Rachel Caine’s Great Library Novels

A review of Rachel Caine’s series of books featuring the Great Library.


There are three novels under consideration in todays post, and they form a series. 



These books are an exercise in “Alternative History”. They are set in the 21st century in a world in which the Great Library of Alexandria did not get destroyed, but instead ended up as a global power, not merely a centre of learning. For some centuries a conflict has raged between the forces of the Library and rebels known as Burners. Also, since the Great Library have decreed that no books shall be privately owned there is a third group in the mix, the smugglers who for a price satsify the cravings of those who in defiance of the law still want to own books. 


Ink and Bone

In the opening pages of this book we meet Jess Brightwell, then 10 years old, and already running contraband books as part of his father’s smuggling business. Jess performs a mission which leads him to an encounter with an ‘ink eater’ – a man who in this instance eats the pages of the only known copy of a book by Aristotle. The effect witnessing this has on Jess sets the scene for the subsequent story. We skip forward six years and Jess’s father has entered him (at vast expense) for the Great Library entrance exam, considering that it would be useful to have someone on the inside. Jess manages to pass and finds himself bound for Alexandria along with 30 or so other scholars. Among his fellows are Thomas Schreiber, a German with massive talents for engineering and inventing, Khalila Seif who has achieved the first ever perfect score in the entrance exam, Glain Wathen, a tough Welsh girl who has an eye on a place in the High Garda, the Library’s security force/ army and Dario Santiago, from a wealthy and influential Spanish family.

These and the other postulants find themselves being put through their paces by Scholar Christopher Wolfe, a very harsh judge. Twelve of the postulants have gone by the end of the first week, and their numbers continue to fall regularly. One new person arrives on the scene, Morgan Hault, who it turns out is an obscurist, and as such vital to future of the library. Her unwillingness to suffer the obscurist’s usual fate of being confined in the Iron Tower is one of the causes of conflict between these scholars and the Library. The other direct cause is Thomas Schreiber’s passion for inventing – he designs and creates a printing press which would enable the bulk production of books, not realising that various previous scholars have been harshly punished for the same invention, as the Library will tolerate nothing that might reduce its power. It further harms Thomas’ cause that Christopher Wolfe is one of those scholars who have previously been punished for this offence.

Before Thomas  Schreiber gets hauled over the coals there are major clues that all is not rosy in the garden. As a final exercise the postulants are sent to Oxford to retrieve some rare books gthat have come to light there, and the only way to get them there in time is to use a technique called ‘translation’, which is fraught with danger. One of them, Guillaume Danton, dies while being translated, which generates suspicion. Then, when they have barely escaped from Oxford with their lives and are being returned to Alexandria on the Archivist’s personal train they are ambushed by Burners who have somehow found out their whereabouts. 

This book ends with Morgan Hault confined in the Iron Tower, Thomas Schreiber in prison, with the others having been told that he is dead, and all the other main characters having been assigned various positions. 


Paper and Fire

This book follows on directly from the end of book one. It deals with the discovery that Thomas is not dead, merely in prison, and the subsequent quest to break him out and escape from the Library’s clutches. In the Iron Tower, above the levels occupied by the obscurists, the Black Archives are revealed to us for the first time. The Archivist (boss of the whole library) has ordered the Artifex Magnus to destroy them, but the rebel scholars get away with a quantity of the most important books and head for London, Jess Brightwell’s home town. They then find themselves betrayed and sent to the Burner city of Philadelphia. It is also in the course of this book that we see how the automata (I dropped a hint about these in this post)  that the Libfrary uses in addition to the High Garda can be switched off. Thomas, with the help of Morgan Hault the obscurist, manages to change one of the automata so that it works for them.


Ash and Quill

Thomas Schreiber creates a version of his press from materials available in Philadelphia, which works sufficiently well to impress the Burners but not to end his usefulness. He also makes a weapon that will ultimately be used to make a hole in Philadelphia’s walls so that he and his band can escape. 

Meanwhile, having previously kept the city under siege for a hundred years, the Library having discovered that their rebel scholars are there have ordered the complete destruction of the city.

While the city is being destroyed, Thomas Schreiber’s weapon creates enough of a hole in the walls for the scholars to escape, and one of Jess’ smuggler acquaintances gets them back to Britain. London is now off bounds, having finally fallen to the Welsh forces who have been attacking it for some time, but Jess’ father owns a castle in the north of England.

While hiding there Thomas builds a sophisticated press which is immediately put to work churning out bulk copies of previously concealed works, and he also creates a better version of the weapon he used in Philadelphia to make a gap in the walls. The book ends with Jess, disguised as his brother, about to visit the Archivist. It is fairly clear that whatever happens in that meeting only one of those two will emerge alive (at most).


Interleaved with the story proper are regular sections titled Ephemera, which give as insights in to the history and development of the Library. We learn through these, and through discoveries in the Black Archives, that the first Archivist with a view to making the Library a military as well as an intellectual power base (“using the sword as well the pen”) was Zoran who saw in a conflict between the Roman emperor Aurelian and the eastern queen Zenobia the opportunity to bring this about, that the first scholar to suggest a printing press was a Chinese man in the year 868, and the scholar Gutenberg was punished for the same “crime” some six centuries later. Thus we can trace the corruption of the Library, and the view that its power counted above all else back at least to 868AD, almost 1,200 years before the action in these books takes place, and possibly all the way back to the scheming Archivist Zoran half a millennium before that.


These books are excellent, the story being thoroughly gripping. Although a couple of minor errors slipped in to the history (“Scholar Plato”, which reference is made during the story is incorrect, since he lived and died before the Great Library was created, and Archimedes of Syracuse lived a century and more earlier than Heron of Alexandria, not vice versa) they are not sufficient to detract from the overall quality of the work, which is excellent. I really enjoyed reading these books and hope that there are more to come. You can find out more about Rachel Caine from her website and on twitter. Also, shrewd observers will have noted that my pictures are of Library books, so I finish this long post about a library system that went badly wrong somewhere along the line by thanking a library system that is still working nicely, Norfolk Libraries, through whose good offices I gained access to these books.

Some Pictures

A largely pictorial account of my day.


I have just finished editing the pictures I took while out and about today. I have a collection of tree pics ready for the next post in my “Trees in Transistion” series, but for the moment it is the other pictures I am sharing. I will put them up in three segments…


These are pictures featuring my aunt’s plants, which I have been watering while she is on holiday. Barring a freak return to summer weather tomorrow I anticipate one more visit on Wednesday being sufficient.



This week is National Libraries Week. I have visited King’s Lynn Library today, will definitely visit Fakenham Library at least once this week after a working day, hope to call in at Norwich Millennium Library when I am in that fine city on Wednesday (an autism event) and on Saturday en route to Musical Keys should find time for a visit to Gaywood Library. Here are some pictures of King’s Lynn Library…


We end with some pictures focussing on nature…

Cormorants 1Cormorants 2Cormorants 3Cormorants 4Cormorants 5BirdsCormorants and churchGullsFlying birdsFlying birdCormorants 6Cormorants 7LBBpreparing for Ashes duty!Flying ducksMoorhen 1Moorhen 2

The Quorum: Book Review

A review of Kim Newman’s “The Quorum”.


For this post I am reviewing a book I read recently. When I review books I do so because I consider it worth doing – I gain no pecuniary benefit at all. 


I first came across Kim Newman a couple of years back when I saw a copy of Moriarty: Hound of the D’Urbervilles in Norwich Millennium Library. I enjoyed that book, and the kept the author’s name in mind for future reference. 


I was in King’s Lynn library on Monday, as I often am when not at work when I saw the book. I checked out the back cover to see if I could glean more about the story, and decided it was worth borrowing. On Wednesday, with the beginnings of this post already in mind I returned it having read and enjoyed it…

King’s Lynn library, donated to the town by Andrew Carnegie


The prime mover of the story goes by the name of Derek Leech, and the story starts with him emerging from the muck and slime of the Thames (even today, half a century after Leech’s supposed emergence and after considerable efforts to clean it up the Thames remains fairly slimy and mucky). The other principal characters are four schoolfellows who end up in a situation whereby three of them become very rich and successful courtesy of Leech, but they have to stuff up the life of the other as part of a Faustian deal.

Along the way we are told much about the various ways in which the three who have been granted success. One is a TV presenter and best selling author. In his capacity as an author he names characters after London Underground stations, so we encounter Colin Dale (look near the northern end of the Edgware branch of the Northern line), Ken Sington (South Kensington District, Circle & Piccadilly, High Street Kensington – District & Circle, Kensington Olympia – – District), Mai Da Vale (Maida Vale, Bakerloo line) and Barbi Can (Barbican – Circle, Hammersmith & City, Metropolitan) are all mentioned in the book as names used by Michael Dixon for his characters. Of these names only the first really passes muster. The s in Kensington is pronounced as a z not an s – Ken Ington, losing an N from the name of that Northern line hub station would have been better. Mai Da Vale is a mishmash of a name – a clearly oriental first name and surname with an Italian prefix, in addition to which were Vale a recognised Italian name (I do not believe it is) it would certainly pronounced as Var-lay in that language. Barbi is not usually spelled without the e, and I have yet to come across anyone surnamed Can. However, I credit Newman with selecting these names as a way of indicating just how undeserved Michael Dixon’s best seller status is.

The kicker moment comes late in the plot, after Neil, the ‘loser’ in the bargain finally concedes defeat. It turns out that he as the person whose pain has been feeding Leech’s “device” is far more important than the other three, who having driven him to utter the dread phrase “I give up”, have now ceased to be useful to Leech. 

I enjoyed reading this book and recommend that you read it too. 



All the links in my information about Michel Dixon’s dodgy character names are to posts on my London transport themed website, www.londontu.be. South Kensington has two links because there are two posts about that station, written at different times. 


Booking a Trip to Scotland: British Public Transport Daftness Exposed

A combination of an account of the booking of train tickets for a trip to Scotland and an expose of the sheer craziness of British public transport.


My parents have booked a house near Kyle of Lochalsh for a week which includes my birthday. As a birthday present I have been given the wherewithal to purchase train tickets for the journey, which happens to feature one of the most scenic routes anywhere in Britain. To set the scene for the rest of this post and give you a little test here is a photograph of my railway tickets for the journey:

Can you see what it is about these tickets that even before I go any further reveals an element of daftness in British Public Transport?


Those of you who follow this blog with due care and attention will be aware that for some years I have been resident in King’s Lynn for some years, and had I moved I would certainly have mentioned it here. Why then is the ticket above booked as a return from Peterborough to Kyle of Lochalsh and not from King’s Lynn? 

The following screenshots will expose the reason for this and the utter craziness and illogic of pricing on British public transport.

Note the difference in price between this ticket and the one from Peterborough (almost £60!!)
Given the immense price difference, the booking from Peterborough was bound to leave my up on the transaction (as you will see after these pictures in point of fact to the tune of some £50)
My outbound journey.
The suggested return journey (don;t worry parents, I can also get back leaving on the later train from Kyle, at 12:08 and arriving home around about midnight)
KL - Peterborough
Even were I to rely on train for the King’s Lynn to Peterborough and back section of the journey two anytime day singles (the max I would have had to pay), would have set me back a mere £24.60 as opposed to price difference on the all-in-one of almost £60, but….

I will actually be travelling the King’s Lynn – Peterborough and its reverse route on the First Eastern Counties X1 bus, which will set me back £6.40 each way or £12.80 in total, making a saving of approximately £47 as compared to the all-in-one booking from King’s Lynn. 

You might think that having cut through all the BS re fares and booked the tickets the daftness would end there, but you would be wrong…


The booking accomplished yesterday evening, this morning I set about collecting the tickets. First, as a precaution since I would be needing to keep them safe for a long while I searched out a receptacle of suitable size, shape and robustness to put them in, locating this pretty swiftly:


Having thus equipped myself it was off to the library to print off some booking information that I was going to need to collect the tickets.


Then with the information printed it was on to the station to pick up the tickets. This is usually done via ticket machines, of which King’s Lynn station has two. Here are pictures of both machines, showing precisely why I could not use them…


I fully understand the desirability and indeed the need to replace old ticket machines with new, but why take both out of service simultaneously? Why not take one out of service and keep the other operational until the first new machine is ready, then take the second old machine out of service and replace it, thereby keeping at least one machine operational the whole time?

Fortunately, there were staff present, and I was able to get my tickets printed at a ticket office. While waiting I bagged an image of the station plaque:


Although the process took longer and entailed more frustration than I had anticipated, I have the tickets and other info safely stowed, and am looking forward to my visit to the wilds of northwest Scotland. It will not be my first visit to Kyle of Lochalsh – back in 1993, before the opening of a swanky new toll-bridge and consequent removal of ferry services to maximise said bridge’s profits, I passed through Kyle en route to the Isle of Skye, returning to the mainland by way of the southern ferry crossing to Mallaig. 

I conclude this post with two more photos, one showing all the printed material I have for the journey, and the other ending our journey back where we started (a lot more straightforward in a blog than in a journey on British public transport!)




Nonuple Nelson

My 999th post on aspiblog – an appropriately quirky melange – share if you agree!


The title of this post comes from a cricket related quirk, explained by the image below, which is an extract from Mike Brearley and Dudley Doust’s book about the 1978-9 ashes series (six matches, Australia 1 England 5):


The ‘nonuple’ part of the title comes from the fact that this is my 999th post on aspiblog, and like the old Gloucestershire spinner Bomber Wells who deliberately retired on 999 first class wickets I have decided the commemorate 999 rather than the more conventional 1,000. By the way, although 999 is indubitably part of the ‘Nelson’ sequence I suspect that never mind me as someone immune to woo in all its forms even the late legendary David Shepherd might have considered that at 999 there was little to worry about (in point of fact it is 0% success rate as a score at which wickets fall – twice in first class cricket a team has scored that many – Victoria both times, against Tasmania in 1922 and New South Wales in 1926 and both times they reached the 1,000 safely and won the matches by monster margins – an innings and 666 and an innings and 656 runs respectively).


First a story which I reblogged from Why Evolution Is True yesterday, but which is so spectacular and so well presented that I am sharing a link to it today as well – click the picture below to visit:


Second, a suggestion that London should take its cue from Paris and make public transport free of charge (what are you waiting for, Sadiq?). I have already shared this on my London transport themed website, and now take the opportunity to promote it here – via two pictures, the first of which contains a link to the original article on www.independent.co.uk:

The image in the http://www.independent.co.uk article.
The image in the twitter link that put me on to the story.

Still on the transport theme is this piece in The Guardian about how Uber are (mis)treating their drivers.

My next link concerns libraries, and the fact that they are being hit by huge funding cuts. At the bottom of the article mention is made of the library from which the most items have been borrowed this year – Norwich Millennium Library (and although that is the library I use least frequently of my three regulars my visits there are not entirely unconnected to the large number of items borrowed there!). Click here to see the original piece.

My final link in this section is appropriately cricket themed. Before getting on to it I note by way of observation that as the third day draws to a close the current test match between India and England seems to be capsizing under an overload of runs (Eng 400, Ind currently 445-7). A new cricket blog has appeared on my radar, and I introduce it to my readers by way of a link to a review of Steve James’ book The Art of Centuries.


To end this post here are some coin images from yesterday at work (on this occasion high-res scans rather than photographs as these were small lots):

This is lot 122 (all lots featured here have three images – a composite and close-ups of each face). These lots will be going under the hammer in mid January.


Lot 132


Lot 134


Lot 136


Lot 137


Lot 138


Lot 140


Lot 141


Lot 143


Lot 145


Lot 157 – note the alteration to the obverse face of this coin.


James and Sons’ October Auction

A brief account of James and Sons’ October auction with some photographs.


James and Sons’ October Auction took place in the Erpingham Room in the Maids Head Hotel, Norwich on Wednesday. Lots 1-450 were fairly normal James and Sons auction fare, and then lots 451 onwards were a lifetime collection of posters. Thus the plan was to have a break after lot 450.


We started the day with the internet not working properly. We were able to connect using Wifi, but our card reader requires a cable connection to function properly. Nevertheless, the auction got underway on time, and there were some notable successes early in the auction, especially the militaria.


As well as imaging pretty well all of the posters I had described most of them, so it was with interest but little expectation that following a short lunch break that I awaited the outcome of this part of the sale. A few posters sold well, but the majority did not. Slightly frustratingly in the circumstances with so much not finding buyers all four of the railway themed posters I had been considering went way beyond my price range. Here are the fab four in question:

Lot 729 – I had not particularly expected to get this one given that it was laminated and clearly old.
Lot 737, which I used as the centrepiece for a post about the Museum of London on my website (this one), this being where the Lord Mayor’s carriage is displayed when not in use – again this was not a great hope.
Lot 763, an advert for one-day travelcards – this was the one that I had reckoned I was most likely to get.
The double sided laminated poster that was lot 764 also sold for much more than I could have afforded.


The auction done, it was time to load the van back up. This task accomplished I was able to go my own way (the van would be unloaded the following morning, so I would not be needed in Fakenham). I had just enough time before the last bus I could catch home using my dayrider plus to make a trip to the library worthwhile. I got home 13 hours after setting out.


Fortunately enough good things happened during lots 1-450 to more than cover the disappointing outcome of the poster sale, and it was overall a very good sale.

Special Post: Baker Street


This post is the fifth in a series I am running on this blog providing a station by station guide to London.


Baker Street was one of the original stations that opened in 1863 as The Metropolitan Railway, the world’s first underground public transport system, on January the 10th 1863. Those platforms, two of 10 at that station (the most on the entire system) to be served by underground trains, are still in service today, and have been restored to look as they would have done when first opened. Ironically, they are no longer served by the Metropolitan line, which uses two terminal and two through platforms just to the north of the originals, its tracks joining those of the Hammersmith and City and Circle lines just east of Baker Street. By way of explanation I turn to Douglas Rose’s London Underground: A Diagrammatic History


The other two lines that serve this station are the Bakerloo and Jubilee lines. Baker Street is a division point between the old and new Jubilee lines – south of Baker Street is all new track, northwards old, dating from 1939, when it was opened as a branch of the Bakerloo, taking some of the strain of the Metropolitan by taking over services to Stanmore and assuming sole responsibility for intermediate stops between Baker Street and Finchley Road, and also between Finchley Road and Wembley Park. When the Jubilee opened in 1979 it comprised the old Stanmore branch of the Bakerloo and three stations south of Baker Street.

Reverting temporarily to the Metropolitan, those four platforms at Baker Street, from which trains go to a variety of destinations developed from what started as a single track branch going only as far as Swiss Cottage. It grew out of all recognition during the tenure of Edward Watkin, who saw the Metropolitan as a crucial link in his plan for a railway system to link his three favourite cities, London, Paris and Manchester. At one time, as my next picture shows, the Metropolitan went far beyond it’s current reach…


Baker Street is home to Madame Tussaud’s and the London Planetarium, both of which merit a visit.

Of course, no post about Baker Street would be complete without something about it’s most famous ever resident, Mr Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective.

I am an avid fan of the great detective, having read all the original stories and many modern stories that feature the great detective. As well as owning a respectable collection of my own, I regularly borrow books about this subject from the libraries that I use…

A remarkable recent find.
A remarkable recent find.
The great originals.
The great originals
Some of my modern Holmes stories.
Some of my modern Holmes stories.

To end this post, along with my customary hopes that you have enjoyed it and that you will share it, a couple more maps, first a facsimile of the original Beck map of 1933 and then for comparison a facsimile of the 1926 Underground Map…

When Beck first produced a prototype of this map in 1931 his superiors thought that no-one would like it - but eventually they agreed to a trial of it in 1933, and now every public transport system in the world uses schematic diagrams of this type.
When Beck first produced a prototype of this map in 1931 his superiors thought that no-one would like it – but eventually they agreed to a trial of it in 1933, and now every public transport system in the world uses schematic diagrams of this type.

When Beck first produced a prototype of this map in 1931 his superiors thought that no-one would like it - but eventually they agreed to a trial of it in 1933, and now every public transport system in the world uses schematic diagrams of this type.