I love when story drives story. Fictional books within books (or movies, or TV shows) are deliciously meta, giving us an opportunity to reflect on and admire the power of the written word and acknowledging how text can impact us.
The trope pops up in any number of great stories and in every medium…and often, fictional texts within larger stories have dark implications, or hold hidden dangers, or reveal disturbing truths about the worlds in which they exist.
I’ve compiled, for your reading and viewing pleasure, a list of five fictional texts that appear within other stories—books that can bestow formidable powers, grim truths, or valuable knowledge, and which may exact a grim cost. Some are helpful and dangerous in equal measure, and some are potential weapons, laden with nefarious purpose…
The Enchiridion (Adventure Time)
The Enchiridion is steeped in Adventure Time lore; Pendleton Ward’s wacky cartoon brings the tome back into play at various points throughout the series, though its first appearance—as a treasure to be won by Finn and Jake, who know little of its vast powers—is one of my favorites. Aptly titled “The Enchiridion!”, the episodes follows Finn and Jake as they overcome trials to recover the fabled volume, which is rumored to contain all sorts of tips on how to be a hero, such as “How To Kiss A Princess”—Finn discovers that particular tip in the episode’s final moments.
After a few stray cameos, the Enchiridion memorably rears its ugly head again in “The Lich,” bringing the book’s dark potential to the fore in a multiverse-spanning cliffhanger ending that bleeds into season five’s first episodes.
The Enchiridion is enticing because of its duality. It contains secrets, knowledge, and powers beyond the imagination of mere mortals. Every “good” deed or outcome it can accomplish might result in an unexpectedly risky or nefarious consequence. Beneath all its whimsical parody and pastiche, Adventure Time likes to grapple with concepts like the true cost of power, and the Enchiridion is a prime example.
The Crawling King
I’m guessing you’ve never heard of The Crawling King. It’s a shame, but it’s also not your fault. Artist/animator Einar Baldvin’s book of horrific stories and illustrations was funded on Kickstarter to the tune of $100,000 and released in 2018, but has since faded into obscurity after this initial run.
I was one of the lucky few who obtained a copy, and I firmly believe it deserves more attention, if you can find or borrow a copy.
The Crawling King collects burnt and ravaged handwritten documents chronicling the downfall of Gildenbrae. The once-prosperous kingdom was overrun by terrifying monsters and evil beings. Gildenbrae descended into madness and chaos, ruled by the whims of evildoers and toothy monsters.
As a graphic novel, The Crawling King visually and artistically immerses readers into the fallen Gildenbrae. Each story appears in scratchy, rushed handwriting, as though the documents were a writer’s last effort to warn survivors of the horrors overtaking the kingdom. There’s a sense of urgency to the documents punctuated by the gut-wrenching illustrations depicting the creatures that now rule Gildenbrae.
Taken as a collection of cautionary tales, the stories within The Crawling King capture the darkest moments of a formerly flourishing kingdom, leaving the reader filled with dread…but compelled to keep turning the pages.
The Death Note (Death Note anime)
The pen is mightier than the sword in Death Note, making for delightfully macabre animations as we witness Light Yagami writing his victims’ names in the dastardly tome.
The Death Note drives the anime’s plot, giving Light the power to kill any person simply by writing their name in the book while picturing his victim’s face. The notebook itself looks fairly mundane, though it harbors devastating potential within its pages. It’s the one volume on this list that’s more dangerous for what it can contain than what it already does contain. And what does it contain, exactly? A long list of gruesome and weirdly specific rules about how it functions, forming an encyclopedic instruction booklet for would-be killers.
Should a Death Note fall into the wrong hands (and I assure you, this happens often in the show), the consequences are dire. Further, Death Note couches its narrative in an ironic mystery. We, the audience, know full well what the notebook can do, but the investigators tasked with tracking Light down do not. This makes for many a juicy storytelling moment, propelling viewers from one episode to the next.
The Way of Kings (The Stormlight Archive)
Read Brandon Sanderson’s epic fantasy novel The Way of Kings, and you might find Dalinar’s quest to follow the teachings of the titular book rather admirable. He wants to be a respected and kind leader, so he’s reading the fictional text known as The Way of Kings at the behest of his late brother, King Gavilar.
Read on in The Stormlight Archive, and you realize that every character is playing a desperate game of political chess, each controlling a handful of pieces and endlessly vying for the upper hand. Gavilar’s request that Dalinar to abide by the ancient tome looks much less altruistic the more we learn about the complicated history of the book (not to mention Gavilar’s own complex motivations).
Sure, forty parables for living a good life as adopted by the former Knights Radiant might seem like a harmless read. Combined with the ever-unraveling truths and visions that contextualize those lessons, however, The Way of Kings doesn’t seem nearly so straightforward.
Of all the fictional books on this list, I think The Way of Kings poses the least direct danger, in the grand scheme of things. But the motives and machinations that lead Dalinar to embrace it and the secrets it contains provide some of the series’ darker mysteries and revelations as the epic story continues to unfold. And of course, we’re still discovering secrets galore in The Stormlight Archive, and learning more about the history that gave rise to The Way of Kings and the events that caused it to fall so far out of favor.
The Books of Beginning
John Stephens’ Books of Beginning trilogy pits three siblings against a topsy-turvy, time-twisted world and a generation-spanning supervillain. At their disposal throughout the series are three books: The Emerald Atlas, The Fire Chronicle, and The Black Reckoning (these are also the titles of each book in the series).
The Books of Beginning series presents Kate, Michael, and Emma Wibberly with an array of challenges and mysteries, leaving them to discover the powers of their destined tomes as the Dire Magnus seeks to stop them. It’s a series geared toward young adults, but adult readers will also appreciate its twisting plot, which is packed with strong themes and characters.
Each of the fictional books has a unique and useful power. The Emerald Atlas, Kate’s book, allows her to place pictures on the pages and travel to the point in time when they were taken. Eventually, Kate gets stuck in a previous decade without any way to return, trapping her in a terrifying and unfamiliar era. These books grant power, but those powers can and do go awry.
The Fire Chronicle and The Black Reckoning each come with unique powers of their own, which I won’t spoil here as they appear in the two sequels.
I remember gobbling up this series as a teenager, yearning for the next as soon as I’d finished The Emerald Atlas. Stephens constructs a series that places real power in books, which resonated with me as an avid young reader—but he also applies dark twists and consequences to those powers, turning the stakes up to eleven as the trilogy unfolds
What’d I miss?! I’m sure there are many, many great examples to discuss, so please share your own favorite fictional tomes in the comments below.
Cole Rush writes words. A lot of them. For the most part, you can find those words at The Quill To Live or on Twitter @ColeRush1. He voraciously reads epic fantasy and science-fiction, seeking out stories of gargantuan proportions and devouring them with a bookwormish fervor. His favorite books are: The Divine Cities Series by Robert Jackson Bennett, The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, and The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune.