This was a CBR Book Exchange gift from a couple of years ago; I thought I found it from a review on here but apparently not!
I’m not quite sure what to make of this book, which isn’t to say I disliked it.
Alexei Vyazintsev is a young man, in his twenties, who longed to produce for the stage but was instead guided into engineering. When his uncle dies, leaving Alexei’s family his apartment, Alexei is sent to check it out and prepare it for sale.
Instead, Alexei is dragged kicking and screaming into the world of the Libraries; several cabals of persons who are addicted to the magical effects of second-rate Soviet propagandist Gromov’s novels (effects which, the text assures us, have nothing to do with the words on the actual page). After his first baptism by blood, and after much resistance, Alexei joins the ranks of the True Believers, and in the end.
In the end.
The book has one of those ambiguous endings, which could be read one of two ways. And either way, Alexei has not received a happy ending.
The translator did, I suspect, a masterful job of bringing this text to English from Russian. It’s funny, in places. It’s absolutely brutal throughout: there is much bloodshed, many maimings occur, and Alexei the reluctant — downright accidental — hero throughout. These are not likable people, particularly, but they are a people who by both inclination, zealotry, and political shift live in liminal spaces.
The book has a lot to say, about people and how people are. About casual racism and sexism. About the power of words and books, certainly, but also the ways in which those words and books can be twisted from their original meaning until they become both something more and something less than themselves, just as people can. And by the end of the book, one can question how reliable a narrator Alexei is without ever questioning his version of events as they come to pass.
It’s slow going in the beginning, because Elizarov has to establish Gromov and the Conditions for Reading and several other worldbuilding matters — but right from the get-go I could tell the book would become, at some point, a first-person narrative and it did. And, as I said, I didn’t like any of the characters, but I also didn’t hate any of them; as it goes with most people, the way I felt about them was some mixture of feelings based on their behavior and the narrative demands of the moment.
Would I recommend it? Maybe — but with a warning that there’s a lot to unpack, and a lot that’s really unpleasant. Not unlike life, really.
And as I was tagging it I realized: This book is the darker twin to Jim C. Hines’ Libriomancer series, only the magic drawn from the books evokes emotions and reactions in people, rather than literal objects being drawn from books. Either way, dark or light, the danger is not so much what is put into a book, but rather what people draw out of it.