Let me start by just saying this: this book was awesome, way more awesome than I anticipated it being. I've read Rachel Caine before; her Weather Warden series is a great urban fantasy/paranormal romance one, and I've read some of her Morganville Vampire novels, too. That said, while I've always found her books enjoyable, I've never thought they were absolutely amazing. This book was amazing. Of course, like all books, it has a few weak points--but it was such an amazing world with such awesome characters (I am beyond real words here, can you tell?) that I think its strengths far, far outweigh its weaknesses.
The book takes place in an alternate universe in which the Library of Alexandria was never burned, and in fact spawned "daughter" libraries throughout the world. Across the ages, the Library has become more powerful than anything else, based on the idea that knowledge is power. An example of how powerful the library is? Austria pissed the Library off, so the Library destroyed Austria. Austria does not exist in this world because the Library destroyed it. The Library owns all original works and disseminates copies via things called "blanks" which are kind of like Kindles with pages and that you can write on. The whole system works off of a premise of alchemy. Owning real, original books is illegal and has led to book smugglers making huge profits when they can successfully find and sell a rare or unique copy of a book. Meanwhile, people called Burners protest the Library's ownership of knowledge and burn books--and themselves--to draw attention to their cause. Cities and countries aren't quite as we'd imagine them; for example, Wales and England are caught up in a torrid civil war. And while the book takes place in the year 2025, there is a pseudo-Victorian/steampunk facade on it. Automatons protect the libraries and secret areas, carriages are driven by steam, and while guns exist other weapons are still very prominent. Combined, this makes a rich, fascinating world, and I loved how every detail was carefully placed to build the world, rather than just thrown in because it was "cool."
The main character of this book is Jess Brightwell, a young man who comes from a family of book smugglers. He doesn't want to take over the family business, so his father buys him a chance to get a position in the Library, which he figures Jess will enjoy and which can be used to help the family get their hands on more rare works to sell. In short order, Jess moves to Alexandria for training, a process that begins with thirty students competing for six spots at the Library. Jess' classmates feature prominently in the book, and all of them have their own stories, personalities, strengths, and weaknesses; they all read like real people, which can be difficult for supporting characters to achieve. The same can be said for Scholar Wolfe, their teacher, and his companion Santi, a member of the Library's elite guard. I mean, seriously, these are awesome supporting characters. They're not all white! They're not all straight! It's an incredibly diverse cast, but a diverse cast that isn't just window dressing for the story. They're all fully integrated. The training process takes up a lot of this book, and while it was interesting--it provides a lot of insight into how and why the Library operates and what might be wrong with it--I think the story really picked up when the students, Wolfe, and Santi are sent on a mission to retrieve a cache of rare books from a daughter library that is about to be crushed in the Welsh/English civil war. It's at this point that we can really start to see that something is rotten at the Library's heart, and what the characters might be up against if they hope to escape or stop it.
Caine's writing in this one is also super absorbing. The book is in third-person limited, but between chapters we also get to see some documents from various characters that are circulated around or kept in the Library archives. In the other Caine books I've read, the writing was good but it was never something that blew my mind. In this one, I couldn't stop reading. Seriously, I was wandering around the National Mall in the middle of the cherry blossom festival with visiting family looking for somewhere I could sit down so I could read more. I was a terribly rude hostess, I'm afraid, but hey, that's what a good book can do, and this book wasn't just good, it was excellent. The plot was tight, the characters real, and the world intricately intriguing. The story doesn't go quite where the blurb would make one think--really, the blurb refers to the end of the book more than the content--but it was amazing content nonetheless. I got this from the library, but I'll be buying my own copy--in hardcover, because owning this on Kindle is a little too ironic for my tastes.
5 stars out of 5. Awesome.