“It’s always the books you don’t have that call to you, you know that. Not the ones on your shelf. They can wait.”
Reading Mark Lawrence’s latest novel, The Book that Wouldn’t Burn, feels like having your mind blown in slow motion. This first volume of his new Library Trilogy is a blend of science fiction and fantasy but at the same time transcends conventional genre labels.
The novel alternates perspectives between two protagonists. Livira Page is a lively and precocious girl from the Dust, the poverty-stricken land outside the city where people barely have enough food and water to survive. As the novel opens, Livira’s village is attacked by a group of vicious doglike soldiers known as sabbers.
The other lead character, Evar Eventari, is a young man in his early 20s who has spent his entire life trapped in a chamber of an enormous library, together with his four adopted siblings and endless towers of books. Evar has been raised by one of the library’s Assistants, a porcelain-looking android-type figure.
The Book That Wouldn’t Burn takes place in and around Crath City. The city is ruled by King Oanold, son of Dubya, a megalomaniac Trump-like figure who embraces nepotism and xenophobia, and who values affirmation rather than knowledge. If there are a hundred books on a topic but only one of those supports Oanold’s preconceived biases, that single volume is the only one he will trust.
Within the city, the focal point of The Book That Wouldn’t Burn is the Athenaeum, the legendary library founded by Irad, the great-grandson of Adam and Eve and the grandson of Cain, the inventor of fratricide. Like his grandfather, Irad fought with his own brother, Jaspeth, who considered the Athenaeum to be a temple to the sin of knowledge. Jaspeth was determined to tear down the library as atonement for the original sin of Adam and Eve, i.e., disobeying God by eating fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The struggle between Irad and Jaspeth has been passed down from generation to generation, with Jaspeth, the enemy of knowledge, reflected in figures such as King Oanold, casting the epic struggles of humankind as a battle between knowledge and ignorance.
The library, hence, becomes a battleground in both the literal and figurative sense. This is a struggle we see play out in our own society, where politicians and religious leaders seek to ban books, censor dissenting views, and manipulate classroom curriculum, believing themselves to have a monopoly on truth.
In The Book That Wouldn’t Burn, the Athenaeum is an infinitely large labyrinth of knowledge housing the collective memory of humankind. This represents our legacy as a civilization and is all that will remain after humanity satisfies its thirst for self-destruction.
Mark Lawrence also poignantly addresses memory at the personal level:
“What does nostalgia mean to a child? An abstraction. A standing stone waiting for them in the mist. Walk a path across some decades, any path you like, and the word will gather weight. It will come to you trailing maybes and might-have-beens. Nostalgia is a drug, a knife. Against young skin it carries a dull edge, but time will teach you that nostalgia cuts—and that it’s a blade we cannot keep from applying to our own flesh.”
The themes of The Book That Wouldn’t Burn extend well beyond the nature of knowledge and memory. Lawrence also contemplates how society develops the notion of a collective enemy, the dehumanization of “the other,” and the associated xenophobia. Ultimately, we may discover that we are our own worst enemy.
At the end of Lawrence’s previous novel, The Girl and the Moon, the author tells us that it’s time for something new. Indeed, The Book That Wouldn’t Burn delivers a wholly original tale that is difficult to compare to other recent fantasy or science fiction novels. The Book That Wouldn’t Burn reminds me more closely of the work of Haruki Murakami, the master of Japanese magical realism. The basic structure of The Book That Wouldn’t Burn mirrors that of Murakami’s opus, 1Q84, which also alternates points of view between male and female leads, whose paths ultimately cross in a strange alternate reality. Murakami’s delightfully weird novella, The Strange Library, also features a lonely boy and wise girl lost in a labyrinthine library. Moreover, the Athenaeum’s warping of space and time recalls the settings of both Piranesi by Susanna Clarke and The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro. But perhaps the closest parallel can be drawn to the work of Argentine short story author Jorge Luis Borges, especially “The Library of Babel,” in which Borges introduces the concept of an infinite library containing all possible books that could be written with a given alphabet.
The Book That Wouldn’t Burn is undoubtedly the most theme-driven of Mark Lawrence’s work, but it also features a great cast of characters. Livira and Evar are both outstanding leads, especially the tenacious Livira who, like the weed she is named after, can’t be kept down. Another breakout character is Malar, a grizzled veteran whose gruff exterior masks a heart of gold. The Book That Wouldn’t Burn also features a trio of scene-stealing animal friends, including a guide dog named Volente (Latin for “willingly”) and Wentworth, a feline of unusual size who bears a distinct resemblance to the author’s own oversized cat, Wobble. The library is also home to a raven, whose name I shall not reveal. Always the ravens, eh, Dr. Lawrence?
The Book That Wouldn’t Burn is Mark Lawrence’s longest novel to date. As a lengthy book about a library, I was expecting this to be a slow-paced story. However, Lawrence defied my expectations, maintaining a surprisingly rapid pace throughout the novel. I’d argue that The Book That Wouldn’t Burn is Lawrence’s fastest paced novel since Prince of Thorns.
The Athenaeum houses all books that have ever been written, and Lawrence leverages this infinite expanse of knowledge to compile some of the best epigraphs I’ve seen anywhere. Long-time Mark Lawrence fans will be delighted by the large number of connections to his previous work. In the ultimate author flex, Lawrence quotes passages both from his own novels and from books written by characters appearing in those novels, creating a head-spinning level of recursion.
The Book That Wouldn’t Burn is the work of a veteran author at the peak of his powers. Mark Lawrence has taken his craft to the next level yet again. His writing is witty and heartfelt, with several laugh out loud moments and many more that pulled at the heartstrings. The Book That Wouldn’t Burn somehow encapsulates all of Lawrence’s previous work while also being wholly unique. There are also a number of shocking plot twists that reveal themselves in the final third of the book and left a big emotional impact on me as a reader.
The Book That Wouldn’t Burn covers a lot of ground, offering a meditation on human society in the information age, the seductive nature of lies, and the intrinsic danger of knowledge in the absence of wisdom. But at its core, The Book That Wouldn’t Burn is Lawrence’s self-described love letter to books and the buildings where they live. The vastness of the library makes the reader feel like a young child, staring in awe at the tall bookshelves and the unopened books waiting to be read. I am pleased to give my highest rating to this latest masterpiece from Mark Lawrence and am excited to continue the story with the next volume of The Library Trilogy.