilliantly written alternate history with a varied cast of characters and extensive (but awesome) world building. It’s billed as young adult, but readers of all ages will enjoy this take on ‘What if?’ and join me in the (hopefully not too long) wait for Volume 2 of The Great Library.
• “Don’t play to your strengths,” Jess told her. “Strengthen your weaknesses.”
• Here, among people who respected her, she shone like a diamond.
• “Remember, losing one pint of blood’s an accident. Losing two is carelessness.”