From not knowing it was a five-book series when I picked up the first book at the end of last month to devouring all of them in just a few weeks. I cannot recommend The Great Library series by Rachel Caine enough!
Imagine a world where The Great Library of Alexandria has survived. Over the centuries, it has become ruthless and all-powerful, gatekeeping what they deem “harmful”, controlling the knowledge that goes out to the masses (it is illegal for anyone to personally own a book). They rule the world through sister Serapeums in every city.
This is a world that, on the surface, is based on the world we’re familiar with, though it is much advanced in many areas yet also very medieval in others. Adjusting to it takes a while but the writer does a great job of world-building and I loved the fantastical and steampunk elements. It felt like a real, well-developed and consistent world.
In book 1, 16-year-old Jess Brightwell, coming from a long line of book smugglers, is sent to Alexandria, to train as a hopeful to enter the Library’s service, while being a spy for his family back in London. But, as he gets to know his fellow postulants and uncovers dark secrets about the Great Library, his loyalties and beliefs are tested, and it is just the beginning.
The Library, over the centuries and through fear and greed and the all-consuming, corrosive lure of power, has rotted to its core. Through one single act of saving their friend, imprisoned for a heretical invention that has been consistently suppressed by the Library leading back to the Pharaohs, the burden of saving the Library’s soul falls to Jess, his fellow postulants, their instructor Scholar Christopher Wolfe, and Captain Niccolo Santi of the High Garda (two of my favourite characters).
“Goliath fell to a slingshot and a stone. and the Library is a lumbering giant, dying of its own arrogance; it has to change or fall. We have the tools. The will. The knowledge.”
But, they have to fight to rid it of poison and corruption before they can remake and rebuild; they have to go up against the Archivist, the vicious, all-powerful head of the Library, who has presided over one of the most bloody reigns in the institution’s history and will continue to do anything to maintain his iron fist, even if it means the destruction of everything. They have to do much of this while being actively hunted by him, branded as dangerous as the rebels who call themselves the “Burners” (take a guess at what their mission statement is), unsure of whom to trust, with potential spies and deserters even among their potential allies. And none of this happens in a bubble. The unrest spreads to the rest of the world and countries, sensing weakness and sniffing out vulnerabilities in a once-mighty institution, are all too keen to snatch what power they can, whether through outright attack or political machinations.
Our friends, then, occasionally assisted by a band of repeat supporting characters over the course of the series, are the only ones fighting to preserve the Library even as they crusade to defeat the darkness that has seeped into it. They believe in its mission of the spread of knowledge. Knowledge is power and everyone deserves a chance to access it. But is it worth all the loss of life, the sacrifices by many, the destruction? Is the Library worth saving?
“To all those who face change without fear. Go forward. To the ever-transforming glory of the public library, without which we would all be diminished. No one with a book is ever alone, even in the darkest moments. We are all book lovers. And we all chase the Great Library of Alexandria, one book at a time.”
It’s a massive, near-impossible undertaking with a miniscule chance of success through maximum risk. An adventure that will take our renegades across the world from England to Italy to the American colonies to Wales to Spain and back to Alexandria where the final battle will be fought. The stakes are consistently high and no character is safe which makes for a rather stressful experience because the writer’s done such a good job of creating people you can so much about, even when they are being stubborn and reckless and even downright stupid.
The series starts off slow before shifting to a far pacier, more page-turning style halfway through book 2 that exponentially increases in future installments. I loved this strategy because it gives us plenty of chances to really get to know the main players, for the writer to develop the world and set the stage, before it explodes, often literally. Because despite the intricate plot, the twists, and the double-crossing, it really would all be hollow without the complex, multi-faceted, effortlessly diverse cast of characters for us to root for, to drive the narrative.
And the characters themselves are more than worthy of the time and attention they get on the page. Each gets their own developmental arc and story threads to prove themselves but also fail and learn, suffer and fight and grow. Whether Jess (whose singular POV tells the story in books 1-3 before a multi-character narration for books 4 and 5 when many of them are separated), Dario Santiago with his royal Spanish lineage, the gentle yet physically imposing German engineering genius Thomas, the hijab-wearing, intelligent, brilliant, compassionate badass Khalila, the fiercely loyal, competent born soldier and leader Glain, or the enigmatic Morgan who holds more raw, elemental power within her than any of them.
As the action amped up over the course of the series, I cherished the rare moments of quiet these characters get to share with each other and as a group because those moments as much as the ones where they act show how far they’ve come as individuals and together, how much has changed, for the better and through unavoidable circumstance. In my humble opinion, Caine did a fabulous job of consistently balancing all her narrative elements.
This is a series that is violent, gruesome, dark, and doesn’t flinch from the realities of battle, but there is also my favourite kind of humour (dry and witty); there is laughter and moments of love and joy and hope. The books, for all the idealism of many of these characters, recognise that there is no such thing as a happily-ever-after and while the ending is hopeful, it also takes into account the after-effects, of the considerable work to be done after that war is won, after those enemies are defeated. The work of survival and of rebuilding, of change and adapting without giving up on your principles. A process that is oftentimes harder than fighting in and winning the actual war.
At its heart, this is a story about fighting for what we believe in even if it requires everything we have to give and more. It’s about hope in a tomorrow that may not be perfect but is infinitely better and worth sacrificing for. It’s about one of the most memorable found families I’ve ever read about and how that kind of kinship, those bonds of love and loyalty through it all, can be one of the biggest strengths and sources of light there is.
“In this place we burn the lamp of knowledge that never goes out. We light the world.”