REVIEW: The Book That Broke the World by Mark Lawrence

The Book That Broke the World? More like the book that broke my brain and shattered my soul.

Mark Lawrence strikes the perfect balance between intellect and heart in this second volume of his Library Trilogy, which began with last year’s highly acclaimed The Book That Wouldn’t Burn. Although The Book That Broke the World follows several major plot twists from the end of the first book, I promise to keep this review completely spoiler-free for readers who have not yet started the trilogy.

The Book that Broke the WorldThe Library Trilogy revolves around the Athenaeum, the legendary library instituted by Irad, the grandson of Cain and the great-grandson of Adam and Eve. While Adam and Eve committed the first sin by disobeying God and eating fruit from the forbidden tree of knowledge, Cain took sin to the next level by murdering his brother in a fit of jealous rage. Following the family tradition, Irad argued bitterly with his own brother, Jaspeth, who believed Irad’s library to be a temple glorifying the original sin of knowledge and was determined to tear it down.

Subsequent generations have inherited this struggle between Irad and Jaspeth as an epic battle between knowledge and ignorance, a war that is happening all around us today, tearing families and societies apart. The Library has become a literal and figurative battleground over who controls access to knowledge or whether information should be passed down at all:

“An ideological war between those who believe the library should serve as a kind of universal memory. A memory we can easily access after we obliterate ourselves, which is something we appear to do on a regular basis as soon as we discover the means to do it efficiently. And, on the other side, those who believe we should start from scratch each time. Those who think that the handful of ignorant children who survive the periodic calamities should start again in a place like this. Banging the rocks together.”

In The Book That Broke the World, the Library is an endlessly large labyrinth of information containing the collective memory of humankind and other intelligent species. The Library warps space and time in ways that are only starting to become clear to the protagonists of the story.

Enter Livira, an irrepressible young woman who, like the resilient weed for which she is named, simply cannot be kept down. Despite coming from an impoverished background and suffering unspeakable tragedy as a young girl, Livira overcomes the odds to become a librarian in the bustling Crath City.

The second lead protagonist is Evar, a young man who grew up trapped in the Library, surrounded by impossibly tall towers of books, with only his four adopted siblings as companions. The Library children were raised by two android-like figures known as the Assistant and the Soldier.

While Evar and Livira’s stories pick up immediately following the shocking conclusion of the first book, The Book That Broke the World actually begins with a new point-of-view character, Celcha, who was born into slavery alongside her brother, Hellet. While excavating at the Athran dig, the slaves discover a long-lost trove of books. Echoing the Adam and Eve narrative, Hellet is punished severely for opening one of these books, since knowledge is forbidden to the slaves. Celcha and Hellet are also haunted by two ghostlike figures, who might provide a path toward salvation. Mark Lawrence takes the time for readers to establish an emotional connection with Celcha and Hellet before switching back to the characters we already know and love.

Arpix, the intensely serious librarian who tutored Livira in The Book That Wouldn’t Burn, also gets point-of-view privileges in this second book of the series. His lively young apprentice always had a way of testing his patience:

“Arpix led them through the bean fields where he had spent so many months pulling strands of questing livira from the ground.”

I love how Arpix develops as a character in The Book That Broke the World, especially as his path intersects that of Evar’s siblings, who also get more page time in this second volume. Evar’s volatile sister, Clovis, is a particular highlight, developing a great deal of depth in The Book That Broke the World.

Other returning favorites include Yute, the deputy head librarian whose daughter has been lost in the Library for over a decade, and Malar, the grizzled veteran with a tough exterior, wicked sense of humor, and heart of gold. But the real scene-stealer is Wentworth, Yute’s feline of unusual size who, much to my delight, plays a supersized role in The Book That Broke the World:

“Tell us about this Wentworth. It seems a formidable weapon.”

And then there’s King Oanold, the thin-skinned monarch who values affirmation over true knowledge and will never admit defeat:

“Lost to dog soldiers? No, child, we’re going back. My throne’s secure. You’ve fallen for the big lie.”

As in The Book That Wouldn’t Burn, the worldbuilding incorporates both humans and caniths, a race whom King Oanold derogatively dubs “dog soldiers.” The Book That Broke the World also features another species called ganar, a race of furry, intelligent beings whose civilization has had its own magnificent rise and collapse. Ganar are described as resembling small, furry bears; in my mind, I picture them like Ewoks from Return of the Jedi.

As always, Mark Lawrence is a master of blending fantasy and science fiction. Normally the fantasy part comes to the foreground, with a sci-fi foundation hiding just beneath the surface, e.g., as in the post-apocalyptic Broken Empire and Red Queen’s War trilogies, where remnants of lost technology are viewed as magical. Lawrence explores a heavier sci-fi focus in his more recent series, including the Impossible Times trilogy, a pure sci-fi featuring D&D-playing teens in Thatcher-era England, and the Book of the Ice trilogy, which has a strong steampunk (or icepunk) flair.

The Library Trilogy is Mark Lawrence’s most balanced effort yet between fantasy and science fiction. Although many of the sci-fi elements were already evident in The Book That Wouldn’t Burn, these are brought even more to the surface in The Book That Broke the World, often to dizzying effect.

As in Limited Wish, the middle volume of his Impossible Times trilogy, there is a paradox at the center of The Book That Broke the World:

“There is a book that is also a loop. A book that has swallowed its own tale. It is a ring, a cycle, burning through the years, spreading cracks through time, fissures that reach into its past and future. And through those cracks things that have no business in the world of flesh can escape.”

Following this paradox, The Book That Broke the World seems to expand along multiple dimensions and then ingeniously fold in on itself.

The Book That Broke the World addresses philosophical questions while delivering plenty of fast-paced action. Some of the recurring antagonists are the skeer, insectoid creatures that come in both flying and running varieties. The intense level of action here reminds me of that in Grey Sister, the second volume of Lawrence’s much-loved Book of the Ancestor trilogy.

As in The Book That Wouldn’t Burn, every chapter of The Book That Broke the World begins with a clever and beautifully written epigraph. Mark Lawrence demonstrates a lyrical wit that would make even the dour and disapproving Vladimir Nabokov smile:

“One fine day Truth met with Lies upon a mountainside with all of Hantalon spread beneath them: field, and town, and city stretching to the sparkle of the sea. With a disapproving frown, Truth asked of Lies how many she had slain. And true to her nature she answered with a lie. ‘More than you, brother.’ –The Basics of Deductive Logic, by I.P. Franchise”

The Book That Broke the World has plenty of Easter eggs for the seasoned Mark Lawrence fan, including many obscure references to his other work. Those of you playing “I Spy a Taproot” will also be duly rewarded in The Book That Broke the World.

This brings me to the ending. I’ve read close to two thousand books during my lifetime, and I’ve never seen an ending like this. Most novels are largely derivative, employing similar character archetypes, plot structures, narrative motifs, etc., as those written before. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that: it’s just very difficult to write something truly new. But Mark Lawrence does exactly that with The Book That Broke the World, culminating with an ending that left me intellectually and emotionally destroyed in ways I never knew possible.

Mark Lawrence has crafted a tale that is novel in the truest sense of the word. The Book That Broke the World is a triumph of imagination and a deeply thought-provoking meditation on the nature of memory, the value of knowledge, and the degree of self-determination we may or may not have in our lives.

Do we write our own stories or are they written for us? I, for one, couldn’t be happier that Mark Lawrence has written this masterpiece for us all.

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John Mauro

John Mauro

John Mauro lives in a world of glass amongst the hills of central Pennsylvania. When not indulging in his passion for literature or enjoying time with family, John is training the next generation of materials scientists at Penn State University, where he teaches glass science and materials kinetics. John also loves cooking international cuisine and kayaking the beautiful Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.