I quite looked forward to this second book in Rachel Caine’s Great Library trilogy, and I was not disappointed: the story advances toward what I envision as the final showdown between the Library and those who feel the need to break the shackles it imposes, and there are a good many breath-taking moments and harrowing escapes, not to mention a few important revelations. Yet I did not feel the same level of involvement as I enjoyed with the first volume, and for a number of reasons that taken singly do not amount to much, but all together do indeed cast some shadows on an otherwise engaging story.
The book starts a brief time after the end of its predecessor, showing how the group of Library postulants we got to know in volume one is trying to settle into the new roles assigned to them after graduation: Jess and Glain have been enrolled in the Garda, the Library’s military arm, while Khalila and Dario are on their way to become full-fledged scholars; their former teacher Scholar Wolfe and his partner Garda Captain Santi, who played such a pivotal role in the postulants’ education, have somewhat faded into the background. The glaring absence of Thomas, arrested by order of the Library for the “sin” of having designed a printing press, and now presumed dead, and that of Morgan, relegated in the Obscurists’ Tower because of her abilities, weighs heavily on everyone’s mind – and most notably on Jess’.
The possibility first and then the certainty that Thomas is alive, imprisoned and most surely tortured (as it happened to Wolfe in the past), drives Jess and Co. to mount a rescue operation that will see them facing extraordinary risks and, what’s more important, becoming fully aware that the Library is quite different from the image of the shining beacon of knowledge it presents to the world: for Jess, the scion of a family of book smugglers, this realization comes as a lesser shock in comparison to his friends, particularly when they come to understand – in one of the most powerful scenes of the book, set in the Black Archives – that the work of the Library in the last centuries has rather been that of suppressing knowledge, rather than protecting it.
“This is the graveyard where they buried our future.”
“How many? How many times was this created and cut down? They’ve been destroying it over and over, all this time. All the time.”
In a parallel with the growth arc of a young person, where Ink and Bone was, for the characters, a journey of discovery and the first step toward maturity, Paper and Fire embodies the age of rebellion, the need to move against preconceived notions and rules imposed from above, to obey the commands of heart and conscience rather than the laws whose profound injustice becomes clearer with every passing moment. And indeed, what the group of friends learns along the way is that the Library has no regard for human life, even well beyond the maxim about a book being more valuable than a single person: from the barbarous suppression of knowledge and technologies that might undermine the Library’s power, to the appalling practice of segregating Obscurists and trying to generate more, and more powerful ones, through selective breeding, the Library comes across in all its heartless devotion to its own survival, and the will to dominate, rather than to be the protector of human wisdom.
Given all the above, it might look strange that I did not enjoy this second volume as much as I did the first, but there were a few details that kept bothering me at a subliminal level, interposing some distance between me and the story instead of the total immersion I enjoyed with book 1. For starters, in the first 25-30 percent of the book the pace seems to be dragging a little: granted, Jess and his friends are trying to collect clues about Thomas’ survival and the possible location of his prison, so they face some virtual blind alleys and spend a great deal of time speculating on what little they already possess, which is not very conducive to fast-paced action. Still, it looked to me as if the story was unable to find its right path.
Then the characters: we learn nothing new about them, about how their respective experiences in the “real” world have changed them. Khalila is still serious and driven; Dario is the usual smart-mouth with delusions of grandeur; Glain the solid warrior who seldom speaks; Morgan the tormented soul prisoner of her own Obscurist powers. Scholar Wolfe is as scathingly cynical as always, masking his inner torment, while Santi stands there as his rock. And Jess, the one on whom the story focuses the most – sometimes to the detriment of the others’ development – still feels like an outsider looking in, the imprinting derived from his family’s careless treatment affecting his determination to open his heart to others. The only exception to this are his resolve to rescue Thomas, the only person he feels comfortable in calling ‘friend’, and his newfound… ninja powers concerning the Library’s automatons – something that could have been awesome for one or two instances, but sadly loses its impact with each new repetition, no matter how dangerous it is for Jess, or how daring he appears.
My reservations notwithstanding, Paper and Fire is an enjoyable read, particularly in the second half where the stakes are raised higher and higher and our group of rebels – because this is what they were fated to become from the start – has to choose whether to close their eyes to blatant injustice or to act against it, and therefore against the Library: going back to my comparison about the coming-of-age journey, their decision is tantamount to defiance toward one’s parents, and as such it cannot be undertaken lightly or without dramatic consequences.
This second book in the Great Library series ends in a huge cliffhanger, one that managed to counteract the mild dissatisfaction I felt for the story and to rekindle my eagerness to move ahead toward what promises to be a stormy finale. Now that the “middle book syndrome” is over and done with, the road can only get smoother…