Books about reading and books are a favorite of mine. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is a recent one; The People of the Book, and The Book Thief, The End of Your Life Book Club and the wacky If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler. Possession, certainly, and The Shadow of the Wind. 84 Charing Cross Road (went I went to London I made sure to go to Charing Cross Road, even if the bookstore from the book is gone now) and My Reading Life. And of course, Fahrenheit 451, which is, I think, the book that started my interest in books about books.
So obviously I couldn’t resist The Reader by Traci Chee, a YA fantasy set in a world without books. I thought it would be a fantasy version of 451, where books are illegal but some people still have them anyway. Instead, it is a society where books just don’t exist. They aren’t a part of the culture. It’s a landscape made of several large islands (reminiscent, just the smallest bit, of Wizard of Earthsea), with each island having its own government and many of the islands battling each other for resources.
Sefia, the main character, has been living on the run with her aunt Nin since her parents died. They carry what they need in their packs and hunt for game as they go; sometimes they enter different towns or villages to sell the pelts they have collected. One day, when Sefia is returning from a village, she discovers that Aunt Nin has been captured. She watches from the woods while the strangers beat her aunt and then, when she won’t tell them where “it” is, they load her over a horse and take her away.
The movement of the book is in Sefia trying to track down the people who took her aunt so she can rescue her. The “it” the abductors wanted is, Sefia comes to realize, the only object that Nin saved from Sefia’s home after her father was killed, a rectangular thing with a metal hinge and paper bound inside: a book. Not just, you realize as the story progresses, a book, but the book, the only one left intact. The story moves between Sefia’s adventures; those of a boy named Lon, who is taken from his home to become an apprentice Librarian; and the seafaring story of Captain Reed (reminiscent, just a bit, of Gaiman’s Stardust). As she travels through the forest, Sefia picks up a companion, a boy named Archer who himself had been kidnapped and turned into a fighter; Sefia rescues him from being taken to the army.
Although I had a hard time imagining how a society would function without any form of writing—how do merchants keep track of what they buy and sell, for example?—and even though it was entirely different than what I expected, I really enjoyed this novel. It has just enough magic, without it being overpowering; I liked that Sefia was already strong before the story started (books with characters who suddenly discover they are expert trackers or archers or jiu-jitsu masters or whatever make me nuts) but that she discovered different things about herself. I liked the backstory of the mysterious secret society created to preserve bits of writing. And I liked the idea of the book, a magical book which is not just any book but one that contains all the stories, both living and invented, so that eventually Sefia and Archer, who have been reading about Captain Reed in the book, actually meet Captain Reed.
It’s very meta.
Mostly I like how books and the idea of reading are a type of magic in the world, because, let’s face it, books have always been magic for me (but of a very different sort than Sefia’s) and, I imagine, they are for most bibliophiles. Plus, there are interesting things done with the book itself. Like, some of the page numbers also have words, so there is a tiny little subtext you can read via the numbers. There are fingerprints and blotches here and there (I actually thought, when I noticed the first one, ah, crap, I smudged the book). Until they meet up, you “read” the story about Captain Reed out of the book in Sefia’s backpack (and it has its own series of smudges).
I suspected that this book would break my no-unfinished-trilogies rule, and it did. (The cover itself gives that away, too: it says pretty clearly that this is “Book One of Sea of Ink and Gold.) There is definitely a sequel or two to come. Some series I don’t continue reading, either because I didn’t get drawn in to the first book enough or because I didn’t feel like I needed more of the world. This one is a series I think I will follow, even though in a sense the first book felt like enough.