REVIEW: The Book That Wouldn’t Burn by Mark Lawrence
Dear Mark Lawrence,
Earlier this year I read and fell in love with your Book of the Ancestor trilogy (Red Sister, Grey Sister and Holy Sister), a marvelous mix of fantasy, science fiction, action, and coming-of-age novels. The books follow an unforgettable protagonist, Nona Grey, from age nine until early adulthood. They were the best thing I read this year so of course when I saw that you had a new book coming out, I had to request the ARC.
The Book That Wouldn’t Burn is one of many recent books about libraries (including magical libraries) but this one has a really different take on libraries and what they mean in the world. Anyhow, the story begins with Livira, a young girl in a place called the Dust, where her people, marginalized and brown-skinned, live far from the distant city where there is wealth and plenty.
Early on in the book Livira’s community is attacked, the adults killed and the children taken, by the sabbers, dog-like but intelligent people. The kids aren’t sure why they were taken but they are bound with a rope and led on an arduous journey that comes to a sudden halt when the sabbers are attacked and killed by the human soldiers of the king.
It seems trouble is brewing between the humans the sabbers, who have been enemies as long as anyone can recall. The soldiers were sent out to patrol and stop encroaching sabbers, and they are unhappy about getting stuck with children. They leave the kids in the care of two of their party, both injured, to go and hunt the sabbers, a few of whom escaped.
Livira thinks they are making a big mistake and she turns out to be right, because they never return. One of the injured soldiers, Malar, leads the children to the city, where they are stunned by the richness of everything around them. Malar explains that it is the city’s library that has made the city so rich. The knowledge found within the books has led to the development of technologies that everyone wants.
The children are to be turned over to the city’s care, to become menial workers in exchange for meager support, but Malar is in Livira’s debt by this point—she has saved his life—and he tries to give her a better fate.
Malar’s plans go awry, but not in an altogether bad way. Livira is plucked from obscurity by a mysterious librarian named Yute to study at the library and train to become a librarian. It’s a great honor and one many people think a “duster” like Livira should not be given. The king and his supporters see the people from the Dust as not much above animals, or the sabbers. Indeed, some people refer to the dusters as dogs.
Livira is very bright and has perfect recall so she advances in her studies. She loves the library, which is indeed a magical place. Not just because it’s full of books, but also because each book is said to be one of a kind, because there are mysterious chambers that no one can enter, and because there are fables of “guides” who can help access some of those parts of the library.
Meanwhile, in another storyline, we are introduced to Evar Eventari, about twenty years of age. Evar lives in a library much like Livira’s with his siblings. None of them are biologically related but they grew up together. There were five of them—Kerrol, who is a master psychologist and a master manipulator, Clovis, an amazing fighter who wants to kill the sabbers because they murdered her family when she was a child, Starval, who specializes in stealth and murder, Mayland, who was a historian but is now missing, and Evar, who is—well, second best at everything.
The library contains a magical device called the mechanism, which when entered with a book, allows a person to emerge having experienced that book and knowing everything in it. The siblings come from different times in history but each of them disappeared into the mechanism at one point. Each except Clovis, who hid there during her family’s massacre. Decades later, all five kids emerged at the same time to find the library strewn with bones and no adults nearby There are, however, two machine-like guides, the Assistant and the Soldier, who have, to the best of their very limited ability, helped the kids grow up.
Unlike his siblings, Evar does not appear to have taken a book into the mechanism with him. He has retained no knowledge or craft like Kerrol, Clovis, Starval, and Mayland have. All that he has is the conviction that there was someone else—a female someone—in the mechanism with him, and that he has to find her.
The library is locked and Evar and his siblings can’t find a way to get out. But when a book lands on Evar from a toppling stack of them, written in a language he doesn’t know but can nevertheless read, Evar knows that his life has changed. The first page reads “Evar! Don’t turn the page! I’m in the Exchange. Find me at the bottom”. Evar is convinced that the author is a woman he’s seeking—someone he believes was in the mechanism with him when he was a child. But what is the Exchange, and how can Evar get out of the library to find her?
There are other mysteries, too. How are Evar and Livira’s libraries connected? Who is Evar’s mystery woman? Why did Yute pluck Livira out of a life of obscurity and elevate her to a library student? And more.
I really liked the characters in this book. Livira is an inquisitive child who won’t stop asking questions and this aspect of her doesn’t go away as she grows up. Evar is kind and nice to everyone, while still retaining believability due to his frustration to complete his quest despite the fact that none of his siblings remembers another person being in the mechanism with them.
Livira’s friends were interesting too, especially Arpix, a bright boy who later helps Livira search for access to a forbidden part of the library, and Meelan, a fellow student who has a crush on her. She also has a group of female friends and the depiction of the little community these girls create feels very true to female friendships. In general, I can’t think of another male author who portrays women better than Lawrence does.
The Book that Wouldn’t Burn is a Narnia for grownups, a lot darker, minus religion but with just as many portals. There are sections in the book that are clear homages to The Magician’s Nephew (Narnia book five, or prequel, depending on how you want to see it) which was one of my favorite books as a child. There are portals to different worlds and choices to be made in those worlds. Like Narnia, these books are philosophical as well as entertaining, although the philosophy is darker, more complicated and more questioning than that of C.S. Lewis.
The book asks what the role of knowledge is in the world, who controls what knowledge is available to whom, and most of all, whether we should we have knowledge. Are we responsible enough to be ethical in how we handle the marvels knowledge allows us to create, or will we destroy ourselves with them?
Within this story, the library is the key to the portals and the fulcrum on which these questions turn. The war between the humans and the sabbers is the force by which these possibilities accelerate and meet, and the questions answered by the characters. Different characters answer them differently, and since this is only the first part of a trilogy, there’s surely more of that to come.
I had mixed feelings about this book and I think some of them stem from my childhood love of the Narnia books. I am not even Christian but I loved them, and partly for that reason I seem to have an uneasy relationship with books that draw on C.S. Lewis’s world but take it in a darker and more adult direction. I was disturbed, to an extent, by Philip Pullman’s Golden Compass books, and though I haven’t read Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, I watched a bit of the TV show and was too unsettled to continue.
This book engendered a similar reaction in me. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s because the Narnia-like world is a rich backdrop for questioning beliefs (in opposition to Lewis’s desires to instill them), and also because in drawing on books I loved as a child, these narratives can reach deep and primal places in me. Also, the idea of kids being trapped in a library and unable to leave, as Evar and his siblings were, was disturbing and dark.
The other problem I had with the book was that it was too long and felt slow in some places. I wanted it to move faster. To be fair I rarely read books that go above five hundred pages. I wouldn’t have read this one either if I hadn’t loved Red Sister and its sequels so much. Still, I felt that The Book that Wouldn’t Burn could have been tighter. There were a lot of longish epigraphs (one at the beginning of each chapter) and some of them (the author quoting himself from earlier works, or quoting his characters) were distracting.
However, the worldbuilding was fresh, engaging and inventive, and one of the most impressive things about the book was that it was so different from the Book of the Ancestor series. I do appreciate an author who doesn’t write the same book twice.
Overall, this is a C+/B- for me. While I can’t recommend it as highly as I would Red Sister and its sequels, I think that for readers who want a really different take on libraries it’s worth a read.