THE BOOK THAT WOULDN’T BURN by Mark Lawrence (Book Review)
There is, perhaps, a particular gravity about libraries that attracts speculative fiction authors. From the great library of the Unseen Academy, with its fearsome books and even more fearsome and athletic librarian, to Kvothe’s Alma Mater and its mysterious four plate stone door, fantasy libraries are places of magic and peril. Henry, the chrono-divergent protagonist of Audrey Niffenberger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife worked in a library. The stacks (or shelving as you might more prosaically call it) were perfect for concealing his chronologically challenged nature which would unexpectedly pluck him into the past leaving only a pile of clothes behind. And what of Dr Who, who met River Song for the first time (though she wasn’t meeting him for the first time) in a place and episode imaginatively named Silence in the Library .
In my dim and distant undergraduate days I frequently walked past (but never entered!) this imposing building – one of six UK copyright or legal deposit libraries which are entitled – on request – to receive a copy of any book published in the UK free of charge.
In my naivite I thought that meant it must store a copy of every book ever published. However, with some four million new titles self or traditionally published each year such an endeavour of universal storage has become impossible.
In The Book that Wouldn’t Burn Lawrence has imagined just such a universal ‘legal deposit library’ surpassing all others – a repository for every record ever kept by any culture, from iron bound tomes of sailing adventures to knot curtains of unknown and unknowable peoples. Occupying multiple huge chambers buried within a mountain, the library is a veritable mine of knowledge. Everything ever known lies stored somewhere within its shelves, the wisdom of the ancients preserved to guide successor civilisations into the light. (Though questions remain as to whether that is the bright illumination of enlightenment or of a nuclear explosion.)
The tale follows two third person point-of-view protagonists. We meet Livira first, a young girl – a waif from the Dust – brought by chance and tragedy to the city of Crath. This great metropolis is built on and around the buried library, growing rich and advanced by trading on its store of knowledge.
“The city scaled the lower slopes like a wave washing up as far as its momentum would carry it. A great curtain wall sealed the city into its valleys, bordered by two of the mountain’s vast roots.”
Within the depths of the library we meet the second protagonist, a young man named Evar, who is trapped within one of the many huge chambers within the library. He has lived his entire life between the stacks of books with only four sort-of-siblings for company.
As readers we turn the page because we care, we care about what happens to the characters and that is the first duty of any author, to create people whose fate intrigues us. (Of course we don’t always have to like them, but that does help). Livira and Evar are both likeable and compelling.
Livira is an orphan, named for a hardy weed in her desert world (I suppose here on Earth she might be called Convolvulus or even Japanese Knotweed). She is stubborn, implacable and with a steel trap memory. We first meet her flat on her back and yet refusing to admit that she has lost the fight over a matter of personal pride, as her bigger stronger adversary complains “She won’t stay down.” That characteristic pretty much carries her through the book and the library. As with many fantasy novels her journey starts when ‘a stranger comes to town’ a day that starts out one way and ends up very differently.
Readers of fantasy will be well versed in training scenarios where the character is learning to be a warrior or a wizard, a diplomat or a thief, a dragon rider or a ninja-nun! However, there is a charm in how Livira’s path eschews such familiar tropes and instead leads her into an apprenticeship as a librarian. Strangely – given their bad-ass powers as keepers and cataloguers of all knowledge – librarian is not a class often seen atop the character sheets of D&D or other role-playing games. But if Livira’s story isn’t enough to address that deficiency you can read some observations on libraries and librarians here.
Evar, by contrast is desperate to escape his bookish prison despite it having within it the ultimate entertainment – a mechanism. Lawrence has imagined a kind of virtual reality chamber into which you can carry any book and the mechanismTM will make the experience of the book, its world its adventures, absolutely real. (I want one of those!).
Evar and his siblings are the last survivors of a trapped community that lived for generations and died within the confines of one of the huge library chambers. While his siblings have used the mechanismTM to hone their skills of history, espionage, combat and psychology, Evar has refrained from using the device and so becomes only as good at those skills as his siblings’ training can make him. Being second best at everything, makes Evar doubt his value in their shrunken community. However, his role seems to be like the drummer in the rock band, the Ringo-glue that binds the mightier talents of his siblings together. As Starval (the spy) puts it “You’re the only one I can stand to be around. I’d miss you.” Anyone who’s been trapped with family over the festive season might sympathise with Starval – stuck in a confined space with a found family for years.
Evar’s siblings and Livira’s variegated entourage of friends – first children from the Dust and then fellow students of librarianship – add texture to the story. However, two other characters struck me as being of particular note. There is Malar, the grizzled veteran’s grizzled veteran – a man with a blink-and-you’ve-missed-it level of martial prowess, and a tongue so coarse it could scour diamonds. Like Rooster Coburn in True Grit, on whom the irrepressible Mattie foisted herself, Malar finds he can’t escape Livira or her endless questioning. Malar’s character also has that gift of mixing humour and pathos in a switch back of laugh out loud moments and piercing emotion.
The other intriguing person is Yute, the enigmatic deputy chief librarian who sponsors Livira and observes her progress from a distance, a mentor somewhere between Gandalf and Dumbledore in the scattered timing of his interventions and the hidden secrets of his agendas.
Unlike most fantasy books, The Book That Wouldn’t Burn neither requires nor includes a map. There is the city of Crath and the desolate (but once fertile) dust that surrounds it, in which Livira’s little community try to scrape out a living on beans. Water is a precious commodity drawn from a well that plumbs deep to reach a receding aquifer. The humans are under threat from a wave of tall and powerful humanoid warriors, the sabbers, washing through the dust and heading for the walls of Crath.
However, just as the sabbers press on the humans, so too an even more terrible foe is pressing on them. It reminded me of the waves of invasion/colonisation that left successive tidemarks in place names across the British Isles. The Celts washed into the margins by the Romano-Britons, themselves pushed into Wales and Cornwall by the Saxons, who were in turn pushed back beyond the Danelaw by the Danes.
The sabbers’ physical strength and combat skills make them formidable melee foes that the humans can only hope to match with sheer weight of numbers – like poor Sherman tanks in WW2 finding they needed to sacrifice at least three out of every four in exchange for stopping a single German Tiger tank.
While everyone fears the arrival of the sabbers and doubts the optimistic reports that the army has kept them at bay, the king commands the librarians’ search out information on ever more exotic and powerful weapons to try to gain the strategic and tactical edge. There is a tension between the library and the crown, neither entirely or happily subservient to the other – which adds an interesting internal political conflict to the external threat.
The search for knowledge is complicated by the library’s chaotic indexing systems such that the hunt for a single book can take a matter of days. Lawrence has populated its stacks with enigmatic assistantsTM, somewhere between clay golems and porcelain robots, in typical Lawrence style blurring the boundary between magic and technology.
There is one other novel feature of the world that has me wanting to re-read C.S.Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew – but to explain why would be too spoilery. You’ll know it when you read it!
Lawrence’s prose remains as effortlessly elegant as ever, with practically every page of my pdf including highlighted text and a marginal comment ‘nice line’ or ‘sharp observation.’ Lawrence’s turns of phrase make imaginative use of quotidian words, such that you feel you are looking at a familiar idea from a new and refreshing angle. Here are just a smattering of lines that caught my eye, plucked from the first hundred pages or so.
After disaster strikes
The hate was in her belly, an unfamiliar sharp-angled lump of feeling that was at once both fire and ice.
Walking past the carcass of an old ship stranded in the dust
Strangers, blood, and now a ship. They plodded on, leaving the ribs behind them, still reaching for an uncaring sky.
Or on weapons
The soldier had a quote: Steel demands to be used. Which, according to him, meant that any weapon aches for violence and sooner or later that ache will pervade the one who owns it, until at least the weapon owns them.
While the lush comfort of Lawrence’s prose always makes for a smooth reading experience, his approach to narrative planning has tended more towards pantster than plotster. He is as likely as the reader to be surprised by what happens between the top and the bottom of any given page. In the past this may have led to some stories sprawling into entertaining but lengthy digressions and subplots, or even an intended standalone having to be retrofitted into a coherent trilogy.
However, The Book that Wouldn’t Burn has an admirably satisfying coherence of plot. Its threads and foreshadowing all come together in a twisting but action filled last hundred or so pages, enigmas unravelled (well partially) and behaviours suddenly making perfect sense. Lawrence plays fair with his readers but the elegance of his prose and the pace of his action mean the reader might fly past some clues, like a signpost missed while travelling at speed on a winding track, yet which seems absolutely clear when looked back on.
The narrative alternates between the two protagonists in sections that are each a few chapters long. However, in a new old development – and in keeping with a book about a library that contains EVERY book, Lawrence introduces each chapter with an epigram extract taken from a book. Lawrence has written about this process here. Some of the books are fictional, some are real and some are imaginatively and humorously authored, for example Always the Bright Side, by M.P.Thon. This particular example speaks to every author (self-published or traditional) who has dreamed of the word-of-mouth recommendations that can build sufficient critical mass to see a herd of readers descend on their book.
We humans are herd animals. When several gather to browse in one spot, more will come. Few places offer more eloquent testimony to this fact than does a library, wherein our focus ensures some few books scarcely touch the shelves from the moment of their binding until the day they fall apart from overuse. Whilst all around in sullen silence, the unloved show their spines in endless rows, aching for the touch that never comes.
The Art of the Index, by Dr. H.Worblehood
Evar and Livira each have their found families, the formidable team of Evar’s siblings, and the industrious camaraderie of Livira’s fellow student librarians, but they are both embroiled in familiar issues of war and hate.
The sabbers have driven Livira from her home and it was sabbers who destroyed Evar’s hidden community. That fills them both with a legacy of hate. However, Livira’s misfortune earns her little sympathy in the citadel of Crath. The populace, fearful of refugees, relentlessly ‘other ‘the people of the Dust – dusters. The refugees are not fellow humans to be offered shelter and sustenance, but a threat to be insulted with demeaning sobriquets and held very much at arm’s length – or at least beyond the city walls. The idea of fear dividing rather than binding humanity has a great deal of contemporary relevance. Lawrence puts that same thought into the mind of Clovis, one of Evar’s siblings, perpetually angry and in search of a war. Borders, Clovis said, were important. Something to be defended.
Lawrence also plays with ideas of knowledge – and with the irony that in the garden of Eden the original sin was the seeking of knowledge. The biblical references continue with the characters Jaspeth and Irad grandchildren of the fratricidal Cain, named as builders/contesters of the first ever library and taking prominent roles in the mythology on which the library is built.
The library, as infinite as the internet, contains all knowledge. Within its stacks it is possible to find somewhere an argument to support any perspective you want. Lawrence’s library is a place of conflict, a place which strives for a balance between releasing information sufficient for humanity to save itself, but not so liberally that it self-destructs.
As Yute says
Truths cast many shadows, some of which are very different when the light shines from one direction than from another. The library is a compromise – that’s the truth. The library is a battleground. That’s also a kind of truth.
In a world facing the climate crisis amongst other critical issues – it seems that truth is not so much a laggardly athlete still lacing up its trainers while lies circumnavigate the globe, and more a piece of meat fought over by dogs in the street. Humans are emotionally driven beings and our emotional states and beliefs dictate the direction from which we view different truths. Lawrence reflects that ambiguity in the colour coded garb of his librarians. The most junior are clad in pure white robes – reflecting that youthful certainty in the simplicity of truth and knowledge. However, with seniority the robes assume progressively darker tones of grey to show how experience literally shades that confidence in the existence of immutable truths. With access to infinite information, people can find ‘evidence’ to support any truth of their own choosing, and will default to those ‘truths’ which best match their tribal allegiances and emotional states.
As Redlawski et al put it in 2010 (Quoted by Christopher Groves in “Post-truth and anthropogenic climate change: asking the right questions” 2019 DOI 10.1002/wcc.620)
“Social science research suggests that reasoning away contradictions is psychologically easier than revising feelings”
Or as Mark Twain put it more simply a hundred years previously
It is easier to fool a man than to persuade him he’s been fooled.
This is a long (nearly 600 pages) but engrossing book that many have rightly considered Lawrence’s best work yet. There is the hallmark fluid and engrossing prose, the pithy epithets, the compelling characters, but also a deeply satisfying plot and some great contemporary resonances that do what great literature does best, hold a mirror up to society.
It was a delight to read with the action accelerating towards the end, the last 150 pages or so an ever faster switchback ride of twists, reveals and bloody action that leave you hungry for book two
The Book that Wouldn’t Burn is out from HarperVoyager on 11th May. You can pre-order your copy HERE