Susan Pearlstein's Reviews > Sword and Pen

Sword and Pen by Rachel Caine
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Rachel Caine’s Great Library series is complete. In the fifth and final book, Sword and Pen, the fate of the world’s superpower, the Great Library, is resolved, as are the fates of the band of scholars, alchemists and soldiers who have banded together to save the Library, even if it means saving it from itself.

The series posits an alternate reality where the earth’s various nationalities, all as powerful and politically motivated as their real-world counterparts, are dominated by the Great Library located in Alexandria. The Library exists independently of the nations, with its own autonomous political, economic and military strength, and controls the preservation and dissemination of knowledge throughout the world.

The universe created by Ms. Caine is at once familiar and fantastic. Spain and England are allies, but Wales is an independent nation and at least the equal of England. There are steam-powered carriages that transport people through cities, but no electricity. Computers are non-existent, but humans can be transported around the globe by powerful alchemists who have learned to harness the forces of nature and physics to accomplish feats that are unknown to us, the real-world inhabitants of this planet.

One of mankind’s most revolutionary of inventions in both the real world and in Ms. Caine’s imagined one, the printing press, is thrust front and center into the heart of this series. The Great Library, controller of all knowledge, wishes to retain this control only for itself. No one is permitted to own a book. Anyone who dares to do so is a criminal. The printing press does not, and will not ever exist.

In this quasi-magical realm, the best and brightest students of every country are annually recruited to study in Alexandria, learn the ways of the Library and, if they are worthy, invited to undertake a lifetime of service to preserve and enhance the knowledge of the world, all under the strict supervision of the Library. The first book, Ink and Bone, introduces new students Jess, Dario, Thomas, Morgan, Khalila, and Glain, each with their own special talents, gifts, individual perspectives and personalities. Their mentor is Scholar Christopher Wolfe; their military trainer is Nicolo Santi.

While other characters come and go, these students and their teachers are the nucleus of the series, with Wolfe and Santi serving as parental surrogates to the newly recruited warriors, scholars and alchemists. When Thomas, a young, brilliant inventor, discovers a way to mechanically reproduce books, they come to realize that, even with the most seemingly perfect of goals, the preservation of all knowledge for the benefit of mankind, the Great Library has succumbed to that most Machiavellian of problems: power, however well-intentioned, corrupts. Absolute power may very well corrupt absolutely.

To her immense credit, Ms. Caine has created a Young Adult series that will entertain anyone of any age who loves books, libraries, thoughtfully created fantasy worlds, well-written characters, and Machiavelli. Although there are eight primary protagonists, it’s not too much. They each are unique and complicated, but well-defined individuals. Notwithstanding their almost-supernatural abilities (especially considering that all but two of them are teenagers) they are all inherently believable: the smuggler longing for a father figure; the jaded manipulator who is at heart a romantic; the warrior struggling to determine the nature of her soul. Ms. Caine provides tiny humanizing details, whether it’s a bad hair moment or a much-needed side trip to the lavatory, that make the characters sympathetic and accessible.

The final book is as absorbing as the first and, in some ways, even better. By book five, readers have come to know and understand the players and their motivations, and Ms. Caine takes welcome time to provide insight into each one’s perspectives and desires. “He smelled like death and alcohol, but she ignored that and pulled him closer.”
The author provides plausible details of the sounds and smells of Alexandria, and vividly describes the architecture, harbors, and the pantheon of gods who protect the city. The pace is swift, and there is adventures aplenty, with occasional humorous and romantic moments to provide counter-balance and spice. Pen and Sword is a worthy conclusion to the series, which in itself, from start to finish, is a worthy read.
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Reading Progress

June 23, 2019 – Shelved as: to-read (Hardcover Edition)
June 23, 2019 – Shelved (Hardcover Edition)
September 1, 2019 – Started Reading
September 8, 2019 – Finished Reading
September 11, 2019 – Shelved

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