As an inveterate reader, I more or less grew up in my local libraries—as many of you may have as well. There is something magical about libraries, as repositories of knowledge and story and hope. There’s even something magical about librarians, be they guardians or keepers or the ultimate hosts inviting you into a safe haven lined with stories that hum with life.
It’s only fitting that libraries and their makers should show up in stories as well. Whenever I come across such a book, I sink into it with a certain measure of delight—even when those libraries are more sinister than not…
The Reader by Traci Chee
In the world of Kelanna, no one can read—in truth, only a very few know what a book even is. And those who know, the members of a secret Library? They will kill to get their hands on the Book Sefira inherited from her parents. They already have. It was their Assassin who tortured and killed her father, and now they’ve taken her aunt prisoner. So Sefira makes herself a vow that follows the lines of the strange emblem on the Book’s cover: read the book, save her aunt, exact revenge.
But the Book is no ordinary book, for in its pages is every story ever told, every life ever lived, and, possibly, all that is to come. As she journeys to save her aunt, Sefira teaches herself to become a reader, and discovers the magic in her blood that allows her to read the world around her, and the people she meets—including the unspeaking young man she saves from slavers who have forced him into a life of cage fighting. A life that boys across Kelanna are being forced into by an outlaw king who just might have some connection to the Library—if only Sefira can survive long enough to figure it out. With intricate world building, a unique premise, diverse characters, and more than a few twists, this first book—and the completed trilogy—is both an adventure and a love song to the power of reading.
Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson
Enter a world that is familiar in a history-that-might-have-been way, and yet not: a world where the six Great Libraries of the land hold grimoires, magical books with a certain level of sentience—books that will whisper to you, that will stitch your face into their pages if you aren’t careful, and that, if attacked, will turn into monstrous maleficts that will destroy all in their paths unless they are themselves destroyed.
Elisabeth Scrivener has been raised an orphan in a Library, breathing the dust of centuries and wandering among the less dangerous tomes, her greatest wish to one day become a librarian—er, warden of the library. But as the Library and its wardens sleep, Elisabeth wakes and is drawn to the deepest bowels of the library in time to discover the Director’s murder. Now a prime suspect as well as a prime target for the true murderer, Elisabeth plunges into a deadly game of cat and mouse. Weave in sorcerers who gather their power from demons bound to their families, and what can only be a growing pattern of attacks on the libraries resulting in the release of maleficts, and, always, the death of each library’s Director, and you have a fascinating tale, part bibliophile’s dream, part murder mystery, and all utterly fantastic.
Alphabet of Thorn by Patricia McKillip
McKillip is a consummate storyteller, her grasp of language and description an absolute pleasure to read. Alphabet of Thorn is a puzzle box of a story, with several intersecting points of view, and at the heart of it, a three-thousand-year-old book of the military conquests and secret love between a warrior king and his Hidden Sorcerer… a book that has an inexplicable pull on a young transcriptor called Nepenthe, an orphan working in the Library below the great palace of the new Queen of Raine.
As tensions mount in the palace, the young queen unable to win the loyalty of her twelve most important vassals, Nepenthe falls deep into the mystery that is the book, written in an alphabet of canes and brambles that only she seems able to decipher. But why is it that the stories in the book seem confused—chronological impossibilities, given when the king lived? And why are the portents pointing to a threat of thorns when the book itself holds no apparent magic at all? If you love unexpected twists and lyrical writing that feels steeped in a fairytale history, this book is for you.
The Archived by Victoria Schwab
Imagine a world alongside ours, a hidden world accessed by doors invisible except to those who know how to look, and beyond those doors? Access to the Archives, a vast and seemingly unknowable organization whose wings are filled with shelves of Histories. Each of those Histories is the full life of a person who has died, and it’s stored… in a body. (Just sit with that a moment—it’s a library of bodies.) Now, imagine those Histories can wake and escape—and that when they do, they slip, losing their humanity and teetering into violence and destruction.
Mackenzie is a Keeper, tasked with keeping the corridors between the Archives and the Outer world safe, returning the Histories that escape before they can reach the known world. But her new home, a decrepit hotel-turned-apartment building, is suffering from an uptick in escaped Histories, and Mackenzie can’t shake the feeling that these incidents somehow relate to a series of murders that were covered up some sixty years ago. Struggling with her own loss, caught in a family wracked by grief, Mackenzie searches for answers that no one wants unearthed. At turns heart pounding and heart wrenching, this is a story that will stay with you as Schwab navigates questions of love and loss, trust and betrayal, and the sometimes tenuous threads between the past and the present.
Ink and Bone by Rachel Caine
Pushing further into a truly alternate reality, step into a near future in which the Great Library of Alexandria was never burned; in which that Library, and the daughter libraries opened across the world, control every book ever written. Knowledge is dangerous, and its dissemination must be carefully controlled through “blanks” – books that can be loaded with approved texts through an alchemical process. And change? Change is potentially lethal, especially where it might challenge the power of the Library. Just look at what happened to Johannes Gutenberg.
Jess is the son of a black market bookseller, sent to earn a place as a Librarian in order to act as a spy for his family. But he’s not the only one with secrets in his cohort of students, and when you are dedicating yourself to an organization that places knowledge over life, you might just be walking into a web of corruption and deceit no one can escape.
Writing a Top Five list can be a painful process—there are so many books to choose from, after all! Most especially, Alix Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January, which sadly only really has one important book, though so many doors. It’s a whimsical read that doesn’t shy from ugly truths (and believe me, that’s hard to do), with the brightness of first love and the wonder of discovery alongside the brutality of imperialism and racism. Definitely recommend!
Originally published March 2021.
Intisar Khanani grew up a nomad and world traveler. Born in Wisconsin, she has lived in five different states as well as in Jeddah on the coast of the Red Sea. She first remembers seeing snow on a wintry street in Zurich, Switzerland, and vaguely recollects having breakfast with the orangutans at the Singapore Zoo when she was five. She currently resides in Cincinnati, Ohio, with her husband and two young daughters. Intisar is also the author of Thorn and its sequel, The Theft of Sunlight. To find out what she is working on next and connect with her online, visit her website.