A cryptic summons to a remote country house launches Isaac Inchbold, a London bookseller and antiquarian, on an odyssey through seventeenth-century Europe. Charged with the task of restoring a magnificent library destroyed by the war, Inchbold moves between Prague and the Tower Bridge in London, his fortunes—and his life—hanging on his ability to recover a missing manuscript. Yet the lost volume is not what it seems, and his search is part of a treacherous game of underworld spies and smugglers, ciphers, and forgeries. Inchbold’s adventure is compelling from beginning to end as Ross King vividly recreates the turmoil of Europe in the seventeenth century—the sacks of great cities; Raleigh’s final voyage; the quest for occult knowledge; and a watery escape from three mysterious horsemen.
Ex-Libris is a multi-layered mystery set in seventeenth century England, with a story-within-a-story set across Europe, centering around Sir Walter Raleigh’s final voyage and the fabled lands of El Dorado.
To describe it like this makes it sound like a swashbuckling story, but it isn’t. The protagonist, Isaac Inchbold, is an unlikely hero- an aging bookseller with a club foot and permanent near sightedness. Most of the mystery involves Isaac researching things (which flags the plot a bit- it’s boring to read about a hero reading about things, and it’s also difficult to follow along when he discovers answers to which the reader isn’t privvy). But the ‘flashback’ storyline is entirely action/adventure, as it revolves around the fall of Bohemia, the religious wars that destroyed nations and knowledge.
Probably the most fascinating part of this was the multitude of references to existing texts of the day. Pre-printing press and pre-publishing houses, books varied widely by translation. The idea that there was no such thing as a source text one could reference, and so-and-so’s translation of an original text (all of which where foreign) was known among literate circles to be biased by a specific idea, or contain a flaw, is amazing. With mass publishing, nowadays we don’t consider that your copy of US version of The Hunger Games would be any different than my copy (aside from cover).
Also fascinating, to me, was the political turmoil of Europe. I probably learned (and then forgot) the fall of those small nations who attempted neutrality during the 1600s religious wars, but this backdrop of it was fascinating. The concept that religious and political powers would be buying up libraries of nations as they’re invaded in order to keep the wisdom and learning alive in some form was rather heartbreaking. The wholesale destruction of lives and learning based on doctrine disagreements was definitely heartbreaking (and still is, as it continues today in the US and across the world). King does an excellent job of keeping the stakes high and the reader engaged in those Europe scenes.
I did struggle a lot with the pace of Inchbold’s passages, and the plot holes (the biggest being “how did Alethea even know of Inchbold’s existence and why did she contact him specifically?”, with Inchbold never actually asks her). I felt less engaged in Alethea’s plight- she seemed slightly crazy to me. And the nefarious forces plotting against her also seemed a bit far-fetched- they were a real threat thirty-plus years ago, but the world had changed since then and I didn’t feel their mission was so dire anymore.
Despite plot pacing issues, this was an interesting read and clearly well-researched.