Paper and Fire is the second book in Rachel Caine’s The Great Library series. The story is set in an alternate timeline where the Great Library of Alexandria never burned down, has become the world’s greatest power, and now – in the name of the “greater good” protecting knowledge – controls the information, research, and scholarship of the world, ruthlessly stamping out all rebellion. Personal ownership of books is forbidden and people may only access (through an electronic Codex similar to an ebook) those books approved by the Library. Book smuggling is rife, and a movement known as the Burners protests the tyranny of the Library by burning books – and themselves.
Picking up a few months after Ink and Bone’s dramatic conclusion, Jess and his friends discover that their friend Thomas may still be alive, held prisoner by the Library; and that his research has been hidden in the fabled Black Archives – a repository for all the forbidden, banned knowledge and research. They embark on a plan to discover his whereabouts and rescue him; no matter the danger, no matter the cost.
Riveting and fast-paced, the action hurtles from training battles in Alexandria to Burner attacks in Rome, as Jess and company face off against High Garda soldiers, fearsome automata, and treacherous Scholars and Obscurists. While the book starts off relatively slow, the action soon ramps up to a blistering pace and doesn’t let up until the shocking conclusion.
Action aside, Paper and Fire is also notable for its well-written characters. Though Jess is the main protagonist, his journey is rooted in his growing attachment to his adopted “family”. The relationships between the central characters are compelling and believable, and each person has their own strengths, fallibilities, and individual voice. Because it’s so easy to care about these characters, it makes their fate at the hands of the library much more meaningful.
To the library, no life is worth as much as a book; but Paper and Fire argues that no knowledge is worth our freedom, our dignity or our lives. This is a thought-provoking and compelling story of the fight for freedom, and the sacrifices it requires.
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