In Ink and Bone, knowledge and power is the name of the game.
“The Library holds itself to be the keeper of both knowledge and wisdom, but it is not true. So much should never be held in the hands of so few, for it is a natural, venal habit of men to hold to power. And knowledge is the purest form of power.” pg 51
Printed books, called originals, are now highly prized and illegal to own without a dispensation from the Library. The Library is an entity without borders as powerful as the church or a country, with soldiers and animated machines called automatons, protecting its buildings, holdings and librarians.
Not everyone follows the Library’s restrictions and a black market has formed for books. Jess and his family of smugglers runs and sells books at great threat to life and limb. Other factions also resist the Library. They’re called Burners and they destroy books with Greek fire, a dangerous and deadly concoction that burns flesh as easily as paper.
“The original scroll had been destroyed by a Burner at the Alexandrian Library ages ago, but there had been one copy made. … Owning it carried a death penalty. When you steal a book, you steal from the world, the Library propaganda said, and Jess supposed it might be true.” pg 22, ebook.
Jess’ smuggler father decides that he needs eyes and ears on the inside of the most powerful institute in the world, so he arranges an opportunity for Jess to join the Library. And that is where this story really begins.
The beginning of Ink and Bone bothered me because of its obvious parallels to Harry Potter. A promising young boy on his way to a magical school boards a train and meets a slightly bumbling, shy boy and the smartest girl in his class. But after that cliche “train introduction”, the story improves.
While reading this story, I was reminded of the divide between those who love holding traditional books in their hands and ebook readers. The Library has discovered a magical method to use tablets and change the words on the page, very similar to ebooks: “Do you agree it should be wrong to own original works?” Of course, Jess knew he ought to say; it was the standard answer. The Library was never wrong. But something made him say, “I’m not sure.” That woke a glint in Wolfe’s eyes. “Why not?” “I’d like to hold one,” Jess said, quite honestly. “To feel the weight and history of it in my hands. A blank can’t be the same, sir.” “No,” Wolfe agreed. “A blank is a poor, pale imitation, though the words are arranged in precisely the same order; it is the difference between an idea and a physical thing.” pg 61, ebook. I enjoy both books and ebooks, but I can see why a reader would prefer one over another.
I enjoyed the general ideas of this book, but between the warring factions, actual wars, magic, alchemy, Library history, twin brother, character backgrounds, book burners or eaters, teenage romance and angst, the story lost its cohesiveness. Caine could have written three different stories with the material contained in one.
Beyond simplifying the story elements, I just couldn’t get over the fact that the librarians weren’t good guys. Yes, I’m biased. 🙂 But every librarian I’ve ever known has been a guardian of knowledge, not gate-keeping tyrants.
Recommended for readers who enjoy their young adult fantasy a little scattered and who are open to the idea of sinister librarian-types.