Nathan’s review of The Book that Broke the World by Mark Lawrence
I can never quite get my head around Mark Lawrence’s Library Trilogy. It often leaves me bewildered because I’m not sure how much or little I am enjoying it. On one hand I have so many things that I just don’t care for, but on the other hand it absolutely keeps drawing me in, demanding my attention, and leaving me hungry for more. I don’t think I’ve ever had a series make me feel so conflicted with critical whiplash!
The Book That Broke the World, like its predecessor, really works when it is focusing on its two main strengths. The first of these is the emotional core of the book – Livira and Evar’s star-crossed love. The relationship between Livira and Evar ground the a story that is often thrust into a multiversal, time-jumping fantasy-fest. Livira and Evar are the Lyra and Will (of the His Dark Materials trilogy) of the twenty-first century. They are two young people thrust across space and time, and yet have developed this quite beautiful relationship despite the warring librarians, giant killing insects, magical cats, and more. The second strength is, of course, the mythical Library itself. What Lawrence has created here is truly awe-inspiring and I continue finding myself wanting to further explore the library and the mysteries of humanity it contains. The fraternal war between two of the founders of the library, and their contradictory philosophies, is an excellent par-example of how to build in conflict, history, and thematic heft to a fantasy series this grandiose and epic.
I think where I keep being slightly let down by this series is that Lawrence has struggled to really find a compelling narrative to insert in his magical knack for worldbuilding. These problems started to emerge for me in the last 1/3 of The Book That Wouldn’t Burn, but they come to the foreground here. This book suffers a bit from “Middle Book Syndrome”, and there are large swaths of the plot where things are happening, but nothing is happening. We will get a chapter where the characters are running from an insect army…and then two chapters later we get another extended sequence of them running from…gigantic spiders. If you like a lot of action sequences in your fantasy books, you’ll be completely gripped by this sequel. However, I got bored with endless monotony of characters not really going anywhere – in terms of the plot or their own character arcs. By the end of the book I’m not sure what was actually accomplished here that couldn’t have been condensed into a few chapters. The worldbuilding is great, but the Lawrene cannot seem to fully inhabit that world with a strongly paced story.
I should also point out that if the Library was your favorite thing about the first book, the characters spend very little time in the Library in this book.
Having said that, the plot in The Book That Broke the World isn’t all bad. We do get a bit more info about the Library, how it operates, its history, and its purpose. When Lawrence is focusing on the mythology of his worldbuilding, the story really soars. We also get introduced to a new POV character, Celcha, whose story reveals some things about the larger world that we hasn’t really been exposed to in the past except in some passing comments or asides. I really liked Celcha as a character, and it was fascinating seeing her go through much of the same journey as Livira did in the first book. We get to see the similarities and differences in their journeys, revealing many of the biases and structural inequalities inherent in this world (or worlds, I guess?). The ways in which Celcha’s story arc crashes into the main storyline of the story is simultaneously tragic and hopeful (if all of those things can actually exist at the same time). Some of it is also a bit unexpected, but eagle-eyed readers will probably pick up on the connections quite early since Lawrence returns to the same toolbox he used for the first book (not unlike the way in which the tv show Westworld used the same tricks in its second season, to diminished effect).
Lawrence also does some really interesting things with POV in this book, especially as the number of different species and cultures come into direct contact with one another. Lawrence explores cultural biases, stereotypes, and judgements with sometimes subtle and other times quite exaggerated thoughts, feelings, and actions of his POV characters. We get to see how each of these characters views the others initially, and how those walls can come crumbling down as they get to know the others as people, and not another humanoid species. There is one prominent inter-species romance that I didn’t quite buy into, but overall the way that Lawrence is able to embody different characteres and their inherent biases so fully was refreshing and insightful into the psyche of this characters.
Even days after finishing this book I still don’t know how much or little I liked this book. I’m sure as I continue to ruminate on the book that my feelings will continue to evolve, which ultimately exposes the futility and arbitrariness of any kind of “star rating system” anyways. If you liked Book 1, give this one a shot. Some people will really like it, others will find it to be too boring or slow. I’m sure the reviews will end up being mixed and conflicted, just like my own conflicted thoughts here.
Concluding Thoughts: Mark Lawrence returns to the Library, the mythical and magical place that contains all of the world’s knowledge. Lawrence’s worldbuilding remains immaculate, and the Library continues to have many mysteries to solves and layers to peel back. Lawrence’s characters also continue to be strong, especially the core relationship between Livira and Evar, and Lawrence’s command of his POV characters is masterful. However, this sequel let me down a bit because the plot moves so slowly, nothing really happens, and we spend too much time away from the Library that initially hooked me in. This is a mixed-bag of a sequel that I didn’t like a lot of, yet it kept pulling me back in for more.
Thank you for reading my review of The Book That Broke the World!