Nathan’s Review of The Book That Wouldn’t Burn by Mark Lawrence
Publication Date: 11 May 2023
Series: Book #1 in the Library Trilogy
Pages: 576 pages
A boy has lived his whole life trapped within a vast library, older than empires and larger than cities.
A girl has spent hers in a tiny settlement out on the Dust where nightmares stalk and no one goes.
The world has never even noticed them. That’s about to change.
Their stories spiral around each other, across worlds and time. This is a tale of truth and lies and hearts, and the blurring of one into another. A journey on which knowledge erodes certainty, and on which, though the pen may be mightier than the sword, blood will be spilled and cities burned.
Review for The Book That Wouldn’t Burn by Mark Lawrence
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review. All opinions are my own.
If you are a long-time book lover, particularly of fantasy books, you will want to pick up a copy of The Book That Wouldn’t Burn as soon as you can because, above all, this is a love letter to books, readers, and the rooms that contain them. I’ll definitely talk about the plot here, but the true appeal to this book is that it was written by someone who loves books and the fantasy genre and who wants to share that love with like-minded readers. Reading this book is an experience unlike most other books because it is full of commentary, jokes, and easter eggs – whether it is gently mocking librarians, naming characters after other fantasy authors (the name of one alchemist made me laugh out loud), or other little in-side references to look out for in the chapter epigraphs. I don’t know if I’ve ever read a book that so gleefully reveled in this community that we’ve all built together, and it was a joy to read.
Having said that, don’t worry if you don’t think you’ll catch all of the jokes and references, because The Book That Wouldn’t Burn is an engaging, thoughtful, and propulsive novel all on its own. No “expertise” in fantasy books required!
The Book That Wouldn’t Burn follows to POV characters – Livira, a spunky girl from the impoverished Dust who is brought to learn and train in the Library, and Evar, who has been trapped in the Library for his entire life. Throughout the novel Livira and Evar explore the mysteries of the Library, uncovering its history and what it might possibly be covering up. As protagonists, both Livira and Evar are lively and nicely carry the weight of the story on their shoulders. Livira especially is an absolutely wonderful character; the book takes place over a pretty long span of time and so we get to follow her from this energetic, verging on naive young girl to a woman who has seen and experienced more than she ever could have imagined. What Mark Lawrence does particularly well is allowing Livira to grow and change, to be impacted by her new social role/position and what she has experienced while also keeping her character consistent. Having read books that have done this poorly, this isn’t always the easiest thing to do. After time jump characters can almost feel like completely different people. With Livira, we as readers can tell that she has aged and matured, but we still see that determined and curious young girl we met in the first chapter.
And Lawrence gives Livira so much to be curious about. Other than the easter eggs, my favorite part of The Book That Wouldn’t Burn was exploring the massive, ancient, and mysterious Library. The Library is huge, with seemingly infinite rooms, passageways, shelves, and books. The origins of the Library are unknown, no one has seen it all, and people have even died trying to find their way back out. The Library is awe-inspiring on the page as much as it is dark and chilling. Lawrence imbues his Library with both the warm, nostalgic feelings many of us have at spending our days in the library with a sense of unease, danger, and of darkness lurking around every corner. Evar knows there is something antagonistic about the library – he and his found family have been trapped there for decades – and Livira quickly finds out that there are secrets around every corner. And, in true Mark Lawrence fashion, there is a long history and time depth to the library – one that suggests that the world that Livira, Evar, and the Library inhabit is not so distant from the world we live in after all.
In fact, Lawrence’s Library is so jam-packed with magic, wonder, and mysteries that the book stumbles a bit towards the end when it stops being about digging through the Library’s shelves and chambers. The last act of the book is essentially one extended action sequence, and I’m not sure that is where the strengths of the story, world, or Lawrence’s writing really lie. Once we moved away from the unexplored and unexplained into the climax, I was slightly less engaged by the book. The ending seemed to drag on a bit too far and the tone of the book shifted just enough away from what I was vibing with to throw me off. There are still plenty of great things going on in the last, say, quarter of the book but the book’s strengths lie in its first half. Whether this becomes a compounded problem moving forward – the issue of whether the book is effective because it keeps its cards hidden – and how Lawrence grapples with that in future books.
Yeah, I can quibble about the overly-long ending, or that many of the secondary characters could have used more development (and even that Evar was a tad bit dry for a POV character), but these small little demerits don’t take away from the fact that at the end of the day this book is not only one you can easily get immersed and lost in, but that it is important. We (at least those of us in the US) are living in a scary time, where censorship, book banning, and more are becoming increasingly widespread; where a war on teachers, educators, and librarians is being waged. Lawrence shines a light on the importance of books, libraries, and the accessibility of knowledge. Livira grows up in a world where knowledge is inaccessible; where the powers-that-be claim they are “protecting” the library, and the book is a searing critique of these outdated and problematic ideas of stewardship. Knowledge should be accessible to everyone, and not locked away in some room that only those of a certain “education” or “rank” can access (so, side note, support your local library!).
Lawrence also beautifully illustrates how the gatekeeping of knowledge contributes to xenophobia and prejudicial stereotypes. When we don’t have access to knowledge to make informed decisions for ourselves, the people in power (with their own agendas) make those decisions for us. Without books and the knowledge contained within them, we aren’t even aware that we can question our biases, that we can challenge social norms and transform the world. That a society careening towards its own demise, just to pick up the pieces and make those same mistakes over and over again, is avoidable and preventable.
Ultimately, The Book That Wouldn’t Burn is ambitious. It is vast in its themes and takes on a complicated amount of worldbuilding that completely transcends stereotypical fantasy worlds. The only other Mark Lawrence books I have read are his Empire of Thorns trilogy, and this book makes me want to explore his backlist immediately. A big library, big ideas, and some big characters all ultimately combine to a thought-provoking but also a fun and compulsively readable novel. I have no clue what The Library Trilogy has to offer next, but I cannot wait to find out.
Concluding Thoughts: A book big on themes and creativity, as well as a love letter to books and reading, The Book That Wouldn’t Burn introduces readers to a vast library that contains innumerable mysteries and rooms to explore, from time travel to portals other worlds, magical ravens, and dog librarians. This Library is the star of the show, a masterful piece of worldbuilding that sets the stage nicely for the ideas and character arcs Lawrence wants to examine in this nearly 600 page tome. The Library is so impressive that it perhaps sucks too much of the oxygen from the book (so that it falls a bit flat when the focus isn’t on the Library and its mysteries), but luckily Lawrence populates it with some fun characters, none better than the main character Livira. Pick this one up.