Reading Ash and Quill: Book 3 of the Great Library by Rachel Caine

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Roxanne Longstreet Conrad, also known as Rachel Caine, passed away on November 1st, 2020 after a long fight with a rare and aggressive cancer. We started this read-a-long to share Rachel’s words with more people. The author of 57 novels, she reached millions. The Great Library is a small but mighty part of her oeuvre. Thank you for reading and remembering Rachel with us. Here is a statement from her family and loved ones.

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The principle of Chekhov’s Gun has become a truism in writing. In a letter to a friend, the Russian writer Anton Chekhov wrote: “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.”

The prologue of book one, Ink and Bone, introduces our protagonist Jess Brightwell, son of a book smuggling family, his father, and his twin brother. Why does Jess have an identical twin brother? The brother is one of several Chekhov’s guns placed in the series. At the end of book three, Caine makes this one go off to great effect.

It’s important to note that the five book Great Library series is not an episodic serial in which each single volume stands alone with a singular adventure featuring a recurring cast of characters. Rather, its five volumes set up and encompass a single narrative arc. It is written to be read as a complete story, in publication order.

Readers who enjoy multivolume narrative arcs are accustomed to the pace of a trilogy. Expanding such a narrative arc into five volumes creates a story telling challenge that’s difficult to pull off. There has to be enough plot for five books, and in addition, and crucially, the setting and the characters must be able to carry the load. Caine has so far managed her multi-book narrative with impressive skill through the masterful attention she gives to plot timing, a global conflict of sufficient weight and purpose, and impeccably paced emotional reveals.

Reminder: each post will contain spoilers for the book in question. Spoilers are also fine in the comments.

Summary

As with book two, Paper and Fire, Caine uses the first half of Ash and Quill to introduce us to a new situation for our heroes. In book two it was Jess and Glain going through their High Garda training (the Library army). In book three, our rebels Jess, Morgan, Glain, Khalila, Dario, Wolfe, and Santi have rescued Thomas from prison but been forced to flee across the Atlantic Ocean to Philadelphia.

Burners—the long time enemies of the Great Library—run Philadelphia. The city has been besieged for decades by the High Garda. The situation within Philadelphia is dire, almost as if the Library wants the city to suffer but not quite entirely to die. The city survives on a shoestring: not enough food or medicine, walls barely holding, people huddling in below ground shelters during the random bombardments with horrifically destructive Greek fire.

Santi is wounded during one of these bombardments and survives only because Morgan uses her Obscurist powers to help heal him, which endangers her even as it helps him. While using her powers to weaken a spot in the wall so they can escape, she pulls the life out of the fields where the Philadelphians grow their meager crops. Meanwhile, Thomas and Jess convince the Burner leader to protect their group in exchange for Thomas building a crude version of his printing press. Things come to a head when Morgan, Wolfe, and Santi are condemned to death by the Burners when they realize it is Morgan’s obscurist powers that have killed their precious crops. Meanwhile, in distant Alexandria the Archivist Magister calls for the complete and utter destruction of Philadelphia, once and for all, by Greek fire.

Jess and his friends, and a small group of locals led by a Lenape doctor, are the sole survivors of the terrible conflagration that follows. Santi’s loyalist troops help spirit them away to the coast, where Jess’s twin brother has arranged for a smuggling ally to convey them back to England. By now, the Archivist Magister has unleashed the full force of his anger on all related to the group: He means to kill them and their families to protect his power. Every step they take from here on out falls under this shadow. If they are caught, they’ll be killed; if they aren’t caught, their families will be killed or be forced to go into hiding.

Jess has even bigger problems because he doesn’t trust his father. When they arrive in northern England (not yet overrun by the conquering Welsh armies), he is positive that his father means to betray him and his friends in exchange for money and access. Although a coalition of rulers are rising in opposition to the Great Library (as seen in the ephemera), our little group of rebels remains vulnerable. But their vulnerability, Jess realizes, also offers them a risky opportunity to get back inside Alexandria with the hope of striking directly at the Library’s highest authorities.

To do that, Jess must trust his least trustworthy companion, Dario. He must ask his beloved, Morgan, to return to the prison that is the Iron Tower. And he must betray—or seem to betray—the rest of his friends by going along with his father’s plans. However, he and his twin Brendan switch places. There’s your Chekhov’s gun fired.

This act allows Jess to enter Alexandria under the identity of his brother, even knowing his brother is being sent as a sacrificial lamb and that he has to trust that his brother won’t betray him later.

The book ends with a stark and emotionally gutting sequence in which Jess has to play along as his friends are one by one taken prisoner by Jess’s father and his smuggler and Library allies. All this transpires after Morgan confesses to Jess that she has discovered the most horrible power of all: the ability to kill with her magic alone.

Commentary

Kate Elliott: I was wrecked by the ending of this book. I actually put the book down for a day about 30 pages from the end because I knew what was coming and knew it would be painful to read (in the best possible way).

I want to talk a little about how hard that level of apprehension is to pull off. A lot of pace-built, plot-driven modern fiction is based on the notion of “the twist.” The reader’s shock at the twist propels urgency, gets the heart pounding. Because I’ve read so many books, and written so many books, I can often see a twist coming, so for me a lot of twists lose their impact if they aren’t equal to the emotional stakes.

How Caine manages this balance is brilliant. If you don’t guess the twist is coming, it will work magnificently because of the careful way she has set up the plot. If you do put together everything you know about Jess’s father and the way he works, and the fact that his wealth derives from the control of the Great Library over the production and distribution of books, you’ll guess the betrayal is coming. And it is worse to know it is coming because Caine has so thickly woven together the personalities of each character, their loyalty to each other, and how they each relate to the larger sphere of the Great Library: in other words, the emotional stakes. Each has something unique to lose, or to gain. Each has a different driving force. And I care about each one, as Jess does, because I learned to care about them through Jess. I want his journey into creating a true family for himself to succeed.

Furthermore, Caine has used three full books to reach this place. By this time any reader who has stuck with the series is invested both in the characters and in their cause. Had this situation and incident happened at the end of book one, it could not have had the same impact. I like all manner of lengths of fiction, from shortest to longest. Each has their place, and can do something the others can’t. The Great Library series is an excellent argument for what a longer series with a single narrative arc can achieve in terms of the narrative weight of its consequences.

Zoraida Cordova: I agree with that. As a writer, I feel like I spend so much time thinking about pacing. It’s something that’s always drilled into us when we’re editing and after publication, but that’s the thing that makes us turn the pages, right? Because this isn’t a trilogy the structure allows for book three to be non-stop action. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t character building. It’s like Caine is simply able to move her chess pieces into play after establishing her game. Specifically, there’s a moment when Jess is reunited with his brother, Brendan after a skirmish and they hug. They’re so happy to see each other. Relieved, even though their relationship has been tense for two books. I don’t know why this small detail jumped out at me, but like you said. Why have a twin? Why do Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay look alike in A Tale of Two Cities? I’m just blown away by how carefully crafted these books are. It’s been a while since I read something longer than a trilogy and I have no regrets.

KE: Caine just does not let up in her use of PTSD as a theme in the series. We don’t need to see actual scenes of torture because we see its after-effects in the reactions and responses of Wolfe and Thomas. There are no quick fixes.

The really horrific end of Philadelphia isn’t “left behind” as the narrative moves on but stays with all those who survived it both physically and psychologically. That includes some of the High Garda who inflicted that final bombardment. All are dehumanized by acts of dehumanization and violence.

The end of Philadelphia is not just a war crime but I felt specifically a war crime all too reminiscent of incidents and attacks and ongoing conflicts in our own world, yesterday and today and tomorrow, which makes it all the more sobering.

ZC: The Great Library has never shied away from showing the horrible parts of humanity. Every now and then, I imagine a Mr. Monopoly Victorian guy eating a book, and think about what Jess must have gone through watching that old man. Caine constantly reminds us that we’re technically in a dystopia in the book and in our real world. I was looking forward to Jess and the crew heading to the U.S. because this country is usually romanticized in comparison to other global powers. This Philadelphia has extreme poverty. There are people just surviving. Caine doesn’t shy away from the Islamophobia Kalilah experiences. Once again, there is no sanctuary and the crew is forced from bad to worse, and into the arms of Jess’s father. All because of books.

KE: I’m not so much a fan of the plucky 16-year-olds from the Gifted and Talented program who single-handedly and all alone bring down an oppressive institution that has been in power for decades or centuries, as if no one else ever thought of doing it or could figure out how to rebel. Caine uses her small group of gifted and talented young people (and their two mentors) as a focus within the larger picture, which we see through their eyes and through her use of ephemera. They are at the heart of the storm, the center of our story, but it is clear there is a larger rebellion and resistance rising among other centers of power, for example the coalition of monarchs who refuse to bow down any longer to Library authority and Santi’s company of High Garda. As a reader I find this very engaging: I have a personal stake in my heroes’ journey, and a belief they can make the crucial difference, while also glimpsing the larger forces in play rather than those larger forces (like the coalition of monarchs) being passive. That they have a chance to succeed is because of the disrupted times they are in, and their willingness to act despite the grave risks and consequences.

ZC: See, I’m a huge fan of the plucky 16-year-olds who bring down the oppressive institution, but I feel like half the time I’m expecting for the Powers that Be to shove off into the background until they’re needed. There’s none of that here. The Great Library and the Archivist Magister as always on the offense, so I never forgot what is at stake. Even when I’m rooting for Jess and Morgan to kiss, and hope everything ends with a happily ever after. But we’re only on book three, and this rebellion is just getting started.

Favorite Lines

ZC:

“The world is going to change with or without us.”

“But he was starting to realize that maybe he didn’t really have a home, except with the people he loved.”

KE:

“The map was hidden in plain sight.”

She bowed to the survivors of Philadelphia.

 

Next: Smoke and Iron

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.

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