Book Review: ‘The Reader’ (2016)

The short: 4/5 ✦. A remarkable debut book about books, magic, assassins, pirates, and the power of knowledge.

The long:

I’m beginning to think I enjoy books best when going in mostly blind (I have to at least read the blurb on the back cover YOU CAN’T STOP ME). I didn’t know much about The Reader other than it was given to me, completely free, at San Diego Comic Con and that it was a book about books. (And I’ve been burnt by the line before . . . )

Stow away the pitchforks, fellow bibliophiles: The Reader‘s a good’un.

There are actually a few similarities between this new series and the nearly completed Ink and Bone series by Rachel Caine. Both feature a Library that is less than benevolent, with evil assassins within a totalitarian organization and all that, but the departing difference is that in The Reader‘s world, reading just plain doesn’t exist. It’s not that people aren’t allowed to read, no one knows how.

I know, deep breaths, everyone.

The conceit is that somehow, the concept of putting symbols to paper to represent words was just never conceived, a little blip in the human psyche. Pictures that represent things exist, though, like brands and such, but not the kind of symbols I’m using now (English, to be precise). And I can see why some readers (lowercase, re: we, the audience, in the mundane world) might be put off by this and the fact that when the main character does discover what reading is, it is indeed English letters and words, not hieroglyphics or pictographs or characters. A bit limiting, to be sure, and I wonder how the translation into other languages is going to work out.

But to examine purely the text itself, I argue that there must be some sort of mental block that discouraged the idea of widespread reading to exist. There is a passage that deals with some unique folks learning to read, and it’s mentioned that learning the alphabet and reading a sentence took months for them to do. Startling when you consider that this is something toddlers here in our world are taught relatively easily. Readers in The Reader happen to be gifted with magic, which I think must be a requisite for deciphering these little marks on a piece of paper.

So you can already kind of see what sort of world this is for our main character, Sefia. She doesn’t know what a book is until after a series of unfortunate events (heh), and on the run, she encounters both friends and foes as she tries to figure out what power this book has and why so many people are willing to kill for it. The Reader not only has Sefia’s story, it has other characters’ too, and though sometimes the POV change and narrative tone shift can be jarring, in the end, most of the various plot threads come together.

Another unique feature is the pages of The Reader itself: they are intermittently marked with nearly invisible words near the page numbers, fingerprints, crossings-out, and even bloodstains. All becomes clear as you read, of course, but I absolutely loved these little details just as they were. I like books that feel lived, y’know?

Sefia was, if not terribly interesting, a well-developed character, and while her ability to read and other magical aspects are gained quite quickly, her other skills are only hard earned after a great deal of practice. Basically, her actions and behaviors all make sense and don’t seem cliche or eye-rolling. The same is true of other characters too, and the world-building is done with enough detail to paint a picture without being heavy handed. (I always get nervous when a book has a map in the front, but I didn’t feel the need to refer to it at all, which is a good thing, I feel.) There’s also a bit of romance, which I suppose is to be expected, but I admit that it was very well done and merely enhanced the story rather than took it over.

All in all, I quite enjoyed The Reader. I liked that many of the characters, even the background ones, were female, and it was a normal thing in this world for women to be soldiers or smiths or pirates or what have you. I liked that many of these females were also POC and so too were males, and again, it was all very normal. I liked the focus on the importance on books, but more so on the knowledge they contain rather than the object itself. As the narrator points out, books can destroyed — stories live on.

Header image: The Reader by Traci Chee, published September 13th 2016 by Putnam.

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