Friday, October 16, 2020

"Ink and Bone," by Rachel Caine--Fiction Review

Happy Friday, my dear obscurists, and hey, I want to stop for a moment to let you know that to me, you’re magical… you’ll get it once you’ve read this review. Speaking of which, today’s review is of “Ink and Bone” by Rachel Caine, an alternate history/fantasy, heavy on the fantasy. 

Rachel Caine

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

I like the alternate history elements in this book, alternate history as a subgenre has been growing on me in the last few years. It’s fun to see how the world might be altered if certain events in the past were different. As the reader, you can be transported to familiar locales that are also radically different, allowing you to rediscover them in a new way.

The main character, Jess, is one of those characters who comes from a family who are, by this world’s laws—criminals. Jess, however, early on in this story, gets the chance to join the Great Library and go legit. It’s a character angle I’ve always liked, the rogue who wants to go legit but still has one foot in his family’s business, which is illegally selling books.

Once I got deep enough into the plot and met the ensemble cast of characters, I grew to love them for their individual virtues and vices—even the curmudgeon Scholar. Caine infuses each of her supporting characters with many facets like her protagonist, which gives them a three-dimensional feel.  

What I don’t love about this book:

So—this book wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. Sometimes, that’s a good thing, but I was hooked in by the high concept of: what would the world be like if the Great Library of Alexandria never declined but instead grew to supreme political power in the world? Love that—I’ve recently become engrossed with the topic of the Great Library and the city of Alexandria in general. 

The synopsis I read mentioned alchemy, but I honestly didn’t overthink it when I bought the book. After all, alchemy was a thing in history. It was mainly for charlatans and cranks pulling dubious pseudoscience to impress those who didn’t know better—but sometimes even respected founding fathers of modern science like Sir Isaac Newton dabbled in it and convinced themselves of its efficacy. What I thought this book was about was primarily an alternate history. What it really is, is mostly a fantasy story where magic is real, and the Great Library controls it. Alchemy is code for magic is totally real. Had the Great Library not been burned by Julius Ceasar—probably an accident despite popular belief—and didn’t eventually pitter out after another two hundred years or so, the world would be undeniably different. While I’m not sure what would have happened, magic being discovered as real wouldn’t be my guess. 

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as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

The prologue begins with the main character, Jess, as a young boy, participating in his family’s “business,” which is illegally running books for clients. This is illegal because, in this version of Earth, the Great Library of Alexandria never declined but thrived and became the world’s most powerful political force, a bit like the Vatican at some points in history, and they have a monopoly on all printed works. So book-running is illegal and often dangerous, and Jess’s family achieves it by literally running books en masse through London’s streets, past the authorities, and to their clients. Jess’s father has no compunction with using his young son to run books with all the other kids he employs—even though the same thing got Jess’s older brother killed. Jess manages to deliver a priceless book to a fabulously rich resident of London, who turns out to be a deviant I hope is unique to this world. He’s what they call an “ink-licker,” which means he eats one of a kind books. 

Anyway, after that bit of horribleness, the narrative jumps forward in time a few years, and Jess’s father surprises him with the news that he’s arranged—at great expense—for Jess to take the test to join the Great Library. Jess, who has always loved books, and while capable, was never enthusiastic about the illegal side of his family’s business and doesn’t take too much convincing. Passing the test, he’s soon shipped off to begin his training in Alexandria.

In Alexandria, Jess meets his fellow students and the demanding Scholar Wolfe, who is their instructor. Wolfe is brilliant, but Albus Dumbledore he is not, think Severus Snape but meaner. No lie, one of his early “tests” could have ended with burning the students alive with Greek Fire—the substance Wildfire from “A Game of Thrones” is based on—and it’s not entirely clear if the test was just a harmless ruse or not. Wolfe says he wouldn’t have lit them on fire on the first day, but—eh—who knows. 

Unsurprisingly, many students drop out or are dismissed quickly under this extreme teaching regime—so the heard of students thins out quickly. One day, a new student shows up late to the group, a mysterious girl named Morgan. After a while, Jess discovers that Morgan has the magical talents of the obscurists, who are a group of people the Great Library utilizes to maintain its hold over the world. Being an obscurist isn’t a glamorous thing since their lives are cloistered servitude to the Great Library and nothing else. Jess agrees to keep her secret, and as a little time passes, it’s hinted that he starts to have feelings for Morgan. 

One day, the students, against the Scholar Wolfe’s profuse objections, get drafted to go with their Scholar to go on a mission for the Great Library. They are to go into a warzone and rescue as many books from a library caught between two warring factions, they are “assured” that they will have safe passage, but Wolfe believes the mission too dangerous for his students. He is overruled. 

Thrust into the warzone, the students make it to the library and manage to save some books, but soon the building is overrun. The library’s forces are forced to retreat, and it becomes clear that there were alternative political reasons for why Wolfe and his students were sent into such a dangerous situation. 
Namely, to eliminate a few of them, including Wolfe himself, but Jess saves most of the group, including Scholar Wolfe, by leveraging his family connections to get them out of the city.

It’s around this time that Morgan’s skills as an obscurist are revealed, and back in contact with the Great Library, the group is sent the Great Library’s fastest train to take them home. The train will also be taking Morgan to her imprisonment. She fakes her own death by seeming to have jumped off the speeding train, but she hid in Jess’s compartment in reality. Jess agrees to help her run away, but the plan goes belly up when the train is attacked.

Back in Alexandria, Morgan is taken to go live with the other obscurists, and one of Jess’s closest friends is killed by the Great Library because of his invention—a printing press. The Great Library maintains its control over knowledge with an iron grip. A printing press would threaten that control. Morgan manages to contact Jess, using her powers, and she begs him to help her change the world the Great Library has built, and the story ends with him resolving to do just that.    


“Ink an Bone” is, first and foremost, a fantasy story, and the alternate history bits are more just an interesting veneer. As a fantasy story, it works well enough. 

The worldbuilding elements are pretty solid when it comes to alchemy and how the Great Library wields power—but by setting the story on Earth, there is a pretty big shortcut here. For example, everyone who can read is probably pretty confident where London is and what it looks like, so the only real work the novel needed to do is show the contrast between reality and fiction. This isn’t to say there isn’t a certain art to describing alternate versions of real-life places; another book, “A Darker Shade of Magic,” describes multiple London(s) over parallel dimensions and all feel like distinctly different places called London. But in “Ink and Bone,” it feels like London but with the occasional magical thing added into the mix. While I’m less familiar with Alexandria as a city, I suspect it’s probably pretty similar.

The adventure aspect of the novel is quite good. Caine establishes her characters well, and for a book about a bunch of scholarly types going to school to become scholars, the narrative is surprisingly fast-paced. It’s certainly never boring.      

Parting thoughts:

What got me with this book was its marketing in the form of the publisher’s synopsis on It just goes to show that synopses of any kind, be they the spoiler-filled like I do here or the non spoiler teaser variety, can really alter one’s perception of what the story is about. Part of writing a good synopsis is learning to write a really short story, but another part of it is identifying the main plot and only the characters who are primarily essential to mention in that main plot. Then state the major points of that plot in as few words as possible without misrepresenting the story.  

By this very longwinded definition of mine, I mean that it doesn’t matter how well written or beautifully descriptive it is; if your synopsis misrepresents its story’s plot, then it’s a lousy synopsis. I believe that is what put me in the wrong mindset for this book when I started reading it, and thus is where most of my gripes stem. It really is a pretty entertaining yarn despite everything. 

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