Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Rachel Caine has created an enthralling universe of alternate history in her Great Library Series, portraying a world where the library of Alexandria survived the fire. In the third book, titled Ash and Quill, we follow Jess and his band as they take refuge in a rebellious Burner world, opposed to the library’s tyranny. However, Jess finds more enemies than friends among them, but holds one bargaining chip: the knowledge to build a machine capable of withstanding the Great Library.
Table of contents
Rachel Caine and her World of Dangerous Knowledge
Resources and weapons are undoubtedly effective and time-tested tools of power, but they tend to pale in comparison with the amount of control and insight knowledge can provide. The one who knows the most tends to have the greatest amount of possibilities at their disposal, and in Rachel Caine‘s dystopian world created in the Great Library Series, this one entity is the Library of Alexandria.
Picking up after Ink and Bone and Paper and Fire, the third book in the series, Ash and Quill, does demand you read the books in order. While it could certainly be enjoyed as a standalone offering, it will certainly get confusing for those who are unacquainted with the setting and characters.
In any case, after their adventures in the last book, Jess and his band have fled London and have gone all the way down to Philadelphia, a city of burners who strongly oppose and rebel against the Library’s tyrannical rule. They would rather see books burnt than comply with the demands of their oppressors.
The old adage “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” has held true for a large part of history, but unfortunately for Jess and his friends, they are about to make one of the few examples where it does not. The burners are proving to be just as much of an enemy as the ruthless Library, and common goals don’t seem to be enough to sway their opinions.
Jess, however, isn’t completely hopeless in the face of this situation. He holds a bargaining chip which could not only set them free, but also pose the first very real threat to the Library’s existence. He has the knowledge to build a machine capable of breaking the Great Library’s grasp over the world and properly defy it.
Cranking Up the Pace in Ash and Quill
When the second book of the series came out, it felt like Caine had slowed the pace down some, and I was wondering whether it would be a brief respite or a sign of things to come. As it’s turning out in Ash and Quill, it was a welcome interlude, but the time has come to return to the more fast-paced nature of the first book.
From the very first pages the author grabs the reader by the collar and doesn’t let go until the end, with events, actions and decisions piling on top of one another almost as fast as we can remember them. I think Ash and Quill could stand to serve as a great example of what it means to truly be a “page-turner” of a novel.
When all the world is a lock, boy, you don’t make a key. You become a key.― Rachel Caine, Ash and Quill
There are plenty of thrills, chases and action sequences in general to make the events of the novel fly by in a nearly unnoticeable flash, and I have to say Caine does a magnificent job at describing those and making you feel like you’re in the middle of it.
All too often my problem with action scenes in other novels lays in losing the thread of what’s actually happening, turning the whole thing into a chaotic mess where somehow the desired result comes about. There’s none of this nonsense here, with every action and detail minutely described to form a logical chain of events we can very easily visualize.
Naturally, the book isn’t entirely carried by action scenes, and there are enough moments of respite here and there for our heroes to catch our breath and for us to think about their situation. I found even these moments were generally marked by a certain tension created with the knowledge of what might await them once they enter back into the fray.
The Ever-Expanding World
At the onset, when Rachel Caine created the world of the Great Library Series, it was already quite big and populated by noticeably diverse casts of characters from different walks of life. With the two subsequent novels, the universe she has created has only grown increasingly larger in scale and more complex in its nature.
No one with a book is ever alone, even in the darkest moments.― Rachel Caine, Ash and Quill
There are plenty of different factions besides our main characters (more on them in a bit), and it’s quite interesting to learn about their philosophies in regards to knowledge and its control, as well as their general morals and values developed by living in this alternate history universe.
While the plentifulness of action scenes does of course somewhat limit Caine‘s ability to explore and develop her characters, she still manages to get more than enough done to make them interesting to my eyes.
The characters are rarely totally black or white in terms of their goals and ambitions, most of them settling in the interesting grey zone the vast majority of people in life fall into. As nice as it is to have clear-cut heroes and villains, I think it can be equally-intriguing to have characters with a far less certain allegiances and fates awaiting them.
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As a matter of fact, I’d say this also applies to our principal cast of characters to a certain extent. While we can certainly guess from behind our fourth wall who is undoubtedly on the good side, I believe this is only true for our protagonists; there are plenty of people surrounding them whose motivations certainly merit further exploration. With this book ending on a cliffhanger – and not a bad one in any way – I think we can safely assume Caine‘s ever-expanding world still has leagues to go yet.
The Final Verdict
Ash and Quill by Rachel Caine is a tremendous continuation to the Great Library series, picking the pace right back up after the second book and thrusting us into a nearly non-stop action-packed adventure led by rather interesting characters who are certainly wise beyond their years. If you’ve enjoyed the first two books in the series, then I believe picking this one up is a bit of a no-brainer at this point.
Rachel Caine is a pen name used by Roxanne Longstreet Conrad , an American writer who has dabbled in many genres, including science-fiction, suspense, horror, mystery and fantasy.
Julie Fortune is another pen name of hers. She has published a large number of book series to this day, with some of the most well-received novels including Glass Houses, Ill Wind, Ink and Bone, and Stormriders.