Ink and Bone is a young adult fantasy novel by Rachel Caine; the first in The Great Library series. It’s set in an alternate universe where the Great Library of Alexandria was never destroyed. Knowledge, particularly in the form of books, is now tightly controlled by the Library, and any progress in society that threatens the Library’s power is suppressed. Our main character is Jess Brightwell, a teenage boy whose family is in the business of smuggling forbidden original copies of books to wealthy buyers. His father orders him to try for a Library position so their family can have insight to the inner workings of the system. Most of the book follows Jess’s attempts to survive (sometimes quite literally) the grueling process of being chosen to join the Library.
I really enjoyed Jess. He’s a wonderful POV character, with a quiet kind of strength and confidence in himself, and a willingness to be wrong. He’s a leader when he needs to be, but also knows when to bow to someone else’s expertise or experience.
There was clearly a lot of thought put into the worldbuilding. Ink and one is an alternate historyI was very surprised and excited when it was revealed that the story takes place not in an alternate 19th century, but in 2025. Despite the future setting, technology is behind what we currently have, due to the stranglehold the Library has on progress.
The author did not pull any punches when it came to violence and war. Jess witnesses an anti-Library activist commit suicide and is very affected by it. The scenes in Oxford show a city under siege, and the starvation and desperation of is citizens. Not all of Jess’s classmates survive their training. There are palpable consequences to everything that happens.
It has a diverse set of characters; the Librarians and students come from all over the world. The supporting characters were rounded, with strengths and faults and desires of their own.
I wasn’t fond of Morgan Hault, the love interest. I thought the author did her a disservice by introducing her so much later than the other characters. I’m assuming she’ll have a greater role in upcoming books, but in Ink and Bone her presence does very little to affect the plot. Most of the events would still have happened in the same way without her. I didn’t care about her the way I did the other students. It wouldn’t have bothered me as much if the ‘Save Morgan’ subplot hadn’t taken up so much of the second half of the book.
I would have liked to see more of the Brightwell family. I’m hoping they’ll be featured more in the future. I also wish being part of a (known?) crime family would’ve had more of a negative effect on Jess throughout the story.
One thing I’m a little torn on: It was a fast read, very well-paced. Normally when I’m reading I’m mentally crossing out parts that I feel didn’t need to be included. I was doing the opposite with this book. I think it could have been drawn out a little more. I like that the author was willing to cut out anything that wasn’t necessary for worldbuilding, character, or plot, but she did such a good job that I think it could have benefitted from a little padding!
Overall, I give it four out of five stars! I will definitely recommend this book to anyone who likes fantasy, alternate history, or even dystopian fiction. It’s not your typical teen fantasy, and will appeal to adults, too.