Smoke and Iron by Rachel Caine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars.
Series: The Great Library (Book 4 of 5)
Genre: Young adult, alternate history, historical fantasy, fantasy
Published: July 2018 by Berkley Books (US) and Allison & Busby (UK)
The best book in the series so far, Smoke and Iron gave me more than a consistently fantastic continuation in The Great Library.
Once again, the story took off right after the previous cliffhanger ending. This time, however, there’s a difference and I was absolutely thrilled to discover multiple POVs for the first time in the series. As I’ve mentioned in my last review, I’m thoroughly invested in each and every one of the characters in the main cast. And this was despite just having Jess Brightwell as the sole POV character so far. As a reader, I couldn’t think of a better reward after that nailbiting ending in the previous book than to be able to finally get into the heads of the other characters.
“Silences, he learned, had layers to them. Some were tense, on the verge of violence; some were slow and calm and peaceful. This one had edges.”
The change in the structure of the narrative was more than just refreshing and delightful, it was what the story required. At the end of Ash and Quill, the devastating turn of events resulted in the entire group being splintered, and each has a role to play towards the goal of removing the corrupted core of the Library. I did wonder after I’ve finished the third book as to how Caine would be able to account for that if we were only given Jess’s POV. And as any good storyteller and author would do, she gave us multiple ones and it made the narrative even better.
“Without Santi, they would not find the strength. Without Jess, no inspiration, Without Thomas, there was no real future. Without Glain, no protection. Without Morgan, no audacity. Without Wolfe, no challenge to do better, be better. Without Dario, no subtlety. Without her.. but she didn’t see her role. It would have been prideful to imagine she could be spared, but she knew she could not spare even one of these others.”
What multiple character viewpoints need to provide are distinctive voices. While Caine had established these characters to be very different personalities as seen from Jess’s POV, it’s quite another matter to hear them in their own heads. I can’t begin to describe how much I enjoyed and loved every single moment of it. I even tried to savour this book a bit more and was partially successful (finished in four instead of two days) because every POV is a section of its own. That in effect provided a natural break in the narrative as the story shifted to a different setting. While the story was just as engaging as the rest, it did not have the relentless pacing of the last one that made it so unputdownable. But even though it’s less intense than its predecessor, Smoke and Iron was anxiety inducing. In a way, that also led me to take more breaks for some reprieve.
“The Library had started as a preserver of knowledge, a beacon of light, but that through the centuries and millennia, it had become a center of power. Power rotted from within.”
One thing that was really highlighted here was how power could corrupt so badly that a person could become mad with it. That’s the only way to describe the Archivist Magister, whom I would dearly love to see suffer as badly (or even more) as those he has made to suffer. This madness was already quite telling from a particularly horrifying event that occurred towards the end of the second book, but it was shown to even greater effect this time.
“Forgive me for clinging one more moment to the fiction that right will prevail without becoming worse than its opposite.”
I was expecting yet another cliffhanger as we progress to the final book. To my surprise, this one actually ended at a good place. Well, as much as in we’re not left hanging on tenterhooks. I would not deem what happened to be good, especially as I was quite devastated by a certain moment. One very minor gripe I had for this book is that sometimes things seemed to happen just a tad too conveniently for the benefit of our main characters. However, I loved reading these books way too much to let that affect my enjoyment and I just rode with it. All I could hope and wish for now is for the final volume to deliver a satisfying conclusion that befits the stellar quality of these books.