This is the book that caused me to discover bestselling author Rachel Caine. I had never read any of her books and I almost didn't read this one either. The reviews made it clear that it's a dystopia. I'm not that fond of dystopias, but I love alternate history. Ink and Bone had a premise that was irresistible to me. The ancient Library of Alexandria was never destroyed. This library student just had to read it.
So how is this a dystopia? Shouldn't it be wonderful that the Library of Alexandria is still with us and influential? It's somewhat like the Library of Congress but it's worldwide and makes every effort to be all-inclusive. This should be a tremendous boon for scholarship.
Their opponents are the Burners, and there is no doubt that any book lover would find them extremely reprehensible. They burn libraries and they attack librarians. They surely must be advocates of censorship. Yet what motivates them? Are they anti-intellectual? Are they terrorists? At the beginning of Ink and Bone, it certainly seems as if the Burners are nothing but dangerous terrorists.
Yet as I progressed through this book, I discovered more and more things about the Library of Alexandria that I found objectionable. They aren't the benevolent preservers of knowledge I thought they were.
The first revelation was that no one is allowed to own books. The justification given is that individual owners of books who handle them on a regular basis or even lend them to their friends can cause them to deteriorate much faster. In our era, early deterioration happens to popular circulating library books because they are handled so often. Yet there are also strong arguments in favor of individual book ownership. The most important of these is that so long as individuals are allowed to own books, everyone can choose their books. It becomes more difficult to control what people read.
Today libraries are known as defenders of intellectual freedom who oppose censorship, but that hasn't always been the case. In the 19th century libraries were expected to choose books for their collections that "elevated" people's morals. The librarians were the ones who decided what that meant. The first public libraries didn't allow browsing the shelves. You had to know what you wanted and then ask for that particular item. Then a library staff member would search for it in the stacks and bring it to the requester.
When I took the Intellectual Freedom Seminar in library school, I learned that many challenges requesting that books be removed from library shelves are initiated by library staff members. I also located a post by prominent librarian blogger Sarah Houghton discussing the results of a survey done by a library student dealing with challenged book statistics. The results showed that a number of challenged books had been improperly removed by staff without waiting for an official decision.
Clearly, library staff has power. It's also very possible for them to abuse it by restricting access to the collection or by refusing to order particular books because they disapprove of them. In a society when no one is allowed to own books, librarians could theoretically control what people read if they were inclined to do so. Rachel Caine's Great Library has the legal monopoly on book ownership, and they go to great lengths to maintain that monopoly.
It didn't escape my notice that the magical means by which people received their books in Ink and Bone resembles downloading e-books. The words appear on blank pages. Some have argued that if there were only one source for e-books, that one source could control what people read if printed books were no longer being published. Fortunately, that hasn't happened in our universe. Through Rachel Caine's alternate continuity, she is able to show us what could happen if we allowed such a book monopoly.
The quote I used in the title of my review are the words of a library official in Ink and Bone dealing with the war against Burners. The Great Library is supposed to be fighting on behalf of books. Yet what about books that had been suppressed by the Great Library? Who would fight on their behalf?
The protagonist of Ink and Bone, Jess Brightwell, belongs to a family of book smugglers. They provide books to individuals who want to own them illegally. Since they care more about profit than what happens to the books, Jess' family didn't seem very sympathetic to me. Jess himself was a complex character who had to deal with conflicting loyalties, but he genuinely cared about books. Rachel Caine seems to be developing him into the champion who will fight for the books in her provocative new series.