I first heard about this book when I was at WorldCon last summer and attended a panel on writing for teens. When the author briefly mentioned a few things about the book (the heroine can hear the "voices" of books, and it's set in a library that is so vast that people can get lost in it), I knew I had to give it a try. How could I resist?
The setting is a planet far from Earth, thousands of years in the future. Our heroine, Haly, lives in the Libyrinth, a library so enormous that they have yet to catalog all the books. Haly is a clerk to one of the Libyrarians, a young woman named Selene. Their entire purpose is to catalog and protect the books, which contain information that was lost in some sort of apocalypse many years earlier.
The story opens with a book burning. The libyrarians are just one of the groups that inhabits this world. There is another group the libyrarians call the Eradicants, who hate and fear books, believing the words contained within them to be dead and somehow dangerous. They believe in preserving knowledge orally, through song, and because they are more powerful than the libyrarians, they demand a sacrifice every year, a massive burning of books.
It is a tragedy for all the libyrarians to witness the burning, but for Haly it is particularly painful, because she can hear the voices of the books calling out as they burn. One passage she hears is "Wilbur liked Charlotte better and better each day. Her campaign against insects seemed sensible and useful." Haly learned long ago not to speak of her unusual ability, however - therefore, when she "overhears" a letter telling her its contents and learns that someone has betrayed the Libyrinth and its mission, she is unsure how to act on that information. When she confides in her one good friend, they act to save a legendary book that contains crucial knowledge. Their decisions takes them far from the Libyrinth, on a dangerous twisting road full of mystery and revelation.
I enjoyed this book for so many reasons. I loved the premise of Haly's unusual ability - and how it was actually explained (somewhat) in the book, instead of just being a lucky (or unlucky) fluke. I loved the imagery, the fantastical world in which she lives, the people in it as well, who are well-developed and complicated characters. The motivations for their actions are clear and believable because their culture and beliefs are well portrayed. I particularly enjoyed the fact that, rather than taking the easy way and making the Libyrarians good and virtuous and the Eradicants evil, narrow-minded book burners, there are shades of gray here. No one is good or evil - the situation is much more complex than that, which makes it a much more interesting and powerful story, particularly as relationships between various characters and their beliefs and assumptions are explored.
I found the the mythology of Haly's world to be evocative and compelling, and the odd technology that they use is unusual and surprising. I also loved the snippets of books that talk to Haly throughout the course of the novel. The use of Anne Frank's diary was such a powerful choice, perfect for this book. The quotations from the many books are not usually identified - the books' voices just kind of float out to Haly's ears as she passes by, so she doesn't always know where they're from. I was delighted to find, at the end of the book, a guide to the quotations that cites their sources. Many thanks to the author for including that!
As a librarian, I found myself drawn to one of the main themes of the book, which is the question of information and censorship: the power of information to those who control it, and the way it enables them to shape the world to their liking. This is a topic that is increasingly relevant today - and this book would be a fascinating supplement to a high school social studies class in that context - or even a library school class. First and foremost, however, Libyrinth is a story about people, set in an intriguing world where fascinating things happen.
The book ends with a satisfying conclusion, but I did find myself wanting to know more about Haly's world and its past, as well as wondering what would happen to her next. I was pleased to discover that this is just the first book in a trilogy, and I'm eagerly awaiting the next installment.
Libyrinth by Pearl North (Tor, 2009)
Also reviewed at:
Charlotte's Library: "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."
Stella Matutina: "I loved the way the book felt. It reminded me of the sort of fantasy/science fiction hybrids I sometimes read in junior high; older novels from a time when the gap between the two genres was much smaller."