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'Ink and Bone' is an explosive YA book aimed at bookworms

Rachel Caine unravels the secrets of the Library of Alexandria even as she spins an irresistible story.

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Ink and Bone:
The Great Library
By Rachel Caine
NAL
368 pp.

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You probably learned about it in junior high world history (while passing notes with your bestie, let’s be real). You might remember it from Spaceship Earth at Epcot (don’t be embarrassed, everybody loves that campfire smell). One way or another, everybody’s heard of the tragic, fiery destruction of the Royal Library of Alexandria 2,000 years ago.

But what if a millennium’s worth of mathematics, science, philosophy, and history hadn’t burned down? What if the Library of Alexandria were still standing, august with age and packed with a priceless trove of ancient scrolls?

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The possibilities outnumber the artifacts. What would it contain? How much further ahead would we be? Most importantly, who on earth would be in charge of the world’s intellectual polestar?

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Cue Ink and Bone, an explosive new young adult novel from Rachel Caine. With what I hope was a quill (or maybe a steampunk robot arm), Caine created a wild alternate history with a grimly enlightened future.

When the arson was thwarted, the Library went into self-preservation mode. They assumed the motto of “Omnis cogito est”  – knowledge is all. But absolute power corrupts absolutely, so if knowledge is power, total control of all knowledge has a wicked warping effect.

Now, with few exceptions, all physical books are confiscated, digitized, and destroyed. Those who can afford it own a Codex, or e-reader whose content can be remotely erased (by the Library, natch) and replaced by other Library-approved material.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a thriving black market for real books. Our boy, Jess Brightwell, comes from a book smuggling dynasty. Though he’s the oldest son, groomed since childhood to take over the family business, Jess’s heart belongs to books and not to their trafficking.

Recognizing that Jess doesn’t have the stomach for the trade, his father sends him to the Library to become a Scholar and a Brightwell mole, and taps Jess’s twin brother, Brendan, to take his place.

Brendan could care less about reading or knowledge, but he has their father’s icy dispassion and shrewd manipulation. He lays it all out before Jess leaves for Alexandria: “You’re clever, Jess, but … you don’t just have ink in your blood. It’s in your bones. Your skeleton’s black with it. You go there, to them, and we’ll lose you forever.”

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Alas, Brendan’s prophecy seems to come true when Jess becomes a Library postulant. He realizes quickly that the enclave of intelligentsia suits him, even with a virulently competitive atmosphere and a cold, Snape-like professor.

But what happens when his love of knowledge clashes with his Brightwell loyalties? And what will he do when a fellow postulant invents a device that could topple the entire Library? Good luck guessing.

“Ink and Bone” is a modern masterpiece. It’s as striking and brilliant as the Greek fire its characters fear, fusing ancient Egypt, Greek, and Rome in an old-meets-new intellectual thriller.

Except for bait-and-switches, it’s usually obvious which allegiance readers should claim. Caine withholds that clarity, to great effect. “Ink and Bone” is so silky, so nuanced and brave, that even now I’m on the fence. The many sides of this conflict are balanced but divisive, emotionally resonant but logical to a fault. I came away understanding each person’s fervor and empathizing even when I disagreed.

Since this is an alternate universe, Caine fiddled with history throughout, most notably in the introduction of savage ongoing Welsh-English wars. These struck me so much that in a recent Twitter live chat with the author, I asked why she chose to highlight and revive that particular conflict.

“I knew that the Welsh/English wars were brutal but little talked about,” Caine replied. “An interesting direction. I'm acutely aware that ANY choice I make in a book can have emotional effects for people, too. So I had to think long and hard about doing that. I hope I chose wisely.”

The bitter struggle is grippingly honest, but respectful of the reader’s psyche. (For more Q&A, check out the hashtag #RachelCaineChat.)

Every character in “Ink and Bone,” minor or major, is natural and textured. Each possesses powerful secrets, revealing them by choice or accident in sidelong glances and hushed conversations. The students’ group dynamic is rivetingly real and diverse. Special cheers for the female postulants, whose strength, agency, and brilliance are particularly memorable. 

Who will win your heart and mind? The Library and their motto of omnis cogito est (knowledge is all), or the opposition who cry “Sed liber est dignius” (a life is worth more than a book) in protest?

“Ink and Bone” will resonate for all YA readers, but for Harry Potter fans above all. Fellow bibliophiles, expect to be some variation on struck – awestruck, dumbstruck, starstruck, maybe even thunderstruck. Here’s to you, Scholar Caine, for introducing a new series to thrill every bookworm’s heart!