Ink and Bone (first novel) was really interesting with a great concept and an interesting group of characters. Book 2, Paper and Fire, was also pretty good, since it added backstory and complexity to several characters and to the narrative scenario overall. I don’t like the third installment of the series, Ash and Quill. The first half is filler, scheming around but nothing really being said or done. In fact, some of the key characters become irritating or questionable to the point of unlikable.
The first half of the story is Jess and his fellow Scholars, along with their former instructor Wolfe and his SO Santi of the High Guard, having been captured by the Burners in Philedelphia. It’s actually a pretty decent realistic war scenario in which all three sides are pretty much unlikable, all stuck in their own righteousness. The rebel Scholar group tries to reason with, then trick and escape from the Burners, while the Great Library is starting to lose patience and want to just destroy all Burners not matter what the collateral damage, and the Burners want to overthrow the tyranny of the Library but at what cost… Jess and Thomas do manage to build a working printing press, which adds a little tension, now that it’s no longer a theory. When Jess reunites with his family, he no longer trusts them, but does he? The whole thing ends with a cliffhanger in which Jess and a few friends scheme without the knowledge of the rest of the group who probably think they’ve been betrayed, maybe?
What bothers me probably the most is that in the occasional notes from the Library, past and present, and the characters’ discussions, the Archivist is the ultimate bad guy, but since we never get to see him in person until the last two pages, he starts to sound like a phantom boogeyman. It’s like if in The Empire Strikes Back, you never saw or heard from Darth Vader; you only hear about him until the last sixty seconds of the movie.
For similar reasons, Morgan becomes an unlikable character at worst or at best one who you just don’t care about anymore. She spends a lot of the novel off-page, although Jess manages to worry about her now and then. When she does show up, she’s developing mysterious new abilities, and it turns out later on that said new tricks involve being able to literally suck the life out of living things, plant or animal. But of course, she only superficially questions the morality of practicing this ability, and Jess barely pauses before encouraging her. Again, if Princess Leia started going Dark Jedi offscreen, who’d be rooting for her? And if Luke encouraged it, would you still like him?
The first two novels worked because everyone interacted with everyone else, but here because the group spends so much time fragmented, the interest and entertainment factor is way down, and some characters like Glain, barely get much mention. When things pick back up, and the group gets back together, the second half of the novel picks up and starts to get good again. Bringing back Jess’s father and twin brother helps bring the attention back to the characters as an ensemble, mostly Jess at this point, which is what the story in general is best at. I have to admit, the final twist at the end was kinda cliché, and I sort of saw it coming, but it is a decent cliff-hanger. The problem is that since I’d started to not care as much about Jess, his emotional dilemma about appearing to betray everyone come off cheap and not terribly sincere.
Supposedly, there are 2 more novels forthcoming, and the next one had better pick up with the action and the group. I’m hoping this one was just a mid-story slump. But I guess I’ll just have to wait and see…