Sunday Soupçons #21

Posted 16th July 2023 by Sia in Fantasy Reviews, Reviews, Sunday Soupçons / 0 Comments

soupçon/ˈsuːpsɒn,ˈsuːpsɒ̃/ noun
1. a very small quantity of something; a slight trace, as of a particular taste or flavor

Sunday Soupçons is where I scribble mini-reviews for books I don’t have the brainspace/eloquence/smarts to write about in depth – or if I just don’t have anything interesting to say beyond I LIKED IT AND YOU SHOULD READ IT TOO!

Given that my last two ‘proper’ reviews have been Very Unhappy – and the next one up isn’t very happy either – I wanted to provide proof that not everything I’ve been reading is awful! (In fact, most of it’s been EXCELLENT, but I’ve had so few spoons lately that I’m not getting written all the reviews I want to write!)

The Book That Wouldn’t Burn (The Library Trilogy, #1) by Mark Lawrence
Genres: Science Fantasy
PoV: Third-person, past-tense, dual-PoVs

A boy has lived his whole life trapped within a vast library, older than empires and larger than cities.

A girl has spent hers in a tiny settlement out on the Dust where nightmares stalk and no one goes.

The world has never even noticed them. That's about to change.

Their stories spiral around each other, across worlds and time. This is a tale of truth and lies and hearts, and the blurring of one into another. A journey on which knowledge erodes certainty, and on which, though the pen may be mightier than the sword, blood will be spilled and cities burned.

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

The Book That Wouldn’t Burn doesn’t quite live up to its breathtaking cover, but it is incredibly impressive nonetheless. When I finished it, I was left convinced that Lawrence has been working his way up to telling this story for his entire career – and that the wait has absolutely been worth it.

There is a library. It is, in fact, the Library, containing, potentially-probably, everything ever written by every sentient species to ever evolve on the planet. (And, just possibly, from some species who didn’t.) It is impossibly endless, beyond labyrinthine – and no, there is no Dewey Decimal system at work on these shelves to order them, or even a catalogue of the books that exist on those shelves. Librarians die, sometimes, going beyond the tiny area that has been properly mapped.

There is a girl – Livira – who, through semi-miraculous circumstances, becomes an apprentice librarian despite her background of extreme poverty. Just a little bit ruthless and probably braver than is good for her, she dares explore beyond the mapped areas, and each discovery she makes there is stranger than the last.

There is a boy – Evar – who, along with his not-biological siblings, lives in the Library. In one giant room, in fact. He doesn’t know how his people came to be trapped – or hidden? – in this room, but everyone else is gone now, and if there’s a way out, he’s never found it. Unlike Livira’s librarians, Evar and his family don’t hold the books as particularly sacred – but when he finds a book that tells him not to read it, he, too, ends up making some seriously mindblowing discoveries about the nature of the Library – and maybe the nature of reality.

The Book That Wouldn’t Burn is very much one that builds up and up and up on you – and not annoyingly slowly, either, but also not at such a breakneck speed that events feel rushed. Your comprehension of just what’s going on here dawns bit by bit, and the implications–!!! Some of it is in-jokes with the reader – a reference to Edgar Allen Poe, for example – but even those…they make you grin, until you start to think about what their existence in this book means. If the ancient builders of the Library – whoever they were – knew Poe, does that mean The Book That Wouldn’t Burn is set on our world? Is this setting meant to be our future?

There’s so much twistiness here, and that’s only the tiniest part of it, something I mention to whet your appetite. If you like stories that don’t go anywhere you expect, with giant, unfathomable mysteries, this is definitely one to pick up.

Lawrence also encourages the reader to consider the importance of knowledge repositories like libraries – and of the accessibility of those knowledge repositories. Liv’s society is defined by the existence of the Library, and by who controls it, and by what books the monarch orders distributed. This is simultaneously a book about the dangers of restricted knowledge, and the dangers of unrestricted knowledge: what happens when a librarian discovers the instructions for making, say, an atom bomb, in a society that hasn’t even invented firearms yet? Should that society have access to that knowledge? (Should any society, regardless of its level of technological development?) If not, how do you pick and choose what is hidden and what is free to be known? And who do you trust to do the choosing?

But no need to fear that this is a very preachy, lecture-y story; it definitely has a philosophical bent, but it’s also a damn good – adventure? mystery? romance? All of those and more, really. I admit I found the beginning a little dull, but things moved at a very good pace, and I loved how often this book left me gaping at its surprises!

Strongly recommended.

Of Absence, Darkness (Death's Lady #2) by Rachel Neumeier
Genres: Fantasy, Portal Fantasy
Representation: Brown cast except for the MC/s
PoV: Third-person, past-tense

Down the rabbit hole, but not to Wonderland.

Daniel never imagined that Tenai's memories of her earlier life might be absolutely true. But when he and his daughter are swept up in the plots of her enemies and dropped abruptly into a world of dark magic and darker history, Daniel must find a way to aid Tenai against the all-too-real echoes of her past.

Though the hidden schemes of Tenai's enemies offer peril enough, the worse threat comes from within: if Tenai cannot master the vast rage she still carries, her own fury may shatter her world.

After devouring the first, novella-length entry in this series, it took me a while to get around to these, the ‘main’ books. I find that I have to be in a particular mood to enjoy Neumeier’s writing style – but once I’m in that mood, or mode, or headspace, or whatever, absolutely nothing else will do. (Which is why I’m now reading three of her other books simultaneously. NEUMEIER OR NOTHING!)

The Death’s Lady series – and you really must read the first book, the novella, even if the main books do make sense without it – follows Daniel and his daughter Jenna, as they meet the strange woman Tenai, who insists she comes from another world, and is immortal due to a bargain made with Lord Death. Daniel, a psychiatric doctor, naturally assumes this is a very complex series of false memories overlying great trauma, but Tenai manages to adjust and make a life for herself in our world. The series gets going when – in the opening pages of Of Absence, Darkness – Tenai is pulled by unknown persons back to her own world – and Daniel and Jenna get pulled along with her.

What follows is a strangely soothing, high-stakes political Portal Fantasy. Tenai is a much-feared figure in her own world, and whoever pulled her back to it clearly wants her to make war against the current king. She doesn’t want to do that, but…it’s complicated, and what is necessary to prevent her presence from causing widespread instability is…a lot to ask. But it is asked of her nonetheless.

Daniel is a great PoV character to have here, and I think it was a good choice to tell the story through him (and Jenna, who becomes a PoV character in As Shadow, A Light) rather than Tenai herself. It underscores the…the intrinsic strangeness of Tenai, which would have been lost, probably, if we spent the book in her head instead. And, as is one of the great appeals of Portal Fantasy, it’s great to have a character who’s as clueless about the world they’re dropped into as we are – and who shares our views when something about this fantasy world is…something that’s not easy for us to wrap our heads around!

I’m definitely tired of such patriarchal settings as this, but Neumeier’s prose is more than enough to make up for it: soothing, as I said, and ridiculously more-ish. I flew through these, and am currently happily ensconced in the spin-off novella. Very much recommended for fans of political intrigue!

Have you read these? Do you want to? Let me know!

Tags: , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.