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Literature / The Reader (2016)

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This is a book.

If yOu're reading this, then maybe you know
you Ought to read everything. And maybe
you Know you ought to read deeply. Because there's
WitChery in these words and
SpelLwork in the spine.
And Once you know to look for signals in the smoke,
for Secrets in the sea, then you understand what it is
to rEad. This is a book. You are the reader. Look Closer.
TheRe's magic here.

The Reader is a 2016 young adult fantasy novel by Traci Chee, and the first book in the Sea of Ink and Gold series.

In the world of Kelanna, things are similar to how our world once was, with one key difference—reading and written language was never invented by the inhabitants. The history of the world and of each other is preserved only through oral tradition, and many people seek fame and glory so that their own stories may be remembered for years after they are gone.

In this world, young Sefia is an orphan who sneaks around the island nation of Deliene with her adoptive aunt Nin. Her parents have since died, her father murdered by the people who have been chasing the family for years to obtain the strange object in Sefia's pack. One day Nin is caught and Sefia is left alone, with the only clue as to where to find her last remaining family member being the item her parents died for. A small rectangular item with an unknown symbol engraved into the cover, and filled with paper covered in strange markings. This is a book.

Meanwhile, in other places across Kelanna, other stories are unfolding. The famous pirate Captain Cannek Reed makes an unsteady alliance with one of his rivals to claim the greatest treasure in the ocean. The Director of a shadowy organization chases after a young girl who has taken what is rightfully hers. A young man is inducted into the mysterious Library and begins to fall in love with the Assassin-in-training also there. And legends fly of the ruthless pirate lord Serakeen, who has been raiding ships and kidnapping young boys and training them to become bloodthirsty killers.

Sefia meets and frees one of these boys, a mute she names Archer. He joins her as she pursues those marked by the symbol on the book in the hopes of discovering what happened to her aunt Nin. Between their pursuit by the Director and her mercenaries, and their run-ins with both noble and cruel pirates, Sefia discovers a magic power that lay dormant for years, and a legacy beyond her wildest imaginings.

This book contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Actually, I Am Him: Rajar, the assistant of Tanin, reveals himself to be the one who has been commanding the Impressors to kidnap young boys and leading the raids on the Ephygian bay. Serakeen isn't a real person, but for all intents and purposes Rajar fulfills the role required of the character.
  • Added Alliterative Appeal: Captain Cat and her Cannibal Crew.
  • Aliens Never Invented the Wheel: The world of Kelanna never invented written language, so the concept of reading is entirely alien to them. Even Reed initially scoffs at the concept, claiming that words are things you speak, not hear.
  • Ambiguously Brown: Most characters' skin is described in words like "tan", "copper", "honey", "dark", or "black". This is justified, though, since Kelanna is a fictional world with no real-world equivalents to nations where such characters would come from, and no one group is signified as coming from a specific island or kingdom in the book.
  • Apologetic Attacker: Sefia over Palo Kanta. Unfortunately, she does this after she's killed him.
  • Arc Symbol: The circle with one line curving down and three curving across, resembling a book on its side. It appears on the spine of the novel, several times in the text (as it's own character in the type), and is the symbol of The Guard.
  • Arc Words: "This is a book".
  • Armor-Piercing Question: Cat to Reed: "They may remember you. But who will remember your crew?"
  • Because Destiny Says So: The Guard follow everything that happens in the book to the letter, as what is written always comes to pass. It's why they created the Serakeen myth and were stealing boys—they wanted to create the leader of the Red War to ensure that the peace that follows would happen.
  • Big Book Of Everything: The book in the story contains everything that has ever happened and everything that ever will, and the actual book the reader is reading is an excerpt from the book in the story. Sefia even has a moment of existential fear that she may one day open the book to find herself reading the book while reading the book.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Reed saves Sefia and Archer when they're nearly killed by Hatchet's crew.
  • Censor Box: A variant appears early on. When Sefia is remembering discovering her father's body, the description of the torture done to him has been completely blotted out. Later we find out that she is responsible, as she finds that paragraph in the book and covers it up because it's still too horrifying.
  • Child Soldier: Serakeen is said to be building an army with help from the Impressors.
  • The Conspiracy: The Guard, who run the Library and are composed of most of the Readers in the world, are secretly running everything in most kingdoms and are trying to guide the world towards peace.
  • Cool Boat: The Current of Faith. Most of the coolness appears when the chief mate is on board, since he can speak to the trees that were used to make the ship's hull and thus knows everything that happens on board.
  • Defusing The Tykebomb: Sefia has to do this when Archer [ is forced to fight in The Cage against two other Impressor boys.
  • Driven to Suicide: Captain Cat in one of the Reed flashback stories.
  • Due to the Dead: Sefia writes Palo Kanta's name on the windowsill of a bar he was meant to visit before she killed him, hoping that at least one part of him will survive.
  • Easter Egg: There's a hidden message that can be found by noting the words appearing next to the page numbers in the bottom margin. When completed, it reads:
    This is a book, and a book is a world,
    And words are the seeds in which meanings are curled.
    Pages of oceans and margins of land
    Are civilizations you hold in the palm of your hand.
    But look at your world and your life seems to shrink
    To cities of paper and seas made of ink.
    Do you know who you are, or have you been misled?
    Are you the reader, or are you the read?
  • Green Thumb: The chief mate of the Current of Faith has a variant of this. His grandmother taught him how to talk to all the trees in the grove they used to live by. When he was blinded and the trees where harvested to make a ship he thought they were gone forever, but later he followed their voices and found Reed's ship. Now he can hear the voices of the hull and knows everything that happens on the ship.
  • Harmful to Minors: Sefia seeing her father's mutilated corpse, not to mention what Archer and the other kidnapped boys experience.
  • Hell: Those in Kelanna who don't believe in The Nothing After Death whisper about The Place of the Fleshless, where dead souls wait beneath the seas until they are called back into the world of the living. Reed and his crew find it past the edge of the world.
  • How Do I Shot Web?: Sefia doesn't know how to use the Sight properly because she's never been trained. Quite often it fizzles out, and when it does work she's exhausted.
  • I Just Want to Be Special: Everyone, because the only way to survive history is to be passed down in oral storytelling.
  • Living Lie Detector: The chief mate can do this, thanks to his connection with the trees that make up the Current of Faith.
  • Lower-Deck Episode: The chapter where Captain Lon and his associates try to arrest Hatchet's men, only to fail miserably. He even realizes near the end that he was probably just a bit player in someone else's story.
  • Mind Reading: Illumination can do this, as it lets the person read the past of another object or person - and occasionally their future.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Sefia is absolutely traumatized after taking a life, even though it was in self-defence, and for a long time doubts she'd ever be able to do it again.
  • The Nothing After Death: Most in Kelanna believe in this, and that the only way a soul carries on is by telling their stories.
  • No Name Given: The Assassin and the Second have this happen to them as a matter of principle, though we later learn the Second's name is Mareah. The chief mate of the Current of Faith is also never named.
  • No Party Like a Donner Party: Captain Cat and the crew of the Seven Bells, who were stuck in a lifeboat with dwindling supplies and eventually had to resort to this.
  • Once Upon a Time: Once there was, and one day there will be. This is the beginning of every story.
  • Painting the Medium: Several pages have dirty fingerprints on them, a few have notes in the margins, and one notable paragraph is entirely blotted out. It's one of the first hints that the book you're reading is an excerpt of the book in the story.
  • Purple Prose: Wildly exagerrated descriptions of character's emotional states come off as this.
  • Reality Warper: The Manipulation tier of Illumination. It often presents itself as Mind over Matter, but when it's described it's shown as a person being able to change the story of where an item is going.
  • Self-Made Orphan: The final task for the Second to complete before becoming an Assassin is to find and kill their own parents.
  • Sequencing Deception: The book makes it seem like Lon and Mareah's studies are taking place at the same time as Sefia's quest. In actuality, they happened years before, and Lon and Mareah are Sefia's parents.
  • Show Within a Show: The exploits of Captain Reed that Sefia reads about in the book, until she finds out that they're all real and she's been reading their history.
  • Swashbuckler: Captain Reed, and most of his crew.
  • Turtle Island: Reed and his crew encounter one on their voyage to the end of the world.
  • Tyke-Bomb: Archer and other boys taken by the Impressors are designed to be this, being brainwashed into loving violence and killing and eventually becoming leaders in Serakeen's army.
  • The Voiceless: Archer. He eventually remembers how to speak at the end.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: The Guard wants peace in Kelanna, but that involves keeping vital information from the common populace, kidnapping boys and turning them into killers, raiding the ships of several kingdoms, and brainwashing prisoners.