The Reader by Traci Chee


Goodreads: The Reader
Series: Sea of Ink and Gold #1
Source: Library
Published: September 2016

Official Summary

Once there was, and one day there will be. This is the beginning of every story.

Sefia lives her life on the run. After her father is viciously murdered, she flees to the forest with her aunt Nin, the only person left she can trust. They survive in the wilderness together, hunting and stealing what they need, forever looking over their shoulders for new threats. But when Nin is kidnapped, Sefia is suddenly on her own, with no way to know who’s taken Nin or where she is. Her only clue is a strange rectangular object that once belonged to her father left behind, something she comes to realize is a book.

Though reading is unheard of in Sefia’s world, she slowly learns, unearthing the book’s closely guarded secrets, which may be the key to Nin’s disappearance and discovering what really happened the day her father was killed. With no time to lose, and the unexpected help of swashbuckling pirates and an enigmatic stranger, Sefia sets out on a dangerous journey to rescue her aunt, using the book as her guide. In the end, she discovers what the book had been trying to tell her all along: Nothing is as it seems, and the end of her story is only the beginning.


The Reader lures its audience in with the concept of a horrifyingly empty world—one where books do not exist and no one knows how to read.  At least, it’s supposed to.  Personally, I couldn’t care less that The Reader is a book about books; I enjoyed it mostly for its fantasy/adventure aspects.   I liked the characters and the quest and the romance and the pirates.  The parts about books actually fell flat for me, and I felt free to ignore them.

In the first place, The Reader does not fully explore what it means to be a world without books, which I think is a disservice to oral culture.  The very first page mentions this culture with seeming reverence.  Chee writes, “They remembered their histories with their voices and bodies, repeating them over and over until the stories became part of them, and the legends were as real as their own tongues and lungs and hearts.”  This passage is moving, but basically that’s all the audience gets.   There are, remarkably, practically no storytellers in this book whom Sefia ever encounters.  A few characters are said to be thirsty for stories to collect and retell, but the references are always in passing.  There are also vague references to the fact the “news boys” stand and shout the news in the market rather than selling papers, or to the fact that shop signs use symbols rather than words.  Yet Chee, in her quest to exalt the book and the written word, missed a profound opportunity to actually portray an oral culture.

Despite this, the message that books are marvelous is actually less heavy-handed than I initially featured. However, I did think it could have been more complex.  Chee tries to access the feelings one would have upon first discovering words and reading, but glosses over the moment too quickly to do it justice. Sefia is obsessed with the first line she ever reads, “This is a book,” which I think is highly relatable and realistic.  However, the follow-up is simplistic.  The question is “Is anything with words written on it a book?” To which I want to just say “no” and mutter about conflating texts and books and such.  And then there’s a lot of heavy-handed stuff about books containing all the knowledge in the world and knowledge being power, etc.

This didn’t overly trouble me as I was reading the novel because I was really invested in the characters and the adventure of the plot.  Sefia is a strong protagonist, confident and skilled, but with enough flaws to make her believable.  She’s rounded out by companions with complementary skills, which I thought was great.  I loved following her on her adventures as she ran from murderers, tried to track down her kidnapped aunt, and looked for answers about her parents and the mysterious book they left behind.  The fact that Sefia was carrying a book at all was irrelevant to me.  I think I would have liked the novel just as much if she’d been carrying an enchanted brick or a magic block of cheese.

Readers, really, get a little bit of everything that makes fantasy great.  Feuding kingdoms. Secret societies.  Assassins. Pirates.  Mysteries. Romance.  I guess the book was supposed to be deep, but mostly I just thought it was fun.   I feel obliged to drop at least a start off the rating because I do think Chee missed her goal in writing a “book about books.”  Still, despite the fact I have no idea what the second book is going to be about (Sefia has more questions than answers at this point) I do know that I want to read it.  And since I drop so many series after reading only book one, that’s pretty high praise from me.

4 stars Briana


12 thoughts on “The Reader by Traci Chee

  1. Literary Weaponry says:

    It is disappointing that the oral culture wasn’t more highlighted. I always imagine someone reciting the entirety of The Odyssey before a gathering crowd and it leaves me in awe. Can you imagine memorizing something that long? The rest sounds like a really good book, though. I think I may see if I can find it, thanks for the review!


    • Briana says:

      Yes, I find the art of memorizing long pieces fascinating! I wish there had been more of that in the book, or even just everyday storytelling, of people passing along what was important because they can’t write it down.


  2. Liam @ Hey Ashers! says:

    I’d been waffling as to whether or not I wanted to pick this book up, but the fact that you gave it four full stars and intend to read the sequel—and also the fact that you enjoyed it as a fantasy adventure, and could fairly well ignore the Books Are The Best stuff—has convinced me. I am surprised to hear that oral storytelling culture isn’t developed at all, though, and that makes me worried about the book’s world-building overall. But hey, fantasy adventure is my thing, so I’m on board. Great review!


    • Briana says:

      I’m almost never really swayed by “books about books!” and think a lot of them try to occlude the fact they’re kind of boring by just screaming “But booooks!” at the reader. I can’t think of the last one I enjoyed, and they’re mildly popular right now. So I was really happy that this one was interesting on its own. But, yes, I wanted more oral culture! I get the “Books are amazing” thing, but oral culture can be, too. A couple characters here and there telling stories didn’t really do it for me.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. saraletourneau says:

    I remember this review when I first caught it on Goodreads a few weeks ago. Without repeating myself too much: I agree with your thoughts on the world-building, but I’m also happy to know you still enjoyed the book. It was far and away one of my favorite YA fantasy reads of last year. 🙂


  4. Jenna @ Falling Letters says:

    I borrowed this one from the library in September but didn’t get around to it back then… I was originally interested in this story because of the ‘book about books’ side of it, but now I think the fantasy aspects might be fun enough to keep my interest.


    • Briana says:

      I don’t know. I suppose a lot of fantasy is a little far-fetched because it’s about extraordinary people and circumstances? I think the “people are hiding books from the populace” thing seems strange until you realize that’s a historical attitude–not that they were hiding the literal existence of books from people, but that the elite didn’t trust the peasants to be able to read and interpret, say, the Bible, properly. I think we can still see some of that attitude. I’d argue the attempts to censor Milo’s books are part of it. Sure, some of the argument is there is “Milo says nasty things and it will hurt the feelings of people who read the book,” but that’s not fully it. The other half of the argument is “People are going to read the book and believe Milo and become nasty too” (i.e. People are too dumb to be trusted to read the book and dismiss it as the nonsense it is. We must save the populace from reading themselves into harm).


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