Saturday, May 29, 2010

Libyrinth (book) by Pearl North

This is yet another book I saw on Unshelved - I ended up requesting it via ILL because the book/library aspects of it appealed to me. For some reason I assumed that this was a first novel. Although this is Pearl North's first novel for young adults, apparently "Pearl North" is actually a pseudonym for a SF author named Anne Harris (found this out with a bit of searching on the Internet, but I haven't done anything to verify that this is, in fact, true, so correct me if I'm wrong), who I've never read anything by and have never even heard of.

Anyway, my overall impression of this book was "meh." Some parts were very interesting, but the characters didn't really grab me and the pace felt a bit slow. I also had problems remembering that this was supposed to be set in some kind of dystopian future - several elements made this feel more like fantasy than scifi, and the only things that reminded me that this was actually set in our future were the occasional book quotes.

Synopsis:

Thousands of years from now, much human knowledge has been lost, and what hasn't been lost is being maintained in two different, and apparently opposing, ways. One way is in the Libyrinth, a library so vast that people sometimes get lost and even die in it. It houses many books, but, since the whole of it hasn't been traveled and cataloged, it's not always possible to find what one is looking for. Another way is the Eradicants' way (the Libyrarians call them Eradicants - they call themselves the Singers). They believe that books are murdered words and that the only way words can be free is if they are sung. They store knowledge as songs and burn books, one at a time, as they find them. In order to avoid having the entire Libyrinth burned down, the Libyrarians have an arrangement with the Eradicants that allows the Eradicants to occasionally burn certain books if they agree to leave the rest of the Libyrinth alone.

The one book that everyone wants is The Book of the Night, which is said to be able to bring about the Redemption and supposedly holds the secrets to creating an Egg (Eggs are valuable power sources, but the method for creating them has been lost). One Libyrarian, Selene, may have discovered the location of The Book of the Night, but unfortunately that information is leaked to the Eradicants. Selene, her clerk Haly, Haly's friend Clauda, and Nod all work to get to The Book of the Night before the Eradicants do, only to discover that the book is written in a language no one can read. However, Haly has been hiding a secret - books talk to her. Even if she can't read what is written in them, they read themselves to her, and she can repeat what they say to others.

The Eradicants come and torture both Haly and Clauda. Clauda and Selene manage to escape with The Book of the Night, while Haly is taken away by the Eradicants, who condemn her as a witch. It's not long before the Eradicants figure out that Haly is actually their prophesied Redeemer, the one who will read The Book of the Night and bring about the Redemption. Haly begins to learn more about the Eradicants - the Singers - and she realizes to her surprise that both the Singers' and the Libyrarians' ways each have their strengths and weaknesses. The Libyrarians preserve valuable knowledge in the form of books, ensuring that the knowledge of the Ancients won't be lost, but they don't readily share that knowledge with those outside the Libyrinth. The Singers songs can be understood and sung by anyone, but Singers will occasionally edit events to make them more acceptable and their songs don't necessarily stay the same over time - as a result, knowledge occasionally gets lost. As Haly comes to understand some of the ways Libyrarians can learn from the Singers, she tries to teach the Singers the value of books by reading to some of them and even teaching one of them to read - the book she uses, the same book that was used to test her abilities, is The Diary of Anne Frank.

While Haly is learning about the Singers and gradually trying to teach them about books and the Libyrarians, Selene and Clauda are trying to figure out how to save Haly and the Libyrinth and keep The Book of the Night from falling into Eradicant hands. They enlist the help of Selene's mother, Queen Thela of Ilysies, but there's a few problems. First, Queen Thela has no intention of saving Haly - she plans on using the situation to gain more power for herself and Ilysies. Second, Clauda's not doing too well because what the Eradicants did to her, and soon she won't be able to take care of herself, much less help Haly.

When the Eradicants/Singers arrive at the Libyrinth, things don't go quite as they planned. At Haly's urging, the Libyrarians and Singers gradually begin to learn more about each other and sort of get along, but the Libyrinth isn't out of danger yet. Clauda arrives in a Wing, a flying machine created by the Ancients, that Thela had hidden away - the Wing doubles as both a weapon and something that can heal her badly damaged nervous system. Not knowing how things will go, Haly tries to begin the Redemption, and Clauda uses the Wing to amplify its effects. Suddenly, everyone is able to hear exactly what they need to hear from just the right books.

Haly discovers that The Book of the Night doesn't say anything about how to create an Egg. The Singers and Libyrarians became two separate groups because of a misunderstanding - the founder of the Libyrarians wasn't able to find out how to create Eggs, while the founder of the Singers believed that the founder of the Libyrarians was simply refusing to share the secret. So, The Book of the Night isn't necessarily as useful as people thought it would be, but at least now everyone wants to try to get along and learn from each other.

Commentary:

Anytime I hear about a book that has librarians in it, or one where books are very prominent in some way, I can't help but want to read it. Unfortunately, this one was a bit of a slog for me - the only reason I finished it well before my ILL due date was because I wasn't allowing myself to start reading Moribito until I finished this.

I really like all the book quotes sprinkled throughout the text. The author seemed to have quotes available for all kinds of situations, and, joy of joys, the selection of books quoted from was extremely varied. These quotes didn't just come from classics (as in, the books your high school English teacher made you read because the stuff you really wanted to read was considered crap) - there's stuff from books I've read and enjoyed (Anne McCaffrey's Dragonflight, Yann Martel's Life of Pi, E.B. White's Charlotte's Web, etc.), stuff from books I've never read but now think I should hunt down (P.G. Wodehouse's Right Ho, Jeeves, Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, etc.), and random non-fiction. Even better, the author doesn't force you to figure out where all these quotes come from (although this may be more for legal reasons than anything else). If you want, you can puzzle out all the quotes as you read, but there are several pages at the end of the book that list all the quotes and their citations. Sadly, there are no page numbers for where they can be found in North's book, only chapter numbers, and none of the citations include page numbers. It's still better than nothing, though.

Unfortunately, there just wasn't enough stuff I liked in addition to the quotes. Most of the characters didn't interest me, or I actively disliked them. The Eradicants were the main ones I hated - while I could understand and appreciate their feelings that knowledge was meant to be shared, their belief that books, knowledge that could not automatically be shared by all, should be burned turned me off. Since I find it hard to believe that every one of the Eradicants throughout their whole history would be so blind as to not realize that at least some of the books they were burning held knowledge that they didn't have, it ends up looking like what they actually believe is that if everyone can't have certain knowledge then no one should be able to have it. At least the Libyrarians were only guilty of not making their knowledge more widely available, either by setting up literacy programs available to anyone interested (although it seemed like something like that was available, maybe...) or by doing public readings of their books.

There were snippets of romance, but North didn't do enough with them for my tastes. Haly and a young Singer end up together - not a huge surprise. I was wondering what North would do with the revelation, relatively early in the book, that Clauda is a lesbian, and the answer was, "nothing." Clauda blushes over a few nude or semi-clothed ladies in Ilysies (the people at the Libyrinth apparently have more hangups about nudity than the people in Ilysies), and I kind of wondered whether a few bits with Clauda and Selene and Selene talking about Clauda were going to morph into an end-of-the-book relationship between the two of them. Nope. I guess the whole thing was just a throwaway detail. As far as I can tell, none of the other characters in the book even find out about Clauda's secret. Maybe North or her publishers were hoping that parents would find out about "the lesbian character" and make a big fuss, thereby boosting the book's sales?

One thing I think is kind of interesting, since e-books are on my mind, is that the future North writes about in this book can't exist without print books and can't include e-books. Eggs power the machines of the Ancients - even if the people in this book could find an e-book reader that was still working and load some e-books into it, I don't know that they'd necessarily want to waste their few remaining eggs on it. Heck, they have problems keeping the Libyrinth powered up, and it wasn't until the very end of the book that they got enough power to be able to activate a feature of the Libyrinth that would allow Libyrarians to actually find specific books. Print books can believably be around in Haly's world, because we have actual examples of books that have survived for hundreds of years and can survive for longer. E-books in Haly's world would stretch the boundaries of believability a bit too far. Although...is it really possible that so many 21st century books would survive to be housed in the Libyrinth? Apparently even acid-free paper is only supposed to last two or three hundred years. That's still longer than I imagine an e-book would last, but maybe not long enough for the world of Libyrinth to be possible.

By the way, in case you haven't read a post of mine that's mentioned it, I'm definitely a print book kind of person. I have a feeling North might be, too.

Anyway, with my TBR pile threatening to take over my apartment, I'm starting to think I need to quit requesting books via ILL that I only think I might like. I didn't hate this book and don't feel like I wasted a few hours of my life reading it, but finishing the book doesn't clear up a little more of my bookshelf and apartment space the same way reading one of the books I own would. If I had liked this book more, that wouldn't be as much of an issue. However, I didn't really like the book's pacing, and North couldn't seem to decide whether she wanted this book to be science fiction or fantasy, which is something that has annoyed me with other things (Sharon Shinn's Samaria books and Scrapped Princess, to name a few examples). I don't mind soft science fiction - in fact, I tend to prefer it to hard science fiction - but I like books to be clear about what it is they are. Haly's ability to hear books automatically put this book in the realm of fantasy for me, and the confusing bit near the end about Haly being not quite human, an attempt, I'm guessing, to make Haly's abilities less fantasy and more science fiction, was too little, too late.

Read-alikes:
  • Archangel (book) by Sharon Shinn - This book, the first in a series, is set in what appears to be a Utopian society. Angels walk among regular human beings and sing to the god Jovah for whatever aid humans might need (for example, weather manipulation in order to end a drought). Gabriel is next in line to become the archangel, and he must have the wife Jovah has chosen for him singing by his side when it's time for him to assume his new position. Unfortunately, he's waited until nearly the last possible moment to find Rachel, the woman who is to be his wife, and she turns out to be a slave who hates all angels. This is the first book in a series that later reveals itself to be science fiction. Those who liked Libyrinth's mix of fantasy and sci-fi, use of singing, and "forgotten knowledge rediscovered" aspects may want to try this series, beginning with this book.
  • The Eyre Affair (book) by Jasper Fforde - In an alternate universe, Thursday Next is an operative in the Literary Division of the Special Operations Network. Her latest case involves finding someone who's been stealing characters from the original manuscripts of beloved works of literature, thereby removing those characters from all copies of those works. Those who'd like something else that's a bit of a genre-bender and full of literary references might want to try this.
  • Sabriel (book) by Garth Nix - This is the first in Nix's Abhorsen Trilogy. Sabriel is in her last year at Wyverley College, which is located in an area where Magic doesn't work. When she finds out that her father is somehow trapped in Death, Sabriel must journey to the Old Kingdom, where Magic does work, in order to find him and save him. Sabriel, like her father, has the power to lay the dead to rest, and she must use this ability to save herself and those she befriends as she attempts to help her father. Although I'm suggesting this book, I'm mainly suggesting it as a steppingstone to the book that comes after it - Lirael. Lirael, like Libyrinth, has an awesome, dangerous library.
  • Dragonsong (book) by Anne McCaffrey - I think this is the 3rd book in McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern series, and the first one featuring Menolly. Menolly wants nothing more than to become a Harper (basically, a professional musician), something her father does his best to make impossible. Menolly runs away and struggles to survive away from civilization and other humans. Fortunately, she ends up befriending and raising a group of fire lizards (tiny dragon creatures). Those who particularly liked the parts of Libyrinth where Haly learned how the Singers live should be sure to read the next book in the series, Dragonsinger, in which Menolly ends up at Harper Hall, learning how to hone her musical abilities. By the way, although McCaffrey's Pern books may appear to be fantasy, they are later revealed to be science fiction (I know hard sci-fi lovers are cringing right now, and possible some soft sci-fi fans, too - I still think of this series as fantasy).

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