Libyrinth, by Pearl North (Tor, 2009, YA, 321pp)
In a not-earth place far in the future, there is the Libyrinth--an immense, underground warren of books, jealously guarded by the Libyrarians. It is an island of literacy on a world where books are threatened. As the book opens, books are being burned to placate the powerful Eradicants, who seek to destroy the evil they feel books represent, and bring every one into the Song, sharing knowledge with the poor and illiterate, instead of keeping it locked away in a fortress of books.
When a word is spoken, it is born, when it is written, it dies. Sacred fire of life, free the shackled dead. (page 1)
Haly, a young clerk in the Libyrinth, takes each book burning especially hard. For Haly, books aren't just words on paper; they literally speak to her inside her head, so that as she wanders through the stacks, she hears a constant chorus of words.
The world of the Libyrinth is one where technology has been lost, and knowledge scattered. One book, The Book of the Night, is said to hold the secrets of the ancients, that might bring back some of the skills Haly's people have lost. But the stacks of the Libyrinth are a maze (Haly's Libyrarian parents died down there), and the book, so eagerly sought by both Libyrarians and Eradicants, who want to know its secrets before they burn it, is lost.
Haly flees from the Eradicant besieged Libyrinth with her companions (Selene, a Libyrarian, Clauda, a kitchen helper, and Nod, a reclusive library imp) in a desperate bid to find help from Selene's royal family. On the journey, Haly hears the voices of the books trapped in a lost branch library buried underground, and finds a copy The Book of the Night.
But soon the Eradicants, the book haters, who imprison and torture anyone found with a book, find Haly. And Selene and Clauda find themselves caught in a web of intrigue that builds to a violent power struggle. And... you can go read the book if you want to find out more.
It's good stuff--the sort of girl gang adventure where smart and strong young women face down people that want to oppress them, in a fantastical place that gives the story room to grow in fantastical ways. Things move along at a brisk pace. One regret I have regarding this book is that there's not more--more background about the planet, more about the ancients, more time in general to enjoy the plot, and more time spent in the company of the very engaging characters. With more, I might have fallen in love with the book, rather than simply enjoying it just fine.
That being said, this is a book for the book lover. Quotations from books speaking to Haly swirl delightfully through the story (Charlotte's Web, The Joy of Cooking, Fox in Socks, etc), and they are all listed in an appendix at the back. Giving this story some depth is a hint of Le Guin-ish-ness, in the tension between oral vs written knowledge, and the effects of this on culture. An especially powerful moment comes when Haly reads The Diary of Anne Frank, a testament to the importance of the written word if there ever was one, to the leaders of the Eradicants.
Libyrinth might well appeal to fans of both fantasy (the adventurous journey side of things) and science fiction (the lost technology side of things). But there's one thing that I bet would raise the hackles of the hard-core science-fiction reader, and which requires suspension of disbelief even by the Luddites among us--why the heck are there all these printed books in a library on another planet? Where are the kindles? Although, if there were kindles, they probably wouldn't work any more...and there would be no story.
Viz diversity in sci fi/fantasy--the cover speaks for itself (and you can read the cover story here, at Melissa Walker's blog). The first draft of the cover is at right--the final Haly is much stronger and more rooted, and, if you look closely, you can see they've added Nod the imp, for a touch of magic. I'd also like to add, speaking of diversity, that reference is matter-of-factly made to women falling in love with women--this is a normal part of some of the social groups in this world.
"Pearl North" is the pseudonym of a published sci fi/fantasy author, and I am consumed with curiosity. Edited to add: thanks to Memory, I now know that Pearl North is really Anne Harris. Why did she feel that she needed a pseudonym??? I hope it's not because this is a YA book...
Here are other reviews and discussions, at Blog Critics, Tor/Forge's Blog, Stella Matutina, and The Book Smugglers.
And here's an interview with "Pearl North," at Writing It Out.