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The Absolute Book

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Taryn Cornick believes that the past--her sister's violent death, and her own ill-conceived revenge--is behind her, and she can get on with her life. She has written a successful book about the things that threaten libraries: insects, damp, light, fire, carelessness and uncaring . . . but not all of the attention it brings her is good.

A policeman, Jacob Berger, questions her about a cold case. Then there are questions about a fire in the library at her grandparents' house and an ancient scroll box known as the Firestarter, as well as threatening phone calls and a mysterious illness. Finally a shadowy young man named Shift appears, forcing Taryn and Jacob toward a reckoning felt in more than one world.

The Absolute Book is epic, action-packed fantasy in which hidden treasures are recovered, wicked things resurface, birds can talk, and dead sisters are a living force. It is a book of journeys and returns, from contemporary England to Auckland, New Zealand; from a magical fairyland to Purgatory. Above all, it is a declaration of love for stories and the ways in which they shape our worlds and create gods out of morals.

640 pages, Hardcover

First published September 1, 2019

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About the author

Elizabeth Knox

46 books896 followers
Elizabeth Knox was born in Wellington‚ New Zealand‚ and is the author of eleven novels and three novella and a book of essays.

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 966 reviews
Profile Image for Marchpane.
296 reviews2,172 followers
March 7, 2020
The Absolute Book is an esoteric, often maddening, epic fantasy that is ultimately rooted in contemporary concerns. It really defies summation but what we’re dealing with here is an ode to stories, language, and libraries that takes the form of a quest/portal fantasy and incorporates a kitchen sink’s worth of myths and legends from Celtic, Judeo-Christian, Norse, ancient Greek traditions and more.

The human protagonist, Taryn, is a successful author dealing with the fallout of her sister’s murder years earlier. She meets a strange man, whose face can never quite be seen clearly, who shapeshifts and loses his entire memory every 200 years. They team up to find an object of special power, but I won’t say more because letting this slippery story unspool is half the fun.

This is a strikingly weird novel that does a great job blending the fantastical with the prosaic. Over 650 pages, the story wheels dizzyingly from Arthurian Britain to an antiquarian book shop in Wales to the Auckland Writer’s Festival to actual Purgatory. It’s packed with literary references on top of all the mythology. Even the supernatural characters are more likely to behave like scholars and diplomats than warriors or rulers.

For most of the novel, everything is so shrouded in mystery and written so obliquely that it’s hard to make much sense of it. That can be pretty frustrating, but beneath the surface it’s really clever and layered, and if you go along for the ride, the eventual payoffs are surprising and gratifying in the best way. This is the kind of book that re-reading was made for.

The Absolute Book isn’t exactly action-packed, and it does require some tenacity to get through the baggier sections. Not everyone’s cup of tea perhaps but it’s wild and it’s woolly and I think it’s quite wonderful.
Profile Image for Peter Mathews.
Author 12 books117 followers
February 19, 2021
Over the last year or so I've been eyeing opportunities to read some literature from New Zealand, and Elizabeth Knox is an author who caught my eye. Her novel The Vintner's Luck is on many lists of excellent novels by New Zealanders, and so when one reviewer compared her latest, The Absolute Book, to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, I moved it to the front of my long reading queue.

One of the remarkable things about Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is Clarke's sense of control, the feeling that she knows exactly the direction of her plot, the personalities of her characters, and the ideas she wants to explore in her fiction. The Absolute Book could not be more different, a hot mess of a novel that borrows anything and everything in a desperate, flailing attempt to make something stick. Unfortunately, nothing does.

At its center is the figure of Taryn Cornick, an author who wrote a book about the destruction of libraries, and yet seems strangely reluctant to discuss the most enticing aspects of this topic. We learn a great deal about Taryn's background: the killing of her sister, Beatrice, by a man who deliberately ran her over with his car; her marriage to a rich, older man named Alan Palfreyman, a seemingly nice guy whom she treats with disdain; her pact with a man named Hamish McFadden, for some reason dubbed "The Muleskinner", to kill her sister's murderer; and the possession by her grandfather of a mysterious book known as the Firestarter, for obvious reasons; a policeman, Jacob Berger, senses that something is not quite right, and starts investigating Taryn.

If Knox had kept the novel within these basic parameters, it might have been okay. Instead, though, the book explodes into a supernatural thriller. We learn there is a pact with hell in which the souls of one hundred thousand humans are demanded each century. A young man named Shift, so called because he can change his shape, comes into the picture, his place in this mythological universal gradually revealed. Taryn's father Bruce, a famous actor, plays the part of Odin, not realizing that he has actually descended into hell, in one of the novel's most ridiculous scenes. Eventually, Taryn figures out that she needs to visit her mother in Purgatory in order to discover the location of the Absolute Book, and renegotiate the pact to set the world back to rights. The book closes with a bizarre fantasy in which capitalism suddenly dissolves and magic is used to heal the environmental damage that led to climate change.

The Absolute Book is a tangled mess of contradictions, borrowing wildly from religion and mythology in a way that never truly makes any sense. The characters, similarly, were shallow and contradictory - Taryn comes across as a self-hating manipulator, Jacob is a cliched cop with a hunch, Shift's personality is as formless as his physical body, and the Muleskinner is a villain without a clear or believable motive.

The biggest weakness of the novel, however, lies in its muddleheaded plot. Knox seems to be making up rules as she goes along, so that the pursuit of the Firestarter feels completely unnecessary to the book's climax. Each twist feels arbitrary, as though Knox were justifying her narrative choices after the fact, especially that ill-advised utopian ending. Ultimately, this book was an enormous disappointment, a disaster from beginning to end - that will teach me to wander off the straight and narrow path of my planned reading.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Perseus Q.
68 reviews5 followers
August 16, 2020
I had no idea what was happening.
There’s a talking bird.
Profile Image for Trudie.
544 reviews585 followers
February 27, 2020
* 2.5 *

Review disclaimer* - This is my first time reading Elizabeth Knox and my relationship with fantasy is often tenuous. The Absolute Book is good, nay, excellent in many respects but I am not it's most ideal reader. With that said lets carry on ...

I picked this book up ignorant of the fact that it was fantasy, which in hindsight seems like poor research on my part but actually probably worked out well. I was gently lulled into a fantasy/ crime /cyberterrorism/ Da Vinci Code melange and I was cool with that. Then came a pretty compelling parallel world ( was it parallel ?), a Tolkien homage, a blissfully peaceful pastoral utopia with only the tinkling of waterfalls and magic vacuum cleaners to disturb. This is the aspect of the book that kept me going. Knox is such a beautiful writer of place, she lavishes attention on the tiny details of landscape, architecture, food, clothing and then juxtaposes it all in surprising ways with modern technology.
This is propulsive, imaginative, and often delightful storytelling.

But...the plot when fully revealed is, at least to me, utterly incomprehensible. However, I am easily bamboozled by a complicated quest plot. Why does everyone want that magic scroll ? Why are there so many gates ? and gloves (I am imagining gold boxing gloves) and my, my how convenient is shape-shifting in a sticky situation. What was that bit about supernatural snow ? Swiftback ? So Many Questions. Too many.

If The Absolute Book makes it into a visual medium (which it seems destined to) then there are going to be some amazing set pieces and I will look forward to watching it but as a novel it was like a beautifully dressed stage set with a wooden and needlessly complicated script.

Alas, it seems epic fantasy and I are destined to remain estranged.

( Sidenote : The amazing cover imagery is a photo montage by Australian artist Catherine Nelson called Lost. Her images are pieced together from thousands of images to form fictional worlds and they all could be used to illustrate this novel. What a perfect author / artist matchup, well done VUP ! )
Profile Image for Spencer Orey.
557 reviews142 followers
February 18, 2021
This was an odd one. Without giving much away, it starts as a murder mystery and then grows to encompass different genres. I was here for the fantasy elements and felt like those were just ok. But the full book is something special. I think if you're someone who doesn't read much fantasy, you'll like this one. For us fantasy nerds, it was provoking but not spectacular.

Like a lot of readers, I was directed here by that epic review in Slate:


May we all get reviews like that one. Then again it set my expectations sky high.
Profile Image for Amy Burt.
206 reviews9 followers
February 7, 2021
I’ve seen so much hype for The Absolute Book that I couldn’t wait to read it, bumping it up my TBR, but I actually found it really hard to read. This book is like 650 pages and you feel every page, possibly because I couldn’t get into it. This book really is too long and I think could have easily lost hundreds of pages, you learn things you don’t need to know, events are incredibly detailed that don’t push the plot along, and on that matter, I could not tell you what really happened, I was re-reading parts trying to make sense of things, feeling like I missed something.. I have to say that this book is brilliantly written, Knox is truly talented, but it felt overwritten and while books can talk to you, this felt like it was talking at me and it made me feel incredibly stupid (it’s possible I am though). I also found the characters hard to relate to so overall I didn’t enjoy this experience unfortunately. I could feel the book was trying to say something and get somewhere, I just couldn’t make out what and where that was.

Thank you NetGalley for the early copy to read and review.
919 reviews255 followers
December 17, 2019

Don't really have words for this one - I think I need to read it again.

There are points where everything blurs out of focus, and I found myself skipping back a few pages quite often to work out if I'd missed something (sometimes I had, sometimes I hadn't and the explanation was to come, sometimes I hadn't and the explanation never came). Sometimes I just wanted to grab the narrative and swing it sideways to focus on something lurking just out of sight at the edges of the pages. Something felt inherently familiar about the whole thing, but I still can't put a finger on it. It's long and rambling and ambitious and odd and scattered and whole all at once - and everything pulls together at the last minute into... something else, a series of constant revelations resolving in a crescendo of sudden sense.

As I said, I think I need to read it again.
Profile Image for Rachel.
1,329 reviews107 followers
March 31, 2021
If a book was ever trying to be all things to all people, it was this one. It’s a strategy doomed to failure, and it’s a shame, because some of the multiple incoherent elements of this messy trudge of a book had real potential.

Let me list them all:

I don’t usually do plot summaries, but I felt compelled to given that this book has at least three books’ worth of plot in it. Definitely the most interesting element was It wasn’t just that the book was over-stuffed. It was set in too many places. Not including the ill-thought-out Sidhe-land, we visit England, Canada, France, and New Zealand (and of course Purgatory). Taryn has a Kiwi grandmother, for no reason. This book doesn’t feel rooted in any of those places because it doesn’t belong to any of them, any more than the Norse legends belong to England, so why do they feature so heavily? The choice to pick Christian and Norse myths as a basis for your England-based story is … weird. Like everything in this novel, it’s half-baked. Is Shift Jesus, Merlin, or Baldr? Is Knox trying to make the contention they are all the same – a bid for the unifying Ur-myth? Where are the other mythologies, the other ‘Heavens and Hells’?

I am particularly weary of the ‘Hell, but it’s not that bad’ trope. Either Hell is the worst place imaginable, inhabited by the worst people imaginable, or it’s not. And if it’s not, don’t fucking include it, or call it something else. (NOT ‘Purgatory’.)

The writing in this book has some elementary flaws. Firstly, it starts in the wrong place. It should open with Taryn’s visit to the Bibliothéque Méjanes and we should find out about Beatrice, the Muleskinner, and Taryn’s deal as we proceed with events thereafter.

In some cases, like the tire scene, I could not visualise what Knox was describing at all. It was a combination of an extremely complicated set-up and a stubborn reluctance on Knox’s part to use straightforward, action-appropriate language to convey the scene.

As you know Bob dialogue:

“ ‘Yes, Shift,’ the raven said drily. ‘It’s only when you’re carrying it that we can find you. You are very obscure in yourself, but the glove is a beacon of magic.’
‘Oh yes, I forgot,’ Shift said.”

Questionable descriptions:

“sparkled like lumps of coal”

“brown of flaxseed, shades darker than most people I knew”
Flaxseed is quite a light brown…?

“Jacob was pretty sure the man was Canadian. He was strong, clever, stealthy, skilled with his knife.”
I’m crying … did a Canadian write this?

“raptor-like happening between his nose and forehead”
Angels are dinosaurs. You heard it here first.

People in the third century using the word ‘vortex’.

Also … ‘homespun’. AT ALL, but particularly in fairyland. WHERE THERE IS NO TEXTILE INDUSTRY FOR IT TO BE NON-‘HOME’SPUN.

Basil is recounting a story to his daughter in which he says things like ‘subterranean laughter’. NO ONE SPEAKS LIKE THIS.

“ ‘That wasn’t a condition. That was one of the two things I must say first.’
‘Hurry up, then. What else must you first say, little princeling?’
Demons didn’t do diplomacy.”

Wow, thanks for pointing out what your dialogue already told us.

I’ve already alluded to the worldbuilding being weak, but in case that wasn’t clear: it’s weak as a day-old kitten. When it comes to portal fantasy, you need to present a really damn good case to the FANTASY READER of why your protag doesn’t want to be in Fairyland and doesn’t want to stay. Taryn bleating about her speaking commitments – the odd time she recalls they exist – does not fit the bill.

Other random things that irked me:

She spoils Donnie Darko. I am severely spoiler-phobic, and one thing the people who spoil always say is ‘oh, this book/film has been out for years’. Like … spoiler assholes … you do realise every single person doesn’t watch and read every single book and film that comes out every day of their lives, on the day it comes out … right? You do realise it’s possible to have NOT READ something yet, even if it’s been published for HUNDREDS OF YEARS? And would still PREFER NOT TO BE SPOILED? God. ASS. HOLES.

A key literary reference in this book being DAN BROWN.

She disses the ‘faithful new instinct’ of phone-video recording live events. You’d think archive-loving Taryn, at least, would see the value in this.

I’ll give her this. She’s good on cats.

“Ten minutes later a loose-bellied beige cat came and plopped itself down on Taryn’s doorstep in the sunlight and stayed there, blinking and purring, as if Taryn had caught and reeled it in on a thread of love she didn’t even know was dangling from her tightly knitted adult soul.”
Profile Image for Blair.
1,794 reviews4,438 followers
June 18, 2022
I really wanted to love this. I’d heard such good things. I was hoping it would be the new Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, but it turned out to have more in common with something like A Discovery of Witches. I hasten to add that it is not a romance; while the Mary Sue-ish, ‘poetically beautiful’ Taryn made me afraid it was going to go in that direction, Knox – admirably – swerves it; instead, the characters’ relationships develop in unexpected ways. The plot does a similar thing: first it gives us the bones of an ‘arcane thriller’ (think The Da Vinci Code), with mysterious and powerful people pursuing a mysterious and powerful historical object; then it folds out into something much richer and weirder, an epic fantasy that takes its characters through magical gates and into worlds of fairies, gods, monsters and talking ravens.

All this was interesting. I knew it was fantasy, and I was in the mood for that. I just couldn’t get to grips with the style; the heavily descriptive language too often turns infantile and/or flowery, a great deal of the dialogue struck me as unlikely, and, for all the exhaustive detail, the characters failed to fully come to life in my head, especially Taryn, whom I neither liked nor felt interested in. (It probably says something about my lack of connection with the story that my favourite character was the Muleskinner.) To enjoy a novel this long and involving you need to be truly immersed in it, and sadly I never got there.

TinyLetter | Linktree
Profile Image for Tatiana.
1,406 reviews11.6k followers
Shelved as 'dnf'
March 25, 2021
Not for me. And probably not for most readers out there. Knox is a skillful writer, but this book is a mess of themes and ideas.
Profile Image for George Fenwick.
133 reviews1 follower
February 7, 2021
was literally just too dumb to understand this, i had no idea what was going on about 40% of the time
Profile Image for Rachael.
Author 8 books420 followers
September 12, 2019
My review of The Absolute Book first posted on Facebook July 29th:

I have just finished reading an Advanced Proof Copy Of Elizabeth Knox’s new fantasy novel, The Absolute Book!
A couple of days ago, I posted about the bliss found in a beautifully turned phrase. The Absolute Book is 650 pages of beautifully turned phrases. This is a master craftswoman’s work.
Things that happen:
Knox weaves together a fairytale narrative steeped in myth and religion with a gritty, modern day murder mystery. Taryn is a woman carrying a terrible grief who seeks relief in an act of bitter revenge. Her dark secret is under threat when her accomplice turns his predatory attention on her and Jacob Berger, a no-nonsense London detective, comes to investigate the cold case. In the deeply familiar landscape of the comfortable English countryside, Taryn must face the consequences of her sins. When she and the detective slip through a magical gate to another time and place, Taryn learns she has a part to play in a much larger story, in it lies the hope of redemption for her and the entire planet under the guidance of the small god of the marshlands, Shift. Together they seek an ancient library artifact known as The Firestarter.
Things I loved:
*The story of the Muleskinner
*The story of Jason Battle. Omg.
*The no-nonsense detective, Jacob Berger trying to manage gods and demons and beautiful ladies and gentlemen of alien race!!! So much fun.
*A history of libraries lost to fire
*Odin asking a question that’s more of a comment at the Auckland Writers Festival
*Taryn’s famous dad
*The Sidhe countryside, (the Island Of Apples, The Island of Women)
*Stories wrapped in stories
*Kernow’s story about the witch of the marsh
*The saltwater crocodile (!!!)
*human sisters
*witch sisters
*raven sisters.
The Absolute Book teems with marvels epic and minute, intergalactic and intimate. It presents feats of strength, (hero’s chained and the promise of death on a creeping tide), the whisper of dragons and witches and fairy councils, and terrible pacts requiring a terrible tithe and profoundly human longing, loss, betrayal, forgiveness, friendship and homecoming.
Reading this was like - in the words of Adele - rolling in the deep
Profile Image for Sarah.
127 reviews10 followers
March 29, 2021
There are a lot of interesting characters and storylines in there, but... wtf...?
Profile Image for Delway Burton.
291 reviews5 followers
March 14, 2020
A mess of a book. Knox is an excellent writer. Her turns of phrase and metaphors are wonderful. However, plot-wise the book is a mish-mash of unexplained, almost incoherent, balderdash. The magic is arbitrary, the fantasy being a tru-the -looking glass structure, where alternative realities come and go from one paragraph to another. I think I’ll forego the sequel.
Profile Image for Tanya.
959 reviews16 followers
February 14, 2021
She felt as if she’d dropped something and, were she to stoop to retrieve it, things would pass over her head. Things like Edgar Allan Poe’s pendulum, the planes that flew into the Twin Towers, the howling Chelyabinsk meteor, and the angel of death. Stop and tie your shoe, Taryn, said a voice in her head. You have work to do, Taryn. Walk away. Taryn’s shoes were closed-toe, open-waisted sandals with buckles, not laces. [loc. 465]

It starts in a library, with two sisters witnessing attempted arson. Or perhaps it starts by a river in 4th-century Britain, with two sisters raising children. Or perhaps with Noah's raven, 'that loneliest of birds', eating Odin's eye and splitting into two, Knowledge and Memory. ("Everyone supposes they’re brothers, but any wise male god will have female advisors.")

But perhaps where it starts is with Taryn Cornick, author of The Feverish Library, a bestselling book about the things that threaten libraries. (Each section of The Absolute Book is titled after a section of Taryn's book, for instance Insects; Fire; Carelessness; Uncaring.) She makes an ill-advised arrangement in the wake of her sister's murder, and discovers that she has a soul.

It would be futile to recount the twists and turns of this marvellous novel, which takes Taryn from Norfolk to the Land of the Pact, to Purgatory, to the Isle of Apples and to a book festival in Auckland. Early in her adventures she encounters the mysterious Shift, who can move between worlds: Taryn, and Jacob Berger (a detective who is very keen to speak to Taryn) are drawn after Shift, who doesn't seem to belong anywhere, whose nature and heritage are opaque, it seems, even to himself. And the three are drawn into a quest for an ancient relic: for this is, among other things, a fast-paced thriller featuring an ancient prophecy, a cosmic conspiracy and some fearsome adversaries.

But there is more to it than that: there is so much more in it, from the Brexit referendum to the Matter of Britain, from a new work by Franz Schubert to a New Zealander named Peter who directs fantasy epics, from the Voynich Manuscript to Moominmamma's painted garden, from the wrong sort of worshipper to a shapeshifter's unsettling wardrobe ...

I absolutely adored this long-awaited novel (hard to acquire in the UK, but you can buy physical or ebook from Victoria University Press), and have now read it twice. (I liked Taryn more the second time around, and noticed many more significant details: Knox is a fearsomely precise writer, and nothing is there without reason.)

And the ending is a delight: more than mere resolution, it heralds deliberate, thoughtful changes that affect many worlds. A joyful and exuberant novel, replete with optimism and meticulously observed.

‘We British. We can’t offer straightforward compliments on anything of substance. We operate on the meanest band of enthusiasm and—if we’re of your class—remind people that too much fervour is vulgar. While my class just josh people out of their enthusiasms, make mock, burst the bubble of anybody giving themselves airs—anyone who has made a bubble just to be able to breathe.’ [loc. 7448]

This is me offering a straightforward heartfelt fervent compliment, and profound thanks, for this breathing-space.
Reread February 2021, incidentally fulfilling the 'Reread a favourite' rubric of the Reading Women Challenge 2021. With the US and UK editions finally in sight, there are new reviews and interviews to enjoy, yay! And also: February, and a feline panic attack, and the need for a novel I could trust.
Profile Image for Daisy Coles.
52 reviews1 follower
April 1, 2020
I usually adore Knox but this went way over my head (or it, like, sprinted past me at a distance, or something). Too many fairies, too many practical details, not enough character. Vocabulary-enhancing as usual, carefully crafted as usual, but ... unloveable.
Profile Image for Deborah Harkness.
Author 31 books29k followers
May 13, 2022
Intricately plotted and gorgeously written, The Absolute Book is a cinematic tale that is by turns dark and dreamlike, yet ultimately hopeful.
Profile Image for Marc *Dark Reader of the Woods*.
814 reviews140 followers
May 11, 2021
I absolutely DNF this book at 27% out of boredom. I gave it my best try. By page 180, with cold characters, unengaging description, frustrating dialogue, and uninteresting fantasy elements, even the promise of mysterious book lore couldn't keep me hanging on, and I am not one to easily DNF.

This first came to my attention billed as "the best fantasy novel you'll never read" because of it's limited distribution. It was first published in 2019 in New Zealand by Victoria University Press "in slightly different form" according to the copyright page, which is slightly maddening. What was changed for the 2021 North American release by Viking?

It's distinctly literary fantasy, a form that I often find unappealing because the focus tends to be on the 'literary'. I'm an escapist, what can I say? I gave it a good shot; spent several days with this book as my sole reading material, often falling asleep very quickly while reading; not entirely the book's fault, but rarely a good sign. Under other circumstances I might have weeded this title out of my TBR list earlier as not quite my thing, but it's period of unattainability increased its appeal.
Profile Image for Simone.
13 reviews
January 15, 2020
I loved the first half of this and couldn't put it down... But the ending lost me.
Elizabeth Knox is one of my favourite authors, mixing gritty realism with fantasy and unique imagination, so I bought this for myself for Christmas and saved it to read on holiday and stayed up to finish it last night...
I'm just kind of stumped by the epilogue. It felt very tacked-on and the ending very rushed. There was a lot left unsaid between the lines, which always frustrates me in a book. I hate when an author assumes we know what they're implying, or that we guess what they're leaving unsaid.... Therm it's like whiplash when you discover that you missed a bit and the story has progressed without you. You've missed the clues and list the plot threads... Elizabeth Knox is not usually that kind of author. She is usually very precise and paints beautifully with her words. The beautiful words are still there but I found that the second half of the book was just a bit too woolly and disjointed. She lost me along the way and I'm left feeling awfully flat and rather disappointed. Especially for Taryn. I wanted better for her.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
3,680 reviews2,668 followers
May 21, 2021
Epic fantasy is far from my usual fare, but this was a book worth getting lost in. The reading experience reminded me of what I had with A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, or perhaps Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke – though it’s possible this last association was only in my mind because of Dan Kois. You see, we have Kois, an editor at Slate, to thank for this novel being published outside of Knox’s native New Zealand. He wrote an enthusiastic Slate review of an amazing novel he’d found that was only available through a small university press, and Clarke’s novel was his main point of reference. How’s that for the power of a book review?

Taryn Cornick, 33, has adapted her PhD thesis into a popular history of libraries – the search for absolute knowledge; the perennial threats that libraries face, from budget cuts to burnings – that she’s been discussing at literary festivals around the world. One particular burning looms large in her family’s history: the library at her grandfather’s country estate near the border of England and Wales, Princes Gate. As girls, Taryn and her older sister, Beatrice, helped to raise the alarm and saved the bulk of their grandfather’s collection. But one key artifact has been missing ever since: the Firestarter, an ancient scroll box that is said to have been through five fires and will survive another arson attempt before the book is through.

Nearly 15 years ago now, Beatrice was the victim of a random act of violence. Soon after her killer was released from prison, he turned up dead in unusual circumstances. Ever since, Detective Inspector Jacob Berger has suspected that Taryn arranged a revenge killing, but he has no proof. His cold case heats back up when Taryn lands in the hospital and complains of a series of prank calls.

What ensues is complicated, but in essence, the ongoing fallout of Beatrice’s murder and a cosmic battle over the Firestarter are twin forces that plunge Taryn and Jacob into the faerie realm (Sidh). Their guide to the Sidh is Shift, a shapeshifter who can create impromptu gates between the two worlds (while others, like Princes Gate, are permanent passageways).

Fairies (sidhe), demons, talking ravens … there’s some convoluted world-building here, and when I reached the end I realized I still had many ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions, though often this was because I hadn’t paid close enough attention and if I glanced back I’d see that Knox did indeed tell us how characters got from A to B, and who was after the Firestarter and why.

The book travels everywhere from Provence to Purgatory, but I particularly liked the descriptions of the primitive lifestyle in the faerie realm. Knox gives enough detail about things like food and clothing that you can really imagine yourself into each setting, and there’s the occasional funny turn of phrase that inserts the magical into everyday life in a tongue-in-cheek way, like “The Nespresso [machine] made hatching-dragon sounds.”

My two favorite scenes were an intense escape from a marsh and one that delightfully blends the human world and faerie: Taryn’s father, Basil Cornick, is a Kiwi actor best known for his role in a Game of Thrones-style television show. He’s roped into what he thinks is a screen test, playing Odin opposite a very convincing animatronic monster and pair of talking birds. We and Taryn know what he doesn’t: that he was used to negotiate with a real demon. The terrific epilogue also offers an appealing vision of how the sidhe might save the world.

If, like me, all you know of Knox’s previous work is the bizarre and kind of awful The Vintner’s Luck (which I read for a book club a decade or so ago), you’ll be intrigued to learn that angels play a role here, too. But beneath all the magical stuff, which is sometimes hard to follow or believe in, the novel is a hymn to language and libraries. A number of books are mentioned, starting with the one that was in Beatrice’s backpack at the time of her death: “the blockbuster of that year, 2003, a novel about tantalising, epoch-spanning conspiracies. Beatrice enjoyed those books, perhaps because they were often set in libraries.” (That’s The Da Vinci Code, of course.) Also mentioned: Labyrinth by Kate Mosse, the Moomin books, and the film Spirited Away – no doubt these were beloved influences for Knox.

I appreciated the words about libraries’ enduring value, even on a poisoned planet. “I want there to be libraries in the future. I want today to give up being so smugly sure about what tomorrow won’t need,” Taryn says. She knows that, for this to happen, people must “care about the transmission of knowledge from generation to generation, and about keeping what isn’t immediately necessary because it might be vital one day. Or simply intriguing, or beautiful.” That’s an analogy for species, too, I think, and a reminder of our responsibility: to preserve human accomplishments, yes, but also the more-than-human world (even if that ‘more’ might not include fairies).

Originally published on my blog, Bookish Beck.
Profile Image for Brylie.
56 reviews2 followers
March 21, 2021
I felt as if I was climbing a very steep mountain while I was reading The Absolute Book. The summit seemed constantly out of reach. Sometimes it felt as though it was further away than it had when I started the climb. There were points where I simply ad to stop and take a breath. More than once I felt like I should turn back. But with a lot of persistence, I made it to the end. I was left feeling exhausted. I also had a giant headache. I actually spent some time looking at others reviews of this book to see if they felt the same way. I found I was not alone in feeling like this book required a lot of effort to digest.

Sure, some of the reviews touted its praises. I myself requested it as I thought it sounded intriguing. Laini Taylor is quoted on the back of the book as saying she found the it 'mind-blowing'. Before I read it, this sounded like praise to me. Now it kind of sounds a little bit like a joke. The book was literally mind-blowing. In fact I can think of no better way to describe it.

Mind-blowing how the book seems to start out a a murder mystery. Then a thriller. Then a fantasy. Indeed, the book felt was a little bit mind-blowing mess. The entire time I was reading it I felt like there was something I just didn't get.

Knox interweaves legends and myth throughout the novel. There are Sidhe. Heaven. Hell. Gates. She even manages to pop in some Norse inspiration in the form of Odin and his two ravens. There is also a bunch of talking about something called 'the firestarter'. Even after having finished this book it's near impossible to summarize the actual plot. The scenes are strange and disjointed. Nothing seems at all connected. There is a lot of dialogue. There are a lot of characters which I just didn't care about.

The most interesting thing about this book was the main characters obsession with destroyed book collections. The author clearly did some research about this subject. In fact, if this book has just been about that and about a book that was lost in that way it might have made for a decent story. Readers love reading about books, after all. It's why I picked this book up in the first place. Unfortunately the research into the subject does nothing to redeem the book.

The characters are devoid of character. The settings don't have as much of an impact as they should. We go into this fantasy land and well nothing. The pacing of the book was also way off. There is a scene on a beach which should have been really intense but it was so long that reading it became a chore.

Thanks to Penguin for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for review.

Profile Image for Lady Fancifull.
229 reviews27 followers
February 20, 2021
Incoherent and in need of disciplined editing

So…..if those publicity puffs had only been true ‘A spellbinding mix of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, American Gods and His Dark Materials’ I should have loved this. I can see why the subject matter might have led a publicist to make comparisons, but, as so often, they end up damaging the lesser known book. However complex the ideas, plot, and teeming hordes of character those other books are blessed with, there is discipline, depth and complexity of character and a knowledge that the authors have clarity of where detail is needed and where it is extraneous.

The Absolute Book, a mix of a psychological thriller, a meta thriller around books themselves, a fabulation of conspiracy theories, and a sci fi/fantasy sews all its elements together with regrettable lumpiness, and with a level of characterisation lacking, so that the necessary connection to take the reader along with the journey, does not happen

The central character, Taryn, lost her sibling in a mysterious deliberate hit and run. Understandably, this has scarred her, and she wants some kind of justice done, beyond mere custodial sentencing. Various events lead to her being investigated by the police, and somehow there is an involvement by the intelligence services. Most of this is in the very early part of the book, so no spoilers. Later, she has become a writer who has written a book about books and the buildings which house them which have been forbidden, destroyed or censored, However……without much, if any warning, inexplicably we enter a completely different territory and find ourselves in a world of portals faerie and demonic possession and (probably) grand themes of absolute good and evil, plus more realistic explorations of destroyed historical libraries with potent secret texts. Publicity missed the throw in of The Historian as a comparison as well.

This never really got off the ground for me, it felt like a collection of ‘abouts’ and creative writing assignments ‘create a fantasy world’ ‘write a thriller with police or secret service involvement’ ‘create a literary mystery’

I absolutely surrender to complex, playful, gorgeous literary feats of imagination such as are evident in those comparison texts, but in this, reach exceeds grasp by miles. I struggled grimly on beyond any hope of finding redemption, and gave up frustrated with an overindulgence of detail going nowhere.

Thank you to NetGalley for allowing me this as an ARC, and I am sorry that my experience lacks positive feedback.
Profile Image for Gretchen Rubin.
Author 30 books98.9k followers
July 7, 2022
Several people told me to read this book. It reminded me a little of Little, Big: Or, The Fairies' Parliament by John Crowley.
Profile Image for Brooke — brooklynnnnereads.
1,035 reviews249 followers
March 15, 2021
For this novel, you have to expect to be in it for the long haul and the endgame. It's a very detail oriented story and with that, the pacing can be slow. I definitely couldn't get through this story fast nor would I recommend anyone to race through it due to the intricate level of detail.

This is a very odd and complex story that had many different directions. What started out as somewhat of a suspense thriller became a modern story of both urban and otherworldly fantasy. It's a unique tale unlike anything that I've ever read before.

Even after finishing this novel, I can't help but wonder if I fully understood it. The plot was THAT complicated. If you want an easy read, this would not be the one to pick up but if you want a story of fantasy that manipulated itself into many different genres, check this one out.

***Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for sending me a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review***
Profile Image for Chloe (libraryofchlo).
301 reviews38 followers
April 3, 2021
Do you ever read a book that is so fantastical that you're still trying to wrap your head around the concept a week later? That's what The Absolute Book has done to me. There are plentiful mysterious oblique descriptions and at times completely vague concepts (including gold gloves that open gates to other worlds), and the promise of a utopia. I was initially drawn in by the premise of a Da Vinci Code style discovery quest in a fantasy setting but I would say it is hard to describe the themes of this story since it's such a menagerie of so many.

Taryn, the protagonist, is a successful author who specialises is unforgotten books and manuscripts, and the downfall of libraries and literature. Still reeling from her sister's murder many years ago, she encounters Shift - a shapeshifter of sorts whose memory is wiped every 200 years. Together the pair set out to find the absolute book, a concept that you learn about through the pages and the pair's lives as they interweave between our world and others. There are talking ravens, mysterious circumstances and others chasing what they desperately need which adds to the thrill of the quest. There are locations we all have heard of like Norfolk and Auckland, but characters also visit other realms and even Purgatory at one stage.

With over 650 pages, this novel is a daunting one and despite its length I do think it lacks in context and world-building, and that too much time has been spent on beautiful, yet at times unnecessary, scenic descriptions. Unlike within the His Dark Materials series which this has been likened to, I found the jumping between worlds to be quite confusing and overwhelming and had to often re-read sections because I was confused by what had happened.

If you're a fan of epic fantasy, I am sure you will LOVE this, but my brain is a bit bamboozled and I'm still like huh?? about certain things that happen, but if you love tackling a mystery and are a fan of alluring, beautiful descriptions of other worlds and exquisite metaphors- this would suit you but a lot of this went completely over my head

*Huge thanks to Michael Joseph and Penguin Random House for the proof!
Profile Image for 8stitches 9lives.
2,854 reviews1,644 followers
March 14, 2021
The Absolute Book is a bewitching epic fantasy about a revenge killing, a mysterious scroll box that has survived centuries of fires, the book that changed everything and the power of stories and storytelling to make gods and heroes out of mere mortals. Taryn Cornick, the youngest daughter of an upper-middle-class English family, believes she has put her sister Beatrice's violent death, and her own complicity in an act of retribution behind her. Taryn was only 19 years old when her sister was killed in a seemingly random, senseless attack while out jogging. As she was running down a remote country lane a man in a vehicle struck her and knocked her over intending to leap out and rape her while she was incapacitated but he drove at her too hard and killed her instantly in such a brutal manner. Taryn is torn between grief and a desperate desire for revenge. In the years that follow she drops out of school, becomes reclusive and marries a wealthy businessman who she has never loved. Together they travel the world on luxury trips. On a hunting trip in the Canadian Rockies, she meets a hunting guide known as ”The Muleskinner” and relays her story, and what happened to Beatrice, to him. As the perpetrator is due to be released from prison soon he understands how unhappy Taryn really is about it all. Meanwhile, Taryn’s successful book of "musing nonfiction" about the perils that threaten libraries: insects, damp, light, fire, carelessness and uncaring mentions an ancient scroll box--called the Firestarter--that has inexplicably survived numerous fires, including one at her own grandparents' estate, and now powers in both this world and beyond are looking for her. Then a few months after the hunting vacation The Muleskinner visits Taryn at home out of the blue.

He tells her that he would be happy to do her a service if it would help her to feel less aggrieved. He is willing to kill the perpetrator as soon as he is released. The murderer is found dead a short time later and most of the police force write it off as a random attack but DI Jacob Berger believes Taryn is somehow involved. Berger has questions about Taryn's past and his dogged interest means they both suddenly find themselves in a mysterious land of peace and plenty, carried there by a shadowy young man named Shift. The land, home to a beautiful people who long ago bargained a terrible price for their idyllic existence, is now threatened from the precincts of Hell itself, and Taryn is of great interest to the rebels. But Shift is key to both the unimaginably precious scroll inside the Firestarter and to the outcome of the threatened war, and he has an ambitious plan of his own. This is a captivating and compelling epic fantasy that moves seamlessly between several different worlds: contemporary England, magic fairyland, purgatory and Auckland in New Zealand all feature throughout the plot. It's both a genre and mind-bending story that marries myths and lore from Celtic, Norse, and Judeo-Christian traditions with lyrical storytelling and sprawling worlds; I was swept away in the intrigue from the very first page. Exhilaratingly Knox intimately weaves together the stories of vivid characters who face a reckoning that could change the future of all of these worlds. There are twists and surprises throughout this complex, multilayered tale and at 653 pages it's a lengthy tome, but Knox doesn't waste a single word. An intelligent, moving and scintillating story complete with beautifully flawed characters and richly-detailed worldbuilding. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Jennie Damron.
493 reviews63 followers
November 13, 2022
DNF at 42%

I just can't anymore. There is too much going on in this book and it's a struggle just to make sense of it all. I find myself not caring about the characters at all. And I may not be the smartest person in the world, but I am not stupid and this book makes me feel stupid. I am almost half way through and I can't even determine what the point of this book is. I have too many books I am excited about to continue with something I am clearly not enjoying.
339 reviews6 followers
Want to read
March 26, 2021
I will read this one together with A Ritual of Bone after I finish AFFC and ADWD!
Profile Image for Johanna.
442 reviews15 followers
January 14, 2020
Elizabeth Knox is a wonderful writer, and I'm not sure if anyone else could have created or written such a strange book. "The Absolute Book" takes place in a number of different intertwined realities. It is described by the author as an ‘arcane thriller’, a quest and a personal journey about revenge. But I feel as if I missed a key piece of information, because the story felt stilted and tangential. There were so many wonderfully descriptive sentences that led to a seemingly pointless piece of information. Perhaps this style of fantasy writing is not for me.

Partly due to chance and partly due to her decisions, Taryn Cornick is in the unique position to help negotiate terms for the Sidhe tithe with Hell. She possesses the knowledge and skill to discover the whereabouts of a mysterious scroll named "The Firestarter". Paradoxically the scroll never burns and outlives every fire it has been engulfed by. When the reader first meets Taryn she is lamenting the murder of her sister Bea by a young man. Later, Taryn seizes the opportunity to end the life of the man who murdered her sister. The sheer number of relationships and the interconnectedness of the characters is intimidating. On top of that, Knox intertwines myth, folklore, and fantasy to create a unique journey that is ultimately redemptive.

I'm not sure if I have ever read a book like "The Absolute Book" and I'm not sure if I ever will again.
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