As we’re coming up to Valentine’s Day I should probably be recommending something romantic. Well, this week’s choice does contain two love stories but it isn’t romantic in a slushy, happy-ever-after kind of a way. “The Reader” by Traci Chee is a Dystopian Fantasy written for Young Adults. It came out in 2016 and is Book One of the “Sea of Ink and Gold” series. A sequel, “The Speaker”, was published a few months ago. “The Reader” is easy to find in paperback or as an ebook; just don’t get it confused with “The Reader” by Bernhard Schlink because that is a very different kind of novel.
Chee’s book is a complex multi-stranded story. It is set in Kelanna, “a wonderful and terrible world of water and ships and magic.” Many different races live in the five island kingdoms of Kelanna but none of them seem to have developed systems of writing. They remember their history by turning it into tales which pass “from mouth to mouth”. One rare tale tells of “a mysterious object called a book, which held the key to the greatest magic Kelanna had ever known.”
The main story-line follows an orphan called Sefia who lives with the skilled thief she calls Aunt Nin. They are on the run from the people who murdered Sefia’s beloved father six years before. When assassins led by a woman in black catch up with them in the Forest Kingdom, Nin is carried off. Alone in the woods, Sefia opens a bundle which her father entrusted to her and discovers a book. Guided by memories of lessons from her late mother, Sefia teaches herself to read. She also learns how to enter a hidden world of golden currents which gives her strange powers.
In another strand of the plot, we meet a boy called Lon who also has the talent for dipping into this Illuminated World, where he is able to see past, present and future events. Lon is invited to become the new Apprentice Librarian in a secret Library run by by an order of Guardians dedicated to bringing “peace to an unstable world”. He forges friendships with other young Guardians and risks breaking the rules of the order by being strongly attracted to the Apprentice Assassin.
When Sefia rescues a prisoner from a crate it turns out to be a mute boy rather than her aunt. The boy, whom she calls Archer, has been tortured by the brutal Impressors and forced to fight other boys to the death. They travel on together. Sefia hopes to find and save Nin and she wants to investigate possible links between the woman in black and the cruel pirate who commands the Impressors. Her book sometimes shows Sefia stories about a very different pirate – Cannek Reed, the treasure-hunting, fame-seeking captain of the Current of Faith. After an uncomfortably close encounter with a young assassin, Sefia and Archer are startled to find themselves on board the Current of Faith. They must win over Captain Reed if Sefia is to continue her quest for answers, redemption and revenge.
“The Reader” has sneaked onto Fantasy Reads even though I can think of a stack of reasons for not picking this book. For starters, the synopsis is a nightmare to write without giving away too much about the plot and structure of Chee’s novel. What begins as a fairly standard epic journey plus “teenager develops superpowers” plot soon deepens and divides. There are layers of stories within stories and Chee plays tricks with time and identity. Working out the connections between the various plot-lines and characters isn’t easy. By the end of this book some of Sefia’s questions about her heritage have been answered but there are revelations to come in the sequel which overturn most of what you think you’ve learned about Kelanna and the Guardians. If you prefer straightforward linear narratives, and don’t enjoy pitting your wits against an author, avoid “The Reader”.
Chee makes clever use of the traditional belief in a “Book of Life”, in which “everything that had ever been or would ever be” is recorded. Many of the characters in the “Sea of Ink and Gold” series challenge the idea that “What is written always comes to pass” and struggle to shape or reshape their destinies. The “secret library manipulating the world” part of the plot is not a particularly original idea. The less common libraries become in real life, the more popular they seem to be in fiction. There is Genevieve Cogman’s enjoyable but rather light-weight “Invisible Library” series and Rachel Caine’s grim and gripping “Great Library” series, which I’ve already recommended (see my November 2015 post on “Ink and Bone”).
Caine’s series has a more interesting central character than “The Reader” does. With her dark hair, golden skin and onyx eyes, Sefia is physically striking but she does seem a rather standard Young Adult Fantasy heroine. She’s brave, intelligent and compassionate but I did feel that I’d read about her before. Melodramatic problems which keep young lovers chastely apart (i.e. she’s human, he’s a vampire) are also standard in Paranormal Romance. There are plenty of obstacles for the two pairs of star-crossed lovers in this series but “The Reader” did score highly with me for its sensitive portrayal of a slowly developing relationship between two damaged young people – Sefia and Archer. Be warned that there is a lot of violence in this story. Some of it is comic-book style (high-leaping, bullet-stopping assassins) but Chee does explore the physical and mental effects of the horrific violence that Archer has both endured and inflicted.
You might assume that most of the violence in this story would be centred on the pirate-characters but the crew of the Current of Faith are the nicest, kindest, most equal-opportunity pirates ever to sail the seas. These freedom-loving outlaws never do anything as dreadful as the Guardians, who claim to be acting for the good of society. Captain Reed himself is an ambiguous character, obsessed with escaping the anonymity of death through daring deeds which will be remembered for ever. His adventures “for treasure and glory” at the edge of the known world are my favourite parts of “The Reader”. They are wonderfully romantic and inspire some of Chee’s best writing but also develop the theme of what kind of stories we choose to tell about ourselves and others.
“The Reader” isn’t a perfect book but it contains some dazzling scenes, such Sefia and Lon’s plunges into the rippling, shifting Illuminated World and Reed’s encounters with an island-sized turtle, the Cursed Diamonds of Lady Delune, and the ruby-red eyes of the dead. I’m still not sure if Chee will succeed in weaving all the strands of her plot together to create a satisfying conclusion but that uncertainty is part of what makes “Sea of Ink and Gold” an exciting read. Until next time…