Ash And Quill (Novels of The Great Library) by Rachel Caine (book review).

In his novel, ‘The Legion Of Time’, Jack Williamson coined the phrase ‘Jonbar Hinge’. It has since come to define a point in history where an action can give rise to two courses of history. It is the crucial event that gives the Science Fiction writer the opportunity to explore alternative histories or discuss what might have happened. In this new series by Rachel Caine, the Jonbar Hinge concerns the Library of Alexandria. In our timeline, the library was destroyed by fire. Caine postulates a survival of the library. In this series, it is the major influence on the rest of the world, even beyond governments.

The Great Library controls knowledge. It has a vast collection of written material. It disseminates it via a system of Blanks on which the words appear almost magically similar to the way books are downloaded to a Kindle but, in this case, the work is done by the mental powers of an Obscurist, People with these talents are kept imprisoned in the Iron Tower. Everyone is literate and keeps a journal which will go to The Library on their death. The development of the printing press was ruthlessly suppressed which means that original books are rare. Jess Brightwell’s family are book smugglers, as collectors will pay high prices for originals. Every country of note has at least one Serapeum or daughter Library, each Serapeum has a military contingent of High Garda to keep the knowledge safe.

Although he has ulterior motives, Jess is encouraged by his father to apply to be a Scholar of the Great Library. He is accepted and by the end of the book, he has a better idea of the way the Library is run and is one of the few who remain at the end of the course and has fallen in love. The situation in England is complicated by the fact that the Welsh Army is steadily conquering the country.

In the second volume, ‘Paper And Fire’, which I picked up cheaply to see what happened next, Jess and his friends have become rebels fleeing a London about to fall to the Welsh and landed in Philadelphia. America is regarded as a country in revolution because it is a stronghold of the Burners. These use Greek Fire to destroy Blanks. They believe that knowledge should be free and unrestricted. Philadelphia is under siege with companies of High Garda camped outside the walls. Along with the Burners, Jess and Co are currently regarded as enemies of the Library. As members of the Library, the Burners also see them as enemies. The only chance they have of survival is Thomas’ engineering skills. He is already interdicted for having built a printing press so now offers to build one for the Burners. He only has scraps to work with but with Jess’ help he sets to work. He also builds as Eye of Apollo, another forbidden device which behaves like a laser. Meanwhile, Morgan, Jess’s girlfriend and an Obscurist, escaped from the Iron Tower, creates a Codex, which behaves in a similar way to the Internet, so Jess can communicate with his twin, currently with the High Garda troops outside the walls.

Time is running out, not just for the group in the hands of the Burners, but also for the townspeople of Philadelphia. When the final bombardment comes, Jess and friends have to make their escape or die.

The nuances within this novel are complex with treachery on all sides. Jess has to apply all of the skills he has learnt both as a smuggler and as a scholar to get them out of the way of danger. All his friends need to work together but he knows that being too trusting, even of his family, will spell disaster.

This is a great, fast-paced adventure set in an alternative world where technology is very different. The year the series begins is 2025. It has one big drawback. It resembles these TV series where the season ends with a big climax, leaving the viewer frustrated. When the next season starts, a new viewer will be confused unless they have purchased the boxset and binge watched earlier seasons. With the ‘Great Library’ series, to understand what is going on, it is necessary to buy the earlier volumes and binge-read before embarking on ‘Ash And Quill’ or maybe, wait for the final volume and read them all at one sitting. The story is not over, it is hard to be patient awaiting the next episode.

Pauline Morgan

September 2017

(pub: Berkley, New York. 338 page hardback. Price: $17.99 (US). $23.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-451-47241-0)

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