Doorstopper of the Month: The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox (2019)

Epic fantasy is far from my usual fare, but this was a book worth getting lost in. The reading experience reminded me of what I had with A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, or perhaps Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke – though it’s possible this last association was only in my mind because of Dan Kois. You see, we have Kois, an editor at Slate, to thank for this novel being published outside of Knox’s native New Zealand. He wrote an enthusiastic Slate review of an amazing novel he’d found that was only available through a small university press, and Clarke’s novel was his main point of reference. How’s that for the power of a book review?

Taryn Cornick, 33, has adapted her PhD thesis into a popular history of libraries – the search for absolute knowledge; the perennial threats that libraries face, from budget cuts to burnings – that she’s been discussing at literary festivals around the world. One particular burning looms large in her family’s history: the library at her grandfather’s country estate near the border of England and Wales, Princes Gate. As girls, Taryn and her older sister, Beatrice, helped to raise the alarm and saved the bulk of their grandfather’s collection. But one key artifact has been missing ever since: the Firestarter, an ancient scroll box that is said to have been through five fires and will survive another arson attempt before the book is through.

Nearly 15 years ago now, Beatrice was the victim of a random act of violence. Soon after her killer was released from prison, he turned up dead in unusual circumstances. Ever since, Detective Inspector Jacob Berger has suspected that Taryn arranged a revenge killing, but he has no proof. His cold case heats back up when Taryn lands in the hospital and complains of a series of prank calls.

What ensues is complicated, but in essence, the ongoing fallout of Beatrice’s murder and a cosmic battle over the Firestarter are twin forces that plunge Taryn and Jacob into the faerie realm (Sidh). Their guide to the Sidh is Shift, a shapeshifter who can create impromptu gates between the two worlds (while others, like Princes Gate, are permanent passageways).

Fairies (sidhe), demons, talking ravens … there’s some convoluted world-building here, and when I reached the end I realized I still had many ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions, though often this was because I hadn’t paid close enough attention and if I glanced back I’d see that Knox did indeed tell us how characters got from A to B, and who was after the Firestarter and why.

The book travels everywhere from Provence to Purgatory, but I particularly liked the descriptions of the primitive lifestyle in the faerie realm. Knox gives enough detail about things like food and clothing that you can really imagine yourself into each setting, and there’s the occasional funny turn of phrase that inserts the magical into everyday life in a tongue-in-cheek way, like “The Nespresso [machine] made hatching-dragon sounds.”

My two favorite scenes were an intense escape from a marsh and one that delightfully blends the human world and faerie: Taryn’s father, Basil Cornick, is a Kiwi actor best known for his role in a Game of Thrones-style television show. He’s roped into what he thinks is a screen test, playing Odin opposite a very convincing animatronic monster and pair of talking birds. We and Taryn know what he doesn’t: that he was used to negotiate with a real demon. The terrific epilogue also offers an appealing vision of how the sidhe might save the world.

If, like me, all you know of Knox’s previous work is the bizarre and kind of awful The Vintner’s Luck (which I read for a book club a decade or so ago), you’ll be intrigued to learn that angels play a role here, too. But beneath all the magical stuff, which is sometimes hard to follow or believe in, the novel is a hymn to language and libraries. A number of books are mentioned, starting with the one that was in Beatrice’s backpack at the time of her death: “the blockbuster of that year, 2003, a novel about tantalising, epoch-spanning conspiracies. Beatrice enjoyed those books, perhaps because they were often set in libraries.” (That’s The Da Vinci Code, of course.) Also mentioned: Labyrinth by Kate Mosse, the Moomin books, and the film Spirited Away – no doubt these were beloved influences for Knox.

I appreciated the words about libraries’ enduring value, even on a poisoned planet. “I want there to be libraries in the future. I want today to give up being so smugly sure about what tomorrow won’t need,” Taryn says. She knows that, for this to happen, people must “care about the transmission of knowledge from generation to generation, and about keeping what isn’t immediately necessary because it might be vital one day. Or simply intriguing, or beautiful.” That’s an analogy for species, too, I think, and a reminder of our responsibility: to preserve human accomplishments, yes, but also the more-than-human world (even if that ‘more’ might not include fairies).

Page count: 626 (my only 500+-page doorstopper so far this year!)

My rating:

9 responses

  1. I’ve heard such good things about this one, with your review now added. Will try to read this summer, as I already bought myself a copy. Anything ‘Clarkeian’ I’m up for!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You can’t fail to enjoy it!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds fun, though I have a couple of concerns: I’m not usually a big fan of faerie stories (as opposed to fairy story/folktale) for whatever reason, and I liked the first half of A Discovery of Witches a lot but then felt it went rapidly downhill.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My experience with this genre is extremely limited — the only other book remotely about the faerie realm that I can remember reading is The Ninth Child by Sally Magnusson. That one is historical, obviously, but its overlap between the real and fairy worlds is similar.

      I was reminded of A Discovery of Witches mostly for the interest in libraries and arcane texts, and how the supernatural creatures just exist as a matter of fact. (I read all the sequels, too, but they weren’t a patch on the first book.)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think I associate faeries with bad YA fantasy! I wouldn’t see The Ninth Child as being in the same category at all.

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  3. buriedinprint | Reply

    Yay!!! You finished a doorstopper!!! Aaaaand, you liked it! (Which, if you’re like me, won’t impact the likelihood of it happening again, not one bit. That’s just, what, luck?)

    This sounds really good to me, too. So…you’re not a fan of Vintner’s Luck? 😉 A reading friend counts it amongst her favourites, but I’ve not gotten to it myself yet.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have another couple of doorstoppers on the go, one a novel and one a biography, but it’s going to be a long haul with them. This one I was forced to read quickly because of a library deadline. I split it into 21 chunks and pretty much obeyed the schedule to finish within three weeks.

      Like

  4. I don’t often read world-building fantasy, but I’m glad I’m not the only one who reads too quickly and has to double back to see the “hows and whys.” This does sound interesting!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think I was so eager to find out what happened next that my eyes must have skipped over some of the more technical backstory and worldbuilding stuff — the kind of passages her editor probably made her put in so people wouldn’t be confused.

      Liked by 1 person

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