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Sword and Pen
The Great Library #5
by Rachel Caine
Berkley, $17.99, 368pp
Published: September 2019

I mentioned in my review of 'Smoke and Iron', the fourth book in 'The Great Library' series by Rachel Caine, a year ago this month, that I expected that it would also be the last. A number of story arcs were converging by the end of the third book, 'Ash and Quill' and it seemed that they would all wrap up in one tidy bundle. Well, that didn't happen because 'Smoke and Iron' was a pivot rather than a conclusion. It ended some things but it began others and here's where we find out where those new story arcs might be going.

In many ways, this is book four part two, as I suggested as I finished up my review of 'Smoke and Iron'. Even where that book found endings, it did so in a very hesitant fashion, as if those endings could be changed or ripped away in an instant. 'Sword and Pen' solidifies them to the degree that we feel as if we're ready at last for the next stage. And that's a good thing.

For those keeping track, the revolution is won. The half dozen heroes we've followed from their education at the Great Library in Alexandria in 'Ink and Bone' have completed their journey from the future of the establishment to outcast heretics on the run from it all the way back to becoming the future of the establishment in a new way, reworked to fit the morality they sought. The Great Library is free, but the Archivist who led it is still out there, surely plotting revenge and likely serious devastation. There's much to do to make things safe from him.

Interestingly, our primary focal point for the series, Jess Brightwell, has the least defined role of those six. After all, Thomas is now free to create the mechanical marvels his genius conjures up. Dario plays a tough but solid role that utilises his skills in deception. Glain kicks ass the way we knew she always would. Morgan can finally explore her powers with help from those who can guide her. Khalila finds herself as the chief aide to Murusaki, the newly elected Archivist. Even the gay dads of the series have plenty to do: Santi leads the Garda, the military wing of the Library, and Wolfe is tasked with figuring out how to stop the Archivist.

So they're all busy and Jess has no easily defined place. Perhaps realising this himself, he commits a heroic act and practically kills himself in the process. He spends most of this book suffering from a dose of toxic gas for which there is no apparent cure. We fully expect him to drop dead by the end of the book, perhaps during a particularly notable finalé, but his part has to gradually make itself clear. I liked that.

I hesitate to compare Jess Brightwell to Harry Potter, because they're far from the same but the similarities go well beyond finishing a series in two books. Potter was thrust into a unique position through circumstances out of his control, mostly to do with his family. Brightwell fits that description well. He comes from a family of illegal book smugglers, his father a player of singular importance in that world, but he works for the Great Library, a two-thousand-year-old establishment with a monopoly on knowledge. He finds his beliefs and his heritage to often be in conflict, but it's that unique position that allows him to change the world.

It doesn't hurt that there are some fantastic setpiece chapters here. Never mind all the political shenanigans, just check out Jess's journey through a centuries-old crypt full of puzzles and traps. When I think of Harry Potter, I'm not thinking of school stories and magic wands, I'm thinking of him in a succession of crypts full of puzzles and traps and Brightwell has a doozy to explore here, not just in what it is but in what it means.

I liked this book a lot. In fact, I think it's not only a great way to wrap up a series, it goes out on a high because this is arguably the best book of the five. And that's yet another reason why I really hope it isn't the last, along with the fact that, while I was ready most of the way through 'Smoke and Iron' for everything to end, I wasn't here. This feels as much like new beginnings as it does old endings.

So sure, this is book four part two and we're done. Is there any real need for a proper book five? Not really. This does finish wrapping up all those story arcs and plot strands; all the grand manouevering has come to an end. However, the world which these books inhabit is stronger than ever. While a set of heroes have played their parts, that doesn't mean that we can't move on to a new batch of heroes in a new series set within this universe.

After all, there's far more here than just adventure. Young adults may well read this on the surface but, if they revisit it a few years later, they'll start to see other things going on. This is about control and who should be able to wield it. It's about censorship; I'm still humbled by how hard the author hit us when she destroyed a tower of books in the Library of frickin' Alexandria, all the while knowing that in our world the whole thing burned. It's about surveillance. It's about technology and how that ties to freedom. In a wildly different way, this future fantasy world is as topical to us in 2019 as Cory Doctorow's “Little Brother”.

And it would be a shame if we didn't get to explore that more. Rachel Caine has done a lot of things with this series. It's an adventure yarn, a school story, a romance, a war epic, a tale of revolution, a social commentary and a damn fine read. The only thing I hope it isn't - is over. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For more titles in this series click here
For more titles by Rachel Caine click here

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