Thursday, November 23, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Paper and Fire (Great Library, #2) by Rachel Caine

Paper and Fire is the second book in the Great Library series by Rachel Caine. It's a well-written YA (Young Adult) fantasy series with a hefty amount of action, a great premise and (happily!) very little teen emotional (does s/he like me?!) angst.

The great premise in Paper and Fire is that the Great Library of Alexandria was never sacked and destroyed by Roman conquerors and thus continued to be a source of enlightenment and knowledge. Unfortunately, the Library has used its ever increasing power to maintain a stranglehold on technological developments and important information that has resulted in a severe stunting of the societal advancements that we are used to in our world, like the Internet, electricity, the gas combustion engine and modern medicine. In this version of the 21st century the Great library series is set in it is illegal to possess original copies of books. All books are in The Library and most citizens are only allowed to magically obtain copies of approved texts in things called "blanks" for fixed periods of time.  The text of the book appears in the blanks and then goes away after a certain time. The Library enforces its edicts and protects its branches through the use of violence and force. They have animated mechanical beasts called automatons which are usually in the form of deadly Lions or Spartans who regularly kill innocents as collateral damage to enforce the Library's policies. 

The first book in the series, Ink and Bone, involved a diverse group of teens who are competing to enter the service of The Library as either Scholars (people with access to the original books and the ability to do research and make discoveries) or Soldiers (the military wing of the Library is called the Garda and keeps the peace and enforces the Library's hegemonic control of society). The Library's ideology is distilled into the phrase "life is short but knowledge lasts forever" which basically means that books are more valuable than human life. This actually raises interesting philosophical questions about the permanence of knowledge and the meaning and value of human life. (Are people more important than their intellectual products?)

 Paper and Fire continues the story of Jess, Morgan, Glain, Khalila, Dario and other  main characters from the first book Ink and Bone. They are trying to discover the secrets of The Library and rescue their missing friend Thomas whom they were told was killed in an unfortunate accident after he invented a device that threatened The Library's monopoly on information (a printing press).

One attractive feature of the series as a whole is the diverse cast; a gay couple plays a central role  in the plot (consisting of a Scholar and a Garda Captain). In fact, skin color and other features  are often described explicitly (e.g. Khalila is Muslim and wears a hijab).

The main character in the Great Library books is clearly Jess Brightwell, who is from London and has joined the Garda but is basically in Alexandria to gain access to the Library to assist his family's book smuggling enterprise.  (As one would expect in such a world where book possession is banned, the black market sale and trade of books is rampant, lucrative and dangerous.) One aspect of the book that I found problematic is the heroic and near-omnipotent status given to Jess. He is able to escape all sorts of dangerous situations through "luck" and good fortune in ways which beggar belief.

There is an organized resistance to the Library, called the Burners who reject the philosophy that a book is worth more than a human life and who use something called "Greek fire" to burn books and symbols of the Library as often as possible. The Library is portrayed primarily as a source of great evil, but even though the Burners oppose the Library it's not clear the adage "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" applies here. The plot is further complicated by the fact that we the reader get access to communications between people at the highest level of the Library (the Archivist Magister, the Artifex Magnus and the Obscurist Magnus) in "ephemera" that are provided between chapters. These excerpts are very enlightening and a strength of the books.

Overall, Paper and Fire was an excellent entry into The Library series, an action-packed fantasy thriller with engaging if somewhat simplistically drawn characters that raises interesting questions about how far one would go to fight in a world with a hegemonic monopoly on information and knowledge.

Title: Paper and Fire (The Great Library, #2).
Rachel Caine.

Paperback: 365 pages.

Date Published: July 5, 2016.
Date Read: November 7, 2017.


OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).

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