Fair warning: In the post itself there will be mild spoilers, but we will do our best to minimize them for those of you who may not yet have read the books because we really want to entice you into reading the series. However, in the comments section feel free to discuss the book with spoilers. Please hold spoiler comments about later volumes to when those posts are made in subsequent weeks. Thank you!
Jess Brightwell belongs to a family of book smugglers, an extended family network (including employees and lackeys) in multiple cities and towns with contacts throughout the book smuggling market and with other elements of Europe-wide criminal activity. In the opening sequence of Ink and Bone, the ten year old Jess has to “run” a forbidden book through the streets of London in order to get it to the person who purchased it through the black market. Both he and the purchaser will face execution if caught.
The prologue of Ink and Bone takes place in 2025. What’s immediately fascinating about the choices Caine makes in this opening sequence is how she has deliberately set it at the same time as our modern era and by doing so marks it as an alternate history. It is in many ways a modern world, as slowly unfolds, but the modernity is disguised by Caine’s use of archaic words and different words and phrases for objects and concepts her readers call something else. A horseless carriage is, of course, a form of automobile, but the word itself pulls us into an earlier time.
In addition, the social structure of the world we’re introduced to has a late Victorian or early Edwardian social feel to it, the world of Dickensian family criminal networks, street kids running from constables, hanging as a commonplace form of execution. There are terrifying automatons and a clear demarkation between social statuses (and what horrible things people with wealth can do with their money), although of course these are also flagrantly modern issues.
To start right off, that’s part of the appeal: How Caine has melded an older kind of tale with a modern sensibility to do what science fiction and fantasy can manage so well: Comment on and engage with modern problems through a fantastical, speculative lens.
The story skips six years as we meet up again with almost seventeen year old Jess on the cusp of adulthood and having to decide what he intends to do with his life. He loves books, and hates book smuggling—or at least, the idea of a book being a commodity. The book he delivered in the prologue was literally eaten by its buyer in a bizarre form of treasure-hoarding (this is so well described by Caine that it feels obscene). Having witnessed the act, he can’t forget it, and isn’t sure he wants to carry on with the family business. In the constrained world he lives in, he also isn’t sure what other option he could ever have, creating a classic coming-of-age dilemma.
In these first few chapters Caine has been judiciously unfolding the basics of the background of this alternate history. The Great Library of Alexandria survived the fall of the Roman Empire. More than that, it thrived, it expanded, and slowly but surely and insidiously, by controlling access to and dissemination of knowledge, the Library came to control Europe and the Mediterranean Basin and more of the world as well (although how much is not fully explored in book one).
Beyond that, the Library controls books in the most profound way. All original copies must reside in the library. People are not allowed to possess physical copies of books except with specific permission from the Library (thus the illicit market in book smuggling). One of the threaded subplots in book one is the story of how (and why) the GL (Great Library from here on out) suppressed Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press. A form of electronic book exists, but (as has been the case in our own world) the Library can erase whatever it wants whenever it wants from your (tablet), and it knows exactly what you are reading.
Jess gets admitted as a postulant to the Great Library. His father, of course, wants him to become an inside spy who can gain useful information for the family business and even steal valuable books straight off the GL shelves. Jess isn’t so sure this is what he wants (nor does he want to hang if or when he is caught, as his older brother did many years before). But he also doesn’t see any way out of this path set for him by his father.
He arrives in Alexandria with a group of other young people who are also striving, each for their own reasons, to be admitted to the Library. There are thirty postulants for six positions, so the group dynamic becomes both cooperative and competitive. Several important secondary characters are introduced. Their supervisor is a forbidding and unpleasant Scholar named Christopher Wolfe. Yes, there is more to his story as well.
Jess is the sole point of view, so the reader learns what they need to know alongside Jess. At the beginning of the book, his view of the world is limited. Across this first volume, his understanding of the world and the people around him expands piece by piece and thereby grows more complicated in an appealing and gripping way. Book one gives closure to one plot thread (the postulant phase) while introducing the greater struggle to come.
Kate Elliot: Can I start by talking about how clever and how deft Caine’s world building is in this book? Ancient Alexandria as a springboard for modernity. The real automata of the Hellenistic world expanded with a bit of a Ray Harryhausen feel to become creepy and powerful. The way she drops in brief references (“many breathed a sigh of relief when [the train] made it [to the coast] without incident; the Welsh army had been pushing in, closer and closer”) that will swing back to become major elements later. The way setting “reveals” as well as character “reveals” are used to drive the emotional intensity of the plot (and there are a lot of twists in this book).
Zoraida Córdova: Absolutely agree! I’ve been a fan of Rachel Caine’s Morganville Vampires, which I read way after being a teenager. But to me, YA is universal and Ink and Bone is proof of that. Instantly we’re dropped into this world. It feels old, familiar, but we’re aware it’s 2033. It’s such a strange thought that thirteen years from now is “the future” but this isn’t the same world we’ve grown up with, and even though it’s about libraries and books, it’s also about the control of knowledge. This entire society is built on controlling who has access to books, limiting what the average person is allowed to read.
I absolutely love the way we’re dropped right into this alternate London. Queen Anne rules and even presides over the exam people have to take in order to get work at the Great Library. Jess is a complex character from the beginning. He’s a twin, he comes from a moderately wealthy but cutthroat and abusive household. This is the kind of book that really makes me want to shove a “prologue” at people and say, “See! Some prologues are excellent world building tools!”
I will say that even though there is light use of magic in this book, it is not just another “magic school,” let’s just get that straight. Caine thinks about every level of government and the function of magic. There’s Translation, which is the way humans can teleport. There’s a mode of mirroring books, which is how Big Brother keeps tabs of everyone and can be done to even journals. This society wouldn’t function without Obscurists–people with special alchemical power to alter the Codex, a device that functions like a tablet and is used to transfer books from the Library. In Ink and Bone, Gutenberg was killed for creating the printing press as an alternative to Obcurists abilities which is clever AF.
Obcurists are rare and are taken to the Iron Tower to breed. I know, ew. Caine doesn’t back away from the cruelties of the real world and it just adds to the stakes that Morgan, one of Jess’s friends and the girl he likes, is discovered to be an Obcurist.
For this group of aspiring Librarians, it’s not just a walk in the park. As part of their training, and led by Collections, they raid houses to steal back smuggled books. Jess is a spy, so he’s got the added danger of stealing books to send to his family. What Caine does really well for me here is that despite his complicated relationship with his family, Jess has a sense of loyalty to his brother and his dad. His father might smuggle books But being with kids from all over the world broadens his knowledge, and for a boy like Jess, this is invaluable.
KE: The whole business with his family is such a classic through-line that will determine so much of Jess’s journey. I love how Caine takes her time. I believe that while writing book one she knew she would have a full five books for the story. As a reader I appreciate how skillfully she is slowly playing her hand and using that space to build in tension and long-term consequences not just for Jess and his family connections but for other familial connections as well that can play out down the line in ways that matter to the plot. I love well-done series precisely for this reason, and I can tell from book one that with the Great Library series I am in the hands of a master. Can’t wait for book two!
“Are we dealing exclusively in metaphors, or may I speak plainly?”
“Are you going to beg?”
“Your son wouldn’t,” Jess said. “I won’t, either.”
“You have ink in your blood, boy, and no help for it. Books will never be just a business to you.”
“Lives are short, but knowledge is eternal.”
Again, spoilers allowed in the comments for book one! Please do not include spoilers for later volumes.
Next up: Book Two: Paper and Fire, on October 22.
Kate Elliott’s most recent novel is Unconquerable Sun, gender swapped Alexander the Great in space. She is also known for her Crown of Stars epic fantasy series, the Afro-Celtic post-Roman alt-history fantasy (with lawyer dinosaurs) Cold Magic and sequels, the science fiction Novels of the Jaran and YA fantasy Court of Fives, and the epic fantasy Crossroads trilogy with giant justice eagles. You can find her @KateElliottSFF on Twitter.
Zoraida Córdova is the award-winning author of the Brooklyn Brujas series, The Vicious Deep trilogy, and Star Wars: A Crash of Fate. Her short fiction has appeared in the New York Times bestselling anthology Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View, and Toil & Trouble: 15 Tales of Women and Witchcraft. Zoraida was born in Ecuador and raised in Queens, New York. When she isn’t working on her next novel, she’s planning a new adventure.