Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Paper and Fire (Great Library #2) by Rachel Caine

Jess, Khalila, Glain and Dario are now working for the Library – but working knowing that their lives hang by a thread and the Archivist is just looking for an excuse. While the last members of their group – Morgan and Thomas – are imprisoned. Morgan fights for freedom – and Thomas may be already dead.

Together they need to free their friends and somehow escape the Library’s incredible power and reach

I am just going to repeat all my endless praise for the world building of this book that I said during the first book review of Ink and Bone. Because it’s still awesome

I do love how the characters look on their battles with the library. Because they don’t want to destroy it, they don’t want to bring it down. They want, desperately, passionately, for the Library to be what it should be – the excellent, shining force for good. It should be this place which can protect knowledge, spread knowledge and advance the whole world. We have wonderful looks back into the past where the Library stood against all kinds of discrimination (as I’ll come to, the cast is wonderfully diverse), where the Library passionately resisted control of nations for the sake of knowledge for its own sake.

But despite all that they have come a long way from those original routes. As the Library became more and more about power. Defending Library independence from national control has changed to them outright taking over, destroying and controlling nations in the name of Library Power. We find whole stashes of books they are not only hording, but actively suppressing (we learn that the printing press has pretty much been invented dozens of times over centuries and each time has been viciously suppressed by the Library – Thomas and Wolfe are not the only ones by a long way. After all, the press is a relatively simple invention).

Through this, in some ways, even the enemies they fight are not entirely demonised. They horde those books even though they’d ban them and not read them – because even then destroying them is an anathema to everything they stand for. They legitimately think they’re a force for good even as their actions in the name of that good go ever darker. Which is why the whole struggle of the gang not WANTING to burn it all down – but desperately wanting to make it better.

This all couples with an excellent storyline full of complexities and machinations. The Library can’t just make them disappear because of Wolfe’s political influence through his mother, but they can slowly set more and more traps circling in on them. The characters struggle to uncover the many secrets of the Library, desperately try to free Thomas all the while knowing that the Library officials are constantly trying to kill them and they had to find some way to escape this nearly impossible situation. It’s a great story with lots of twists and the characters coming together facing impossible odds. And all of the history of the Library in this alternate world is fascinatingly

And I love these characters. I love how they’ve developed such a powerful sense of relationship and kinship with each other. Khalila, Jess, Glain, Thomas, Morgan and Dario as well as Chris Wolfe and Santino. They way they look to each other (even when, like Jess and Dario, they don’t like each other very much). The loyalty they have for each other, even as they argue, even as they have different hopes and priorities.

And there’s some good diversity there. Chris and Santi are a passionately loving gay couple and Santi’s loyalties are fiercely with Chris. I have absolutely no criticism of their portrayal at all. And there’s Khalila, a Saudi Muslim woman who is the most intelligent of them all, has a romantic subplot and repeatedly calls out Dario for presuming to speak on her behalf or make decisions for her. Her religion is built into the character – her prayers, her diet and making little comments like how she views Jess as a brother by the way she’s willing to re-tie her headscarf in front of him.

We also have a huge number of background POC, including East Asian, Black and Middle Eastern characters both in Alexandria (which is also portrayed as pretty much the height of civilisation compared to cities like London which interestingly reverses the common depictions of superiority and squalor we often see). We also had a briefly mentioned lesbian character who suffered under the Library's rigid treatment of people with Morgan's ability. I think it highlighted the cruelty of the Library but really, a Lesbian being suicidal because of an unrequited crush on a straight woman is a storyline we do not need. 

The gender parity of Library’s egalitarian goals is also held throughout the background characters. Both within the Library with scholars and soldiers both often being female as much as male (and we have an awesome disabled Scholar as well) and outside the Library, with Anit an awesome Egyptian smuggler already taking over her father’s business and planning to be his heir.

This book is a perfect follow up from the first book – it’s complex, nuanced, with some really excellent characters,  an amazing world setting, a large amount of diverse inclusion and some excellent writing – it’s rapidly becoming one of my favourite series.