THE BOOK THAT WOULDN’T BURN by Mark Lawrence (BOOK REVIEW)
“Some silences stretch, the tension builds and builds again until the suddenness of the inevitable snap.
That’s the quiet which lies between people. Other silences fall like a heavy blanket, enduring so long that they become a second skin which can be punctured but never broken. Words are like wounds to such a silence, quickly healed over, quickly forgotten, leaving no scar. The library’s silence was like that.”
The Book That Wouldn’t Burn by Mark Lawrence is my first foray into the author’s work and I was left thoroughly impressed by the grand scope of this novel.
Evar, along with his four other ‘siblings’ have lived their entire lives trapped within a vast library. The Library is as big as a city, with many places to explore and countless volumes of knowledge to devour. The five of them grow their own food, entertain themselves by honing their specialist skills and entering the Mechanism, a box-like machine that can bring any book to life within its walls. Though the Mechanism holds many dangers. The five were lost for decades within the Mechanism’s chamber, deposited back into the library at various points, never having aged, and finding that they were the only people left in the Library. For Evar, the Mechanism had left him with part of his memories missing, with a sense that he had to find a woman who needed his help, but who she was and why she needed him, he couldn’t recall. So Evar spends his days trying to escape the Library, as he knows the answers are to be found beyond its confinement.
Livira has spent her days living on the settlement of Dust, a barren wasteland where the people are barely just surviving. When the monstrous sabbers, a dog-like race of beings, attack her home, soldiers come to fight them off, but instead of rescuing the settlers, they take all the children to the City. For most of the children, this is a harrowing ordeal, secretly for Livira, it’s what she had always been dreaming of—to escape the endless hardships of the Dust, to see what lay beyond, and to make the most of what the City had to offer. Yet Livira is also destined for so much more.
The opening of this book is presented as a puzzle, one in which we must slowly decipher. Lawrence gives us two separate main characters, each on their own journey and watching both unfold, knowing they would eventually entwine, was nothing short of fascinating. Lawrence’s prose flows easily, drawing a vivid picture of Crath City and its Library. It is a place split between luxury and poverty, between science and religion, between knowledge and secrets. Although at times certain information is unnecessarily repeated, particularly that of Evar’s memory loss, throughout the book we are given several pieces of the rich history of this world, and we begin to understand how it has changed, but we are still compelled to discover more.
The worldbuilding was most definitely my favourite part. I’m a huge fan of fantastical creatures and monsters and Lawrence provided them aplenty. Sabbers, giant dust-bears, Escapes—this world is filled with nightmares you wouldn’t want to ever encounter. I loved how these creatures, as well as the characters, were used to reflect upon themes of evolution, prejudice and even genocide. As I have mentioned this novel is grand in scope. Lawrence cleverly crosses genres whilst also crossing timelines. I generally struggle with the concept of entangled timelines in books, so unfortunately I was pulled out of the story several times because of this. However, for those of you who love a good twisty timeline, you’re going to absolutely love this aspect.
Above all else, this is a character driven tale and both characters are excellently developed. Livira is a young girl who most expect little from. She’s spent her life in the Dust settlement on the brink of starvation. We learn very early on that her talent lies in numbers and an astounding memory. Having been in charge of collecting beans for her aunt, she can do sums in her head that many struggle to even comprehend. Even though she is illiterate, having lacked any kind of formal education or finesse, she is ever keen to learn, to prove those who look down on her as a street urchin and a mere savage creature wrong. Though it’s no easy task when those in charge of placing the children into work see you as not fit to enter their more civilised society. It is only when a Librarian, Master Yute, sees potential in her, Livira has the opportunity to shine. This was an aspect I loved about Livira, her eagerness and determination, her curiosity and need for answers, her thirst for understanding the world around her and her ability to adapt. There is a fire simmering inside her and it burns to show the world her worth.
“Shelf upon shelf, aisle upon aisle. The weight of it all, the sheer physical weight of it, felt like a burden on her soul. All these words screaming silently to be read. She hurried on with no clear destination, passing lifetimes of endeavour with each step.”
As fiery as Livira is, our Evar is more on the gentle and pensive side. Having spent so long trapped in the Library, he’s starved of not food but of people, of compassion and affection. His other ‘siblings’ who bear no blood relation to him but are nonetheless his brothers and sister by circumstance, are presented as sterile and calculating due to the skills the Mechanism have left them with. Clovis, the warrior, is almost feral with rage, seeking only revenge on the sabbers. Then there’s Starval whose art is murder and Kerrol who is adept in psychology and can easily manipulate. Evar, with no specific skill of his own, never really knows if the others are to be trusted and with his nature being more considerate and kind, he is the glue which holds his found family together. There’s also a romantic side to Evar, in his pursuit to find the mysterious girl who needs his help, we are drawn into a crossed lovers plot, one that sweeps you away.
The Book That Wouldn’t Burn is a tapestry which beautifully weaves together a wondrous Library, terrifying creatures and two characters desperate to find one another.
ARC Provided by Sophia at Harper Voyager in exchange for an honest review. Thank you for the copy!