Jess Brightwell and his friends and colleagues have rebelled against the Great Library, which controls access to and dissemination of all written knowledge in the world. Once a beacon of light, the Library has become a despotic and oppressive force controlled by despotic and cruel men who mean to hold onto their power by any means necessary.
At the end of book 3, Ash and Quill, Jess, his identical twin brother Brendan, Obscurist Morgan, and royal Dario make a secret decision to pretend to betray the other members of their group in a desperate gamble to infiltrate the Library’s home base. Jess and Brendan switch places (as identical twins can theoretically do).
Reminder: each post will contain spoilers for the book in question. Spoilers are also fine in the comments.
Book 4 opens with Jess, Morgan, and Scholar Wolfe in custody in Alexandria, in the hands of the suspicious and ruthless Archivist Magnus. Meanwhile, Scholar Khalila, soldiers Santi and Glain, and inventor Thomas are with Dario on a ship in the hands of a smuggler who means to sell them to the Archivist in exchange for preferential trade status.
In Smoke and Iron, our heroes race against time. They must reach Alexandria in time to stop a terrible execution of a number of important prisoners on the Feast of Greater Burning. They must also save the physical Library (if not its current corrupt leadership) from a coalition of nations who mean to topple the Archivist’s dictatorial power and don’t care if they destroy both the Library and its mission along the way. This dual pressure propels the book’s plot through a series of confrontations, alliances, and betrayals. Caine keeps her authorial vision clearly on the idea that there isn’t a simple answer, that an institution can have been founded for good reasons and yet become corrupt in time, and she raises the question again and again: Can a corrupted institution be salvaged if its deepest purpose was once a good one?
The first three volumes of The Great Library are told from the single perspective of Jess. Everything we know we find out through his eyes with the exception of the glimpses of the greater world (and of history) we get through the ephemera: letters written by various people that are dropped in at intervals to fill the reader in on history, personal motivations, and current events.
With book four, as our heroes are split into multiple groups, Caine for the first time expands her point of view. Khalila, Morgan, and Wolfe all get multiple scenes told from their points of view. with brief forays into the third person perspectives of Thomas, Santi, and Glain in the final action sequence. Even Jess’s twin Brendan is given his perspective, under very clever circumstances. Dario’s is the only point of view we never go inside. Will that be important later? Is it just coincidence that Caine doesn’t use his POV specifically or has she set a trap for us? Only book 5 will tell.
This expansion of point of view allows Caine to move the complex plot along quickly. Many pieces have to come together to a specific place at a specific time. Everything we need to see in order to understand how the pieces are fitting together we get to see through the person involved, rather than hearing about it later or getting bogged down in informational explanations. It’s yet another smart writing choice by Caine.
We see Wolfe trapped in the Library dungeons and who is trapped with him (including Khalila’s family). We see Morgan’s efforts inside the Iron Tower (where all Obscurists are confined), and how she moves against her jailers and the arguments she has to make to bring the most powerful Obscurist onto her side. Caine never loses sight of the idea of the past: Of how people have a chain of relationships, good and bad, that go back into their youth and even their childhood, and how those relationships affect who will speak, who will remain silent, who will distrust, and who may rise to the occasion of justified rebellion at long last.
In addition, by now the reader knows the characters well enough to be eager to get an interior glimpse of each of the heroes. Caine makes sure that each point of view has a different tonal feel, one appropriate to each individual. Brilliant Khalila notices the beauty of the sky and the sea, and grapples with the moral issues of what she is about to do. Her speeches are persuasive and well argued, and yet she also doubts herself. Thomas focuses only on what he needs to build his invention, as people barely register to him and he doesn’t even know how to describe his own feelings to himself.
Because Caine has had three books to carefully set up her pieces beforehand she no longer has to pause to tell us who Scholars are and what they do, what gold bracelets mean and how they function, what the smugglers do or that they have a worldwide network among themselves, who the Burners are (even though they barely feature in this book, their presence still looms large). This means book 4 can laser focus on the plot momentum and the character arcs as our heroes are drawn to the big confrontation, which of course turns out to be a set up.
They achieve a victory in the moment, not without great cost. Although the ending is not strictly a cliffhanger—more a pause to take a breath—it nevertheless catapults the engaged reader straight into book 5, with the stakes now global in both political and moral terms.
Another writer would have ended the series with the Big Ticket Action Sequence that ends book 4, but Caine has her eyes on the bigger picture. The geopolitical canvas here is greater than a single group of heroes (as great as they are). They alone can’t “topple the dictator” and replace evil with a new young crop of pure and good rulers who will set things right. The political powers that be—the rulers of nations driven to rebel by the Library’s unjust policies and oppressive violence—are also on the move, and they are not easily stopped, as we learn at the end of the book. The Archivist is still at large, and as right as Jess and the others are to break the Library’s hold over the world, their actions have helped unleash the whirlwind.
What’s most stark, in some ways, is how Caine’s setting and conflict use its alternate constructed world to shine a light on our own very real world dilemmas and conflicts.
Zoraida Córdova: I want to start off by saying that I was deeply stressed while reading the book. Every time I thought I knew where it was going, I was just wrong. I haven’t felt that kind of thrill in a book in a long time, which is refreshing. Before I get to other parts, I want to talk about the dragon. Look, when it comes to fantasy, dragons have always been hit or miss for me. Every time this dragon automata came onto a scene I was fascinated. The creature breathed GREEK FREAKING FIRE. Its imagery not only makes the scenes feel dynamic, but it feels like a representation of everything Jess and the crew are up against. It’s a monster of mythic proportion.
Kate Elliot: I have been reading science fiction and fantasy for a long time so it takes a genuinely good take on dragons to make me sit up and take notice. This dragon was terrifying and effective, especially with the addition of Greek fire.
ZC: A thread that hits home for me is the weight placed on family. I know we’ve mentioned this before, but the bonds that were created in Ink and Bone (The Great Library 1) are the start of a chaotic found family full of love and hope. Jess’s life is changed forever when he takes his father’s order and joins the Library. He gets to see the difference between family bound by blood and family bound by shared belief and creed. Caine never makes it a simple definition, though. Brendan Brightwell, the charming extrovert that is Jess’s twin, straddles the line of the duty he had for his dad and survival, and his love for his twin. Now that a true rebellion is coming for the Artifex Magnus, sides are being drawn. Families must decide which side they stand on. But the Brightwells are not even the most surprising relationships in this book (though they are my favorites). Other family relationships that are put to the test are Anit and her father, Red Ibrahim, Egypt’s version of the Brightwell family. The infuriating (but dashing) Dario and his relatives were a delightful twist.
KE: Given that we never get Dario’s point of view in this book it was indeed great to see him interacting with his relatives and all the layers of knowledge and assumption about each other that relatives can have. I still can’t quite decide whether I trust Dario, but I do feel his love for Khalila is real and if anything will “save” him, that will. I also loved the glimpse we get of Khalila’s family because it helps confirm our understanding of who she is and why she is strong enough to hold to her beliefs and principles.
ZC: Okay, I know I’m a sucker for romance. I did miss Jess and Morgan falling in love and trying to make things work from the earlier books. It’s understandable, what with the political rebellion they’re leading, that there is no time for them to be alone. What happens to two people who love each other and want to change the world? Is their love just one more thing that makes them weaker? Or stronger? We see this in the narrative between Scholar Wolfe and Captain Santi, as well as Dario and Khalila. Brendan and his paramour. I do think that ultimately their relationships are forged beautifully, but that’s all the more reason they’re so terrifyingly easy to manipulate. My heart. This book broke me several times. I haven’t cried at the end of a novel in a while, but Sword and Iron did it.
KE: The sequences in the Iron Tower were for me particularly fraught. For Morgan to go back there took so much courage, and her struggle to survive was for me possibly the most intense part of an already quite intense novel. Although the first three books focus solely on Jess as point of view, I love how crucial and powerful and distinctive the three young women of the group are, and getting a chance to see them from the inside, from their own points of view, was fabulous. Also a special shout out to Scholar Murasaki, a wonderful portrayal of an old woman who has expertise, principles, courage, and the best kind of calm fortitude; calling her a bad-ass seems kind of disrespectful to her dignified bearing, but I think she can handle it.
Now we launch into the final volume, Sword and Pen, with our truly vicious antagonist and his minions driven into a corner—but a very powerful corner. We all know that means No Holds Barred.
ZC: “I can’t let this be destroyed. We have few enough things to feed our souls.”
KE: “And then Murasaki herself took a gun from a soldier and put a bullet in the woman’s heart.”
Next: Sword and Pen.
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.