We return for book two of Rachel Caine’s five volume Great Library series. In book one Caine introduces her alternate history set up: The Great Library of Alexandria, which in our historical timeline was destroyed in late antiquity, not only survived into the modern era but thrived and eventually took control of all permitted transmission of knowledge in the world.
This speculative idea is the foundation of Caine’s story. She uses it as a springboard to do what science fiction does best: Ask questions about the present day. Who controls ideas? Is knowledge more valuable than people? Is progress inevitable? Will authoritarians prevent technological and social advances in the name of stability, if by stability they mean their own grip on authority? Does power corrupt? Is the sky blue? This list barely scratches the surface of the questions Caine asks in the series, and we hope readers will chime in with their own observations.
From here on out each post will contain spoilers for the book in question. Spoilers are also fine in the comments.
Paper and Fire starts about one year after the end of Ink and Bone (Book 1). Five postulants seeking positions in the Great Library survived the winnowing out process in book 1: our hero and point of view character, Jess Brightwell, his comrades Glain, Khalila, and Dario, and the girl Jess is sweet on, Morgan. Jess and Glain are assigned to the High Garda (soldiers), Khalila and Dario become Scholars, and Morgan has been forced into the Iron Tower where the rare people with obscurist powers are required to live out their lives in seclusion. At the end of Ink and Bone their friend Thomas was arrested, and they have been told he was executed for crimes against the Library. Readers know that Thomas invented a prototype for a movable-type printing press (a la Gutenberg), an invention that if released to the public would allow anyone to print and reproduce whatever book or tract they wanted and thus result in the Great Library losing its monopoly on the transmission of knowledge and what books people are allowed to read and thus know.
Focusing a second book in a series is a difficult task. A writer has to build on what came before, but also cannot assume a reader remembers everything that happened in the previous book so must avoid rehashing events endlessly.
Caine starts with an extended and ultimately deadly training sequence featuring Jess and Glain in their final recruit training sessions with the High Garda. Through this sequence she reintroduces the world, its conflicts and dangers, their allies and enemies, and most importantly reveals that Jess believes Thomas might not be dead but rather held prisoner.
Caine chooses a smart focus in having book two deal specifically with the fate of Thomas. The friends find out that Thomas is possibly still alive and how they figure out where he could be even though the powers that be don’t want them to know: in the same high security prison in Rome where their former teacher Christopher Wolfe was once tortured for his dissident tendencies. (Wolfe’s PTSD from his imprisonment is also being explored in the plot, and is sure to become an issue again down the line.) In addition, Jess picks up the dangerous knowledge that the killer automata have a deactivation switch. Getting to it might be the last thing any of them do, however.
These escalating revelations create a springboard to a moral reckoning for the group, which now includes Wolfe and his partner, Nic Santi. Each of the individuals has reasons they sought to join the Library, and for all of them achieving membership in the Library elite is a defining moment in their life.
Now they must decide whether to risk expulsion from the Library and even death in order to rescue a friend who might not be alive, much less rescue-able. A career soldier, Santi has to determine whether he is willing to turn against the people he commands, who he does not want to hurt.
Jess must reach out to his family and the father and brother he has no reason to trust in order to ask for help. The radical Burners get involved as the group carries out a daring and incredibly risky raid in Rome, only to wind up in the place none of them have wanted to visit, let alone return to: the Iron Tower. Semi-refugees in the Iron Tower, the group gets to see what luxuries hide: that it is in essence a prison for obscurists—and the hidden repository of the Black Archives, a library of censored and hidden books and knowledge. It is here, in the Iron Tower, amid the Black Archives, that our heroes finally comprehend how far their enemies will go to hold on to power. The head of the Library orders the priceless and precious Black Archives to be burned in a terrible auto-da-fé whose description will send chills of dread into the heart of every booklover.
These plot elements allow Caine to deploy a series of fraught decisions and tense confrontations that deepen the reader’s knowledge of the world while remaining in fairly familiar territory, places the reader mostly already knows. This means she can focus on the huge emotional stakes at play rather than introducing a new setting that has to be explained. Forced into a corner at the end of the volume, our heroes finally get catapulted to a whole new continent… for book three.
Zoraida Cordova: Book one saw a lot of training sequences and explanations of how the world of Alexandria works. Caine’s world building is a thing of beauty. First of all, the way she gives us diary entries, letters, and secret communications in the chapter interstitials titled “Ephemera” is pure gold. I’m always torn when authors use epigraphs or supplementary things like this because they don’t always feel built in. But in The Great Library series, it feels like an intricate part of the world that I can’t miss. I go nuts for exquisite world building like that, so I could go on.
But yes, Kate, you’re right. I, too, love the action in book one, but there’s something about this sequel that feels propulsive, even though Paper and Fire focuses more on the emotional stakes that were laid out in book one. First of all, Thomas is alive and being tortured in Rome. Morgan (who should be pissed at Jess because he’s totally the reason she’s locked in the Iron Tower) is somehow getting messages to Jess. Being an incredibly powerful obscurist, she breaks out. There’s a definite team of rebels being assembled to go rescue their friend. Bonus, now they’ve figured out how to control automata? What could go wrong?!
Kate Elliott: The automata continue to be the best. The varied uses and the secret of how they work are revealed, including the role of the obscurists in making them function, and I can’t help but think how great they would be in a filmed version. I especially loved a suspenseful moment when Jess, Glain, and two other trainee Garda are called before the High Commander to answer for their behavior during the aforementioned training exercise.
The High Commander’s office is approached down a corridor lined with statues of various war gods from different cultures. This is another point, by the way, where Caine suggests through the setting that the modern world of her story is a mix of modernistic technological aspects like trains and ebooks wrapped around a more ancient and enduring cultural tradition that has changed less over time than our world has, because of how the Great Library has controlled and suppressed transmission of new knowledge.
As Jess discovers upon leaving, the statues aren’t stone. They are automata who could easily cut down him or anyone who threatens the High Commander.
The hawk-headed Horus and lion-headed Menhit stared back… Jess became horribly aware that all of the war god statues they passed were turning their heads to stare. Behind them, Horus stepped down from his pedestal in the alcove on the wall and took a long stride down the hall. Then another. Behind him, Menhit descended, that hissing, sharp flail cutting the air before her.
The visual impact of his scene is strengthened by Jess’s meeting, just completed, with the High Commander and a wordless warning—Our eyes are on you—given to him in the office. The automata amplify that threat. It’s a Ray Harryhausen moment, ominous and effective.
ZC: One of the themes that lingers for me is found family. Jess has never felt right with the Brightwells. His family trait is books. But where his father will do anything for a profit, Jess has a true love of literature. He was sent to the library to be an asset for his father. Instead, he fell in with the wrong (right) crowd and became a dissident. Glain, Khalila, Dario, Santi, Thomas, Wolfe, and Morgan have different reasons for rebelling against the Library. But at the heart of it, they’re messed up people who choose each other.
There’s a scene where we see Brendan, Jess’s twin. He’s having an illicit affair with a LIBRARIAN, and even though we see how much he cares about the young woman in his Ephemera, Brendan will not allow himself to share his feelings with his twin. In a way, Jess being removed from his blood family into a system that he hates has given him the thing he’d wanted for so long—a family that understands who he is. What he stands for. Most importantly, love.
Jess’s relationship with Morgan is dealt with a careful touch. She’s been through an ORDEAL, after all. The Iron Tower is like the Capitol in the Hunger Games or Orleans in The Belles. It’s beautiful, but there’s something rotten underneath. The rotten thing being that they “match” and “breed” the obscurists. I am rooting for these crazy kids, even though now they’re heading to America, I feel very tense.
KE: Those poor girls in the Iron Tower!!!! As Z says, Caine handles the abusive situation in the Iron Tower with a careful touch, but with a clear vision of how appalling this coercion is. It’s incredibly emotional.
I inhaled the second half of the book because I was so invested in the rescue of Thomas. It did seem likely to me that Thomas would be rescued but even so I couldn’t guess where he was and how they would manage and what would happen then. Caine delivers by upping the stakes hugely in this book. Our heroes now are under a death sentence, AND she both revealed and then destroyed the Black Archives in a truly horrible sequence for both book lovers and for people who care about human creativity and how arbitrary power can extinguish these fragile remainders.
And like you, I am on edge for book three. In fact, I read the first three pages of book three and I am already WRECKED.
“We’re just paper on a shelf, in the end.”
“Goliath fell to a slingshot and a stone. and the Library is a lumbering giant, dying of its own arrogance; it has to change or fall. We have the tools. The will. The knowledge.”
He found engraved stones inset in the walls depicting a group of toga-wearing men gathered around a bull. [shoutout to Mithras???]
“If you lose your family, I will be your family.”
Next up: Book Three: Ash and Quill, on November 5.
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.