Ink and Bone: The Great Library - Rachel Caine

  As the first read of 2017, Ink and Bone truly started this year off with a bang. I've been vaguely seeing this series -around- and halfway through the prologue, I had no expectation that I would be blown away the way I was.

   For those seldom readers of high fantasy like myself, Rachel Caine's novel about an all-powerful library & a young book smuggler offers a good jumping off point, for fantasy as a genre and the rest of what I anticipate will be an excellent series. As is expected, the world is difficult to get used to, the unfamiliar lingo is somewhat off-putting, & it's certainly a while before the complex politics come of interest, but once Ink and Bone gets started, there is no setting it down. 

   At a moderate 351 pages, this elaborate fantasy shrugs off the foreboding cloak usually worn by the pilot book to a high fantasy series, and instead proves itself to be far more approachable than one might expect. Suppose it now wears a familiar school uniform. 

   Though the scope doesn't expand much past the affairs of the countries & the central stories of maybe six supporting characters, Caine's new series certainly shows a deep promise to go bigger. This might be intentional, judging by how damn enticing just a small glimpse into this world is. 

   Without a doubt, this thrilling, heartpounding, and fascinating novel would have made the favorites list had I finished it last year. And it might hold on just yet...if its sequels don't get in the way. 

   We open on Jess Brightwell, a son of a family of book smuggler,s tasked with delivering stolen books to paying customers, much to the disapproval of the great library. In Rachel Caine's fascinating magical world, the library is a foreboding institution; the modern-day authority is actually the library of Alexandria, with a tight hold on expression, government, and the distribution of books. 

   In this world, no one is allowed to own their own books. Everything is controlled by the library through a complicated system of alchemy that powers nearly everything, from the basic exchange of information through published works to personal journals to just messages from one person to another.

   The worldbuilding is barely covered with just a basic description, even. It's excellently crafted from the start, and has, I predict, an instant effect on book lovers, most likely horrified at the idea of not being allowed to have their own book collection. 

   Caine's idea keeps on expanding for basically the entire book. Once you have the general idea down, your mind is constantly given more to ponder, like the ethics of this sort of system or the politics of those who oppose it. 

   One might say that Ink and Bone is a series built primarily by world, In fact, the world might even be the best part of the book, but the characterization is excellent and certainly not to be ignored. 

   Jess, for example, isn't the most dynamic and interesting protagonist a reader could ask for, but he's consistent and realistic in relation to his conflict. his perspective is useful to the story, from both within and outside the grips of the library, but one could argue that another character might have better served as the protagonist. However, Jess is easily believable; as a conflicted moderate, he's an effective voice for the political turmoil in Ink and Bone, able to come at it from a variety of stances, including that of the world's radical Burners and generate an authentic feel for most anything. 

   Readers will most likely be able to find at least a little bit of themselves in Jess, and his story, whether it's the desire to own and read freely or a hesitant compassion for a family in which he doesn't quite belong or possibly even the contempt for institutions and their grueling training. 

   And, if not, there's still an entire cast of side characters to fall in love with. {And thus begins the gushing...}

   Thomas is the first friend Jess makes once in the domain of Alexandria. Incredibly distinctive and intriguing, Thomas' character pairs off of Jess' flawlessly, and the way in which Rachel Caine uses his traits and voice to enrich and excite the story is only a testament to how well she writes characters--and expertly uses their most recognizable elements as their abstract antagonists throughout the rest of the story. 

   Also in the line-up of supporting characters is Glain, a fellow postulant (student) of the library. For most of the book, she keeps her distance, but she's still quite the character. She's from Wales, which turns out to add some immense weight to her perspective, because of the decades-old war that wages on the border with England. This comes up a few times, interspersed with blatant, in-your-face action and when it does, the whole tone of writing shifts. In addition, she's not just politically compelling, but personally compelling. The contrast she adds to the mix balances wonderfully with the spirits of the other character,s and she doesn't have the shortage of sentimental punch, either. In this first book, we really don't see much of her but that's the mark of a good side character: you still want more. 

   Scholar Wolfe, however, who serves as a teacher, might just have snagged the title of most intriguing supporting character. From his first appearance to his last, he's conflicted and extremely well-written. With his character, Caine crafts a dramatic and shocking tale of machination and betrayal, much of which only occurs in passing. Even so, one can't help but need to know more. 

   Of course, there's loads more characters brimming with mystery, but their stories are so expansive that even the full novel barely scratches the surface. 

   Plot-wise, Ink and Bone is absolutely stellar. Once given the chance to pick up after the introduction, the story itself is practically on fire. 

   It's chock-full of mystery and entanglement, action and contemplation. Several plots are woven together as one, in fact, this is done so well that every advance in one is near a breakthrough in another. 

   The main plot is probably the dubiety of the library, which is discovered, explored, and tested for a good majority of the novel. it goes without saying that this must be done well in order for the book to be a success. (Spoiler Alert: it was.) 

   ink and Bone conducts what I like to call remote worldbuilding, or using the development of a prominent fictional institution to craft the rest of the world as an alternative to having the characters see and describe it themselves, or go off on an unrelated info dump. As the plot within the library thickens, as does the rest of the world, and every other narrative in the book. 

   The best thing, though, about Caine's plot is that it gets more exciting as the meanings, intentions, and innerworkings of the main focus get more complex. This way, there's no losing the reader as things get harder to juggle and understand; there's only drawing them in further. 

   And, of course, there's no forgetting about pacing, an issue that a fantasy writer might ignore in favor of elaborate worldbuilding instead. 

   This isn't an issue for Ink and Bone, though some might be less intrigued by classroom scenes than other.s The build-up to the blatant action we're all waiting for is slow, but understandably so. Exposition and initiation may not be the best points of the novel, but the pacing makes sense, and that's enough for it to be satisfying. 

   Very few fictional worlds are complete without a solid system of politics, and Ink and Bone is no exception. The politics and conflict in this world are not only well-constructed but connected to the main characters in a very authentic way. In Caine's writing, the political is quite easily personal, and the personal is monumental in its own right. 

   One of the reasons her politics are so interesting might be that they're so emotional and desperate in motivations. Jess often explains how his stance is inspired partially by just the feeling of owning books, the want for freedom. The radical book burners are violent and passionate in their deeds, those suffering under the thumb of the library directly have their hearts involved. 

   In fact, it seems as if the only side that comes at this with logic, cold cynicism, and a goal in mind is the library itself. 

   This same strength of emotions carries through the rest of the book as well, which is easily evidenced by the complete meltdown that was the result of a particularly heartwrenching climax. 

   From fairly early on, Rachel Caine is able to get you to latch on to her characters. With not just sympathy, by complete and authentic empathy. It's not so much a fresh twist (something we all eagerly look forward to in new releases) as it is our old favorites done a high justice. Adventure, a love of language, schools, magic, and institutional corruption are all things we've read about before, maybe even in the same book, but Ink and bone stands out because it is all of these things but better. (And maybe as more of a tearjerker.) 

   One last good element that must be acknowledged is the skill with which the interpersonal dynamics of this book are written. Every exchange has a great degree of weight to it, whether it's clear at the time or you find out about it later. 

   The friendships are just as wrought with pain and intensity as the romances. Those, on the other hand, are subtle, small, and don't take away from the story. (Which is greatly appreciated.) When the do end up vital, though, Caine tells their story and makes it matter with little elaboration and lots of heart. 

   The thing that really makes this book the sentimental success that it is would be the well-written student-teacher dynamic. This sin't something that commands the readers attention (it might even be the opposite), but it's easy to notice and appreciate, especially as a student. it's not as popular a relationship to write about, but when it's featured in Ink and Bone, and it's done well, it could easily give a reader more heartache than any other relationship. 

   In conclusion, Ink and Bone is an excellent kick off to what I am sure will be an excellent series. With well-executed characters, an enticing plot, heart-wrenching politics, and extremely present emotional intensity, this book is what we love done beautifully. 

   It's perfect for a seeker of high fantasy plus books plus schooling plus getting extremely nervous every twenty pages. 

   A fair warning, though, some may find this book a bit dry, as it is very much politics and history-based, but there's no shortage of action and excitement in turn to fill it in and raise the stakes. 

   There are also some loose ends and subplots that weren't quite followed to the end, but I'm keeping faith that the sequel (which I need in my hands, desperately, at this very second) will continue with as much detail and excitement as the first. 

  With this book, Rachel Caine has truly kicked some magical ass.