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Literature / The Great Library

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A series by Rachel Caine, set in an Alternate History in which the Library of Alexandria never burned down and instead spawned daughter libraries called Serapeums all over the globe, creating the most powerful institution in the world. In a time where any book from the Library can be "mirrored" into a blank for those who have the ability to pay for it, ownership of "originals" is illegal and punishable by fines, imprisonment, or worse.

Jess Brightwell, son of a powerful book smuggler, is sent to Alexandria to become a Scholar (and to spy for his family). There he'll meet fellow postulants from across the globe, train under cruel teacher Wolfe, discover a knack for working with the magical artifacts the Library provides to capture books and criminals alike—and uncover some of the darkest secrets the Library has to offer.

The first book in the series is Ink and Bone, released in 2015.

The second book, Paper and Fire, was released in 2016.

The third book, Ash and Quill was released in 2017.

The fourth book, Smoke and Iron was released in 2018.

The fifth book, Sword and Pen was released in 2019.

In addition, Rachael Caine published two prequel eBooks for free on Wattpad

  • Tigers in the Cage: a story about Wolfe's mother Keria Morning and her political machinations within the Iron Tower.
  • Stormcrow: A novella about Wolfe's first mission as a scholar and how he and Santi first met.

The Great Library contains examples of:

  • Achilles' Heel: In Book 2, Jess figures out how to shut down Library automatons.
  • Alchemy Is Magic: The Obscurists' version of it is. They have the power to "mirror" the contents of books into remote blank pages, to physically transport people and objects thousands of miles, to track specific objects from long distances, and more besides. It's said that they originated from a select group of alchemists in the eleventh century who realized their powers went beyond their fellows' and that they would be better served working in tandem. The second book reveals that it's actually a combination of magic and genuine alchemy.
  • Alternate History: One where the Library of Alexandria never burned down and it remains the most powerful organization in the world, comparable to Christianity at its height, the printing press was never invented, England and Wales are at constant, bloody war, and Austria no longer exists. Catholicism and Islam, at least, are still present, but nowhere near as powerful as they are in our world—for example, St. Paul's Cathedral is now St. Paul's Serapeum.
  • Allohistorical Allusion: Johannes Gutenberg was a Scholar who still invented the printing press (and was subsequently killed and erased from history as a result), and Thomas Paine was a political activist who spoke out against the Library, rather than the British.
  • Ancient Conspiracy: The Library is certainly ancient, and, although famous, conspires to keep all countries and citizens subject to it. This involves controlling the spread of knowledge and destroying anyone or anything that threatens it.
  • Angsty Surviving Twin: Jess in Sword and Pen
  • The Artful Dodger: How the Brightwells' smuggling operation works—they use small children as 'runners' to transport books to secret buyers, and send out several dozen decoys at the same time. Being this as a child made Jess extremely fast and single minded when he's running, which he uses to his advantage later.
  • Artifact Collection Agency: A primary focus of the Librarians, although they work exclusively on books (and scrolls, tablets, etc). This involves retrieving these 'originals' from hitherto undiscovered caches, smugglers, and private citizens. One sector of the organization, the High Garda, is dedicated to this and to stamping out Library-related crime.
  • Awesome Moment of Crowning: Khalila is elected the new Archivist during the events of Sword and Pen.
  • Badass Bookworm: All of the main characters, and most Scholars or other Library staff that they meet.
  • Badass Teacher: Wolfe. Santi, insomuch as he's a teacher.
  • Batman Gambit:
    • Keria's plan in Paper and Fire. knowing that Morgan's friends would attempt to free her and rescue Thomas, the Obscurist Magnus hacked the Translation Chamber in the Rome Serapeum, forcing Morgan to bring her friends back to the Iron Tower. From there, the Postulates would investigate the towers secrets in the hopes of freeing their friend as quickly as possible before they could be turned over to the Artifex Magnus. From there, they would discover the hidden entrance to the Black Archive and take as many books as they could with them before Translating themselves out of the building.
  • Big Bad: The Archivist Magister is the chief antagonist of the series.
  • Big Damn Heroes:
  • Bittersweet Ending: The fourth book. The Archivist Magister has been driven into exile, with most of his core supporters in Alexandria killed. The Obscurists have been freed from the Iron Tower, and the core cast has been reunited. But Brendan is dead, Zhara betrayed the group and escaped with the previous Archivist, and the Library's neutrality is now in jeopardy.
    • The final book: Morgan is killed averting the destruction of the Great Archives. But the Library successfully manages to repel the foreign armies looking to seize Alexandria. The old Archivist is dead and his supporters killed or imprisoned. Khalila has become the youngest Archivist in history and has implemented a new Curia position to begin implementing Thomas' printing press. Jess comes to terms with his brother's death, and Callum Brigthwell finds himself on the receiving end of his wife, his son, and Wolfe Calling the Old Man Out. Jess and Anit begin making plans to go into business together running a bookshop.
  • Blank Book: How regular citizens can read Library books—text is mirrored directly from the source into blank books. Each person also has a Codex, a book which contains a list of all texts in the Library which is continually updated, and can be used for sending messages.
  • Book Burning: The modus operandi of the Burners, who see it as a way to free the people from the Library's tyranny. Izumi speculates that the Library burns non-unique books that they recover as well—after all, why would you need more than one copy of a book that can be mirrored everywhere?
  • Book Safe: Jess hides Thomas's printing press designs in one.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: Callum finally gets this not only from Jess and Wolfe, but from Jess's mother when he arrives to collect Brendan's body in Sword and Pen.
  • The Captain: Captain Niccolo Santi of the High Garda, who helps oversee the postulants' training. As we see in Oxford, he's very capable.
  • The Chessmaster: Dario and Jess are quickly becoming this over the course of the third book.
  • Christianity is Catholic: It seems that neither the East-West Schism nor the Reformation took place due to the Library's influence, as all characters mentioned to be Christian are Catholic as well—including Jess, who is English.
  • Cool Train: The Alexandrian Express, the Archivist's personal train. It can travel from London to Alexandria overnight. Unfortunately, it gets blown up.
  • Cynical Mentor: Wolfe, who didn't want to teach the postulants and makes no attempt to hide it. His methods include asking increasingly difficult, near impossible questions, using a lottery to determine who gets to stay, and suspending a bottle of Greek Fire over everyone's heads on the first day. However, he does balk at allowing the students to come to Oxford in the middle of a war. He is overruled.
  • Damsel in Distress: Morgan is trapped inside the Iron Tower at the end of Ink and Bone.
  • Damsel out of Distress: she ends up breaking herself out multiple times throughout Paper and Fire, however.
  • Deadly Gas: A byproduct of Greek Fire. Breathing it in causes unconsciousness in seconds and death shortly afterwards.
  • Diplomatic Impunity: Supposed to be given to agents of the Library at all times, including during open war. When the main characters travel to Oxford to rescue books in the middle of an English-Welsh battle, they find it to be less than advertised.
  • Distressed Dude: Thomas is held prisoner in Rome from the end of book one until midway through book two.
    • Happens to him again in Sword and Pen when the exiled Archivist forces him to open Heron's tomb.
  • Dwindling Party: The postulants start out as a group of 32, and slowly get whittled down as Wolfe tests their knowledge, resourcefulness, and luck. Then they go into a war-zone, and no one is safe.
  • Evil Twin: Brendan is shaping up to be one. Subverted when Book 2 reveals that his apparent ruthlessness is merely an attempt to make himself stand out from Jess, who he feels is Always Someone Better.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: The bulk of Sword and Pen takes place over the course of two or three days.
  • The Ghost: The Archivist, head of the Library. We hear about him quite a bit, but all communication has come through his agents until Jess finally meets him in person at the end of the third book.
  • Great Big Book of Everything: The Codex serves as one.
  • Great Big Library of Everything: The Library contains all knowledge ever recorded, although only some of it is made available to the public.
  • He Knows Too Much: Scholar Prakesh is killed shortly after she agrees to help the Postulants rescue Thomas because she started asking the wrong questions.
    • And when the Archivist learns of Jess and Brendan's Twin Switch, as well as Neska's prior relationship with Brendan, he has her executed on the spot.
  • Humongous Mecha: The Spartan model of automata in Paper and Fire.
    • Smoke and Iron has massive automaton statues modeled after the Egyptian gods, and an automaton dragon.
  • Impartial Purpose-Driven Faction: What the Library is supposed to be. It...isn't.
  • Ingesting Knowledge: Part of the goal of ink-lickers, people who eat rare books for the thrill of their age and uniqueness. Jess describes it as the most awful thing he's ever seen.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Wolfe, Glaine (although the jerk part is debatable), Dario, and Jess's cousin Frederick. As is Brendan, come book 2.
  • Killed Off for Real:
    • In Book 1: Guillaume Danton, Joachim Portero, and Morgan's father.
    • Book 2 kills Tarriq Oduya and Keria Morning.
    • The third book kills off Willinger Beck, the Burners of Philadeliphia, and Khalila's cousin.
    • Smoke and Iron has the highest body count for named characters: Neska, Red Ibrahim, Gregory, and Brendan.
    • By the end of the final book, Annis, Murasaki, Zara, the Archivist, and Morgan have all died.
  • Last Girl Wins: Morgan is the fourth major female character—after Khalila, Glaine, and Izumi—to be introduced, and the only one Jess is interested in.
  • Locked Out of the Loop: Jess, Morgan, and Dario keep their Batman Gambit a secret from the rest of the group in Ash and Quill.
  • Love Hurts: Jess and Morgan find this out when Morgan is forced to become an Obscurist. Ditto Wolfe and Santi, who, though not imprisoned, are both used as insurance to force the other's continued cooperation.
    • Brendan learns this as well in Book 2 when he ultimately realizes that he cannot be with the girl he loves without putting her in danger, as he's a smuggler and she works for the library.
  • Magic Librarian: The Obscurists have the power, and any other Librarian can channel it. Jess is particularly good at using Obscurist-made artifacts.
  • Mama Bear: Although they are estranged because of her status as the Obscurist Magnus, Keria Mourning, Wolfe's mother, does everything she possibly can to keep her son safe.
  • Mechanical Monster: The automata that guard Library property. They tend to take the place of statues in our world—Queen Anne outside St. Paul's, or sphinxes on the pyramids in Alexandria. They have one purpose and they will crush, quite literally, anyone who stands in their way.
  • Memory Gambit: Jess pulls one in the fourth book with the help of Elsinore Quest in Smoke and Iron, altering his memories so that he believes he actually is Brendan in order to fool the Archivist's interrogation methods.
  • Muggle Born of Mages: Wolfe, whose parents were both Obscurists.
  • Multinational Team: The postulants, as the Library takes only the best in the world for training. Jess and Morgan are English, Glaine is Welsh, Thomas is German, Khalila is Middle Eastern, Dario is Spanish, Izumi is Japanese, Portero is Portuguese, and Danton is American with French roots. Of the instructors, Santi is Italian and Wolfe is unspecified but described as 'brown,' and grew up in Alexandria (Egypt).
  • Ninja Pirate Zombie Robot: The Library Automata frequently fall under this, from robot lions and robot sphinxes to robot dragons.
  • Papa Wolf: Both Wolfe and Santi when their students are threatened.
  • Party Scattering: The core cast is spread out between England, Alexandria, and Spain at the end of Ash and Quill as a result of Dario and Jess's Batman Gambit
  • Passive Aggressive Combat: Between Wolfe, Santi, and General Warlow when the class arrives in the Welsh encampment at Oxford. With Khalila jumping in for added effect.
    Wolfe and Santi respond with Death Glares.
    Wolfe: "It's good we understand each other. Every single fallen Scholar in history has his or her name on a wall in the Great Library. Names that each of these students remember. You may ask them. They will flawlessly recite each name, each war, each instance. Postulant Seif. Relevant example, please.
    Khalila: "Yes, Scholar. Scholar Padma Dahwan was selected to close the Serapeum in the city of Milan during the war with Austria. She and her entire party were taken prisoner by the Austrian army and executed. The Serapeum was destroyed.
    Wolfe: "And the Library's response?"
    Wolfe: "And approximately how large was Austria then, in comparison with the area Wales now claims?
    Khalila: "It was approximately thirty-three thousand square kilometers in size. Wales is now approximately eleven thousand square kilometers."
  • Polar Opposite Twins: Jess and Brendan look alike but have very different personalities—Jess is outgoing and kind, while Brendan is both more reserved and more sadistic. Although his sadistic tendencies are revealed in the second book to simply be a mask he uses to try and set himself apart from Jess.
  • Poor Communication Kills: Jess, Dario, and Morgan keeping Wolfe Locked Out of the Loop on their Batman Gambit in Ash and Quill backfires when Wolfe accidentally blows Jess's cover while attempting a Batman Gambit of his own.
  • Propaganda Machine: How the Library operates. They control every form of media, and have made the mass reproduction of non-approved works impossible by systematically wiping out anyone who tries to invent the printing press.
  • Race Against the Clock:
    • In Smoke and Iron, Jess has to rescue his friends before the Feast of Greater Burning.
  • Rape by Proxy: The Breeding Program, through which the library attempts to breed new generations of Obscurists.
  • Revealing Skill: Jess tries not to find the safe hidden in the book smugglers' wall too quickly, lest he betray both that he's a smuggler himself and that he's actually stolen from that house before. Unfortunately, Wolfe sees through him.
  • Running the Blockade: The protagonists escaping from Oxford to the Welsh army. While neither side cares about them, particularly, the Welsh aren't willing to let any non-Library personnel escape. This includes forcing Jess and Wolfe to surrender a baby back to the mob (she survives).
  • Secret Diary: Every person is encouraged to keep one, and they're provided free at a child's birth. Unfortunately, they're not so secret—Jess discovers that the temporary one he was given by the Welsh army has been being mirrored back to the Library ever since, and it's later revealed that every journal is this way. Thomas pays for it.
  • Secret-Keeper: Jess and Morgan are this for each other—he knows that she's an Obscurist and she knows that he's from a family of smugglers. It's later revealed that Wolfe knew about both of them.
  • The Siege: In the fifth book, Alexandria is under siege by multiple nations that are looking to take control of the library for political leverage. Spain, England, Wales, and Japan launch Greek Fire at the city by sea, while Russia attacks from the north with tanks provided by the former Archivist.
  • Smart People Play Chess: Khalila is unbeatable, and most of the rest of the cast is very good. Thomas creates what is essentially a clockwork chess-playing AI.
  • State Sec: The High Garda, the military branch of the Library.
  • Stern Teacher: Wolfe, who's not a sadist so much as he's just intense and, honestly, not a great teacher. The job was an explicit punishment.
  • Straight Gay: Wolfe and Santi
  • Switching P.O.V.: After three books exclusively from the point of view of protagonist Jess Brightwell, Smoke and Iron adds additional P.O.V.s to properly show the expanded scope of the plot. Specifically, Khalila, Wolfe, and Morgan
  • Taking You with Me: The Archivist would rather destroy the Great Library and all the knowledge it possess than allow it to continue on without him. Thankfully, Jess and his friends thwart his attempt.
  • Team Dad: Also Wolfe and Santi.
  • Teen Genius: All of the postulants, especially Khalila. It's required.
  • Teleportation Sickness: Happens to almost everyone who is Translated from Alexandria to Oxford. Danton actually dies from it, although it's implied this was deliberate on the part of the Library.
  • Together in Death: Brendan and Neska by the end of the fourth book.
  • Trash the Set: Philadelphia is burned to the ground midway through Ash and Quill.
  • Twin Switch: Jess and Brendan pull one off at the end of Ash and Quill so that Jess, Morgan, and Wolfe can be translated to Alexandria to infiltrate the library while Brendan stays behind so that "Jess" can run the family business and keep the printing press out of their father's hands.
  • Uniqueness Value: The rarer a book is the more valuable it is, both for smugglers and the Library. When Wolfe and students are pressed for time and sending books from war-torn Oxford to Alexandria, they stop to first sort the books into 'Unique,' 'Rare,' and 'Common' piles.
  • You Cannot Kill an Idea: People will just not stop inventing the printing press. Gutenberg, in 1455, was the first, and it's implied that Scholars have continued creating their own versions through the centuries, up through Wolfe and Thomas. The Library responds to this by destroying that person's work, legacy, and (usually) existence.
  • Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters: The Burners, who fight the Library's evil but use tactics like 'blowing up trains,' 'setting themselves on fire in crowded places,' and 'setting everyone else on fire too.' However, they do seem to honestly believe they're doing the right thing.

Alternative Title(s): Ink And Bone