Ex-Libris by Ross KingRoss King
Walker & Company ($26)

by Kris Lawson

Fans of The Name of the Rose will enjoy Ex-Libris, an unconventional bookish mystery. Books inform and consume the characters, who struggle to survive in the bleak England of post-Cromwell and the ravaged Europe of the Thirty Years War. From collections of dangerous books, the possession of which is enough to send the unlucky reader to prison or death, to covert book auctions in seedy wharfside London, Ex-Libris moves quickly as it weaves together two plots, linked by the search for a mysterious manuscript.

The first plot concerns the hero, a mild-mannered and nearly blind bookseller who discovers untapped reserves of persistence and bravery whilst aiding a mysterious noblewoman who lives in the midst of a decaying mansion filled with more books than furniture. The second follows three refugees fleeing the downfall of the Holy Roman Empire, smuggling crates of forbidden books from the Lutheran armies. Guarding the books are the obsessive librarian whose vocation is for cataloging; his lover who enjoys flouting convention by reading forbidden books; and the secret agent who doubles as secret book buyer for Emperor Rudolf, whose passion for magical and alchemical knowledge exceeds his military acumen.

Both stories converge with the search for the mysterious manuscript, The Labyrinth of the World, so rare that it has become legendary. Alchemy and secret societies, ciphers and invisible inks, mazes and secret passageways: Ex-Libris becomes conventional only in its plethora of plot devices—there's even a chase scene with boats racing down the Thames. Where King excels is in his historic scope: he demonstrates with heartbreaking regularity how censors as well as natural forces—here figured as waterways that facilitate murders, drown books and the sailors who smuggle them, and destroy the libraries they are meant to protect—can wipe out books in a matter of seconds, leaving only hints from other books to prove they ever existed.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001