The Book That Wouldn’t Burn (The Library Trilogy book 1) by Mark Lawrence (book review).

Livira isn’t her real name but it’s the one that she remembers, the name everyone calls her. The weed livira that always comes back. Livira, the girl that no one can keep down. Her tiny settlement in the Dust has little but a single well, surrounded by parched dust and deadly creatures. When the dog-like Sabbers come and drag the children away, Livira’s tenacity is tested.

Evar has lived his entire life in a single room full of books. A huge room filled with books in stacks and towers as if dropped out of the sky and the Mechanism, a mysterious room that allows the user to live through the pages of a book. Evar, like his four siblings, had disappeared into the Mechanism for decades only to return to no one. Not even bones. His sister remembers Sabbers coming in a bloody slaughter before her mother flung her into the Mechanism. A mysterious book that warns him not to turn the page leads far beyond the library and deeper within.

Tolkien and Lovecraft warn readers of the dangers of delving too deep, of seeking too much knowledge and finding horrors in the depths of the unknown. Author Mark Lawrence definitely draws on this theme with ‘The Book That Wouldn’t Burn.’ Is it the quest for more and greater knowledge that brings down terrors our minds cannot comprehend or is it knowledge itself that is good or evil? Knowledge was, after all, plucked from a tree in the original sun that got Adam and Eve thrown from Eden.

These are the questions as Livira and Evar’s stories intertwine across the pages. Knowledge helps patch a wound but also builds weaponry. Knowledge can unite a people as well as legitimise an unscrupulous regime. That is just from our own mundane library spaces. We don’t have a mountain hollowed out with an unknowable amount of rooms all filled with an uncountable number of books in all known and unknown languages and a room that lets us go inside books.

Is ‘The Book That Wouldn’t Burn’ fantasy or Science Fiction? I’m on the fence. It definitely reads fantasy but then I think of science fantasy novels such as Gene Wolfe‘s ‘The Book Of The New Sun’ where the science snuck in the back and gave just a little twist to the fantasy I had thought I was reading. Arthur C. Clarke tells us that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, a quote that none can escape. Is the library a technological marvel or a complex thaumatological creation? Does it matter? It does to me. It will change my perspective of the words on the page. Alas, as this is book one, I expect I’ll have to wait some time to find out the answer.

As a book nerd who loves books as stories and as physical objects I can rarely resist a book set in a library. There are many fantastic fictional libraries. Genevieve Cogman’s ‘The Invisible Library’ is a world spanning ur-library. Discworld’s Unseen University Library is navigated by primate and is connected to all libraries via L-space. The library in Erin Morgenstern’s ‘The Starless Sea’ contains oceans of honey and uncountable entrances in both time and space. Mark Lawrence’s new series might be another one that speaks to the library-loving book nerd in me.

The idea may not be new but the execution is very distinct. I read this book in big gulps and, of course, it ended on a cliff-hanger. I’m looking forward to hearing what happens next for Livira because I’m sure it will be unexpected.

LK Richardson

May 2023

(pub: ACE/Penguin/Random House, 2023. 576 page hardback. Price: $29.00 (US). ISBN: 978-0-59343-791-9) 

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