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