Knowledge Is Power in Rachel Caine’s The Great Library

The destruction of the Library of Alexandria is universally believed to be one of history’s saddest moments—so much ancient knowledge, burned and destroyed.

But what if the library has been saved?

Rachel Caine’s Great Library series runs with that idea, but not anywhere you’d expect. In this alternative history, those in charge of the library began hoarding information that was too dangerous for humanity–especially knowledge of magic. Eventually, the Library came to entirely control the flow of information in its sphere of influence. And, like all monopolies, power has corrupted those in charge.

Which is where the protagonists in this planned five-book series come in: they’re rebels. They worship books and knowledge, but decry the Library’s restrictions and oppose the tyrants in charge of it, who aren’t afraid to use murder and blackmail to safeguard their power. Those that don’t comply are imprisoned.

But there’s another extreme as well: The Burners, who hate what the library stands for and want to rip every last shred of it down, eschewing any benefit from the knowledge it holds.

Through the first two books, our lead, Jess Brightwell, and his band of rebels have been trying to infiltrate the Library’s corridors of power. In Ash and Quill, they end up in the hands of the Burners in a version of Philadelphia with the approximate technology of the Victorian period. Though the city was founded by William Penn and counts Benjamin Franklin as a favorite son, that’s where the comparisons stop.

Philadelphia and its fervent population of Burners are under siege, surrounded by the Library’s armies on all sides, and effectively starving.

The Burners hope their new prisoners, especially Thomas the engineer, can provide salvation, if only they will denounce the Library once and for all. They are the emotional equivalent of John Brown’s followers: no quarter should be given to the enemy. They want total destruction. Luckily for our rebels, Thomas has a secret weapon he’s happy to provide: a printing press. The knowledge of Gutenberg’s invention has long been suppressed by the Library. Thomas, Jess, and his companions see no better way to both spread knowledge and undermine the Library’s leaders than throw the rebels the ability to print books of their own, \ happy to give the knowledge to anyone.

But once they finish with the press, they can’t count on the goodwill of the Burners, and neither can they leave the city. To save themselves, choices must be made about whose lives are more valuable.

If you ever imagined a series in which librarians are both heroes and villains, this is it (you’ve imagined that, right?). About the only criticism I can provide is that Jess, our window to this world, is a bit of an everyman, and the blandest of the rebels; Thomas, the engineer; Morgan, the mage who becomes more corrupt if she uses her power too much; the original anti-Library Rebel, Christopher Wolfe, and his lover, the soldier, Captain Santi; Khalila Seif, a dignified scholar; straightforward soldier Glain Wathen; and the scheming Dario Santiago are all more compelling. It’s a diverse and fascinating group, as full of loyalty and conflict as any found family.

In many of Caine’s other series, characters face choices between bad and worse, and that pattern holds true in this one. Morgan can help her friends escape from the Burners, but the human cost is more dire than any of them expect. Jess, facing betrayal from an unexpected source, grabs at a slender chance of victory, even though it may cost him the respect and friendship of everyone he cares about.

The problem with many middles is that they offer a rest from what has gone before and lack the tension of what will come after. This book starts with a literal book burning, takes us to another part of a compelling world, and gives us a conclusion that hits with the force of the literal bombs that explode on the page.

I want the last two books. Now.

Ash & Quill is available now.

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