The Reader is the first book in the Sea of Ink and Gold trilogy. The sequels are The Speaker and The Storyteller.
The Reader is a very unique book. I’ve never read anything similar to it, or to the way it weaves together stories inside of other stories, timelines in different kingdoms, tales and mysteries inside fictional books. The result is multilayered and compelling, but definitely not flawless.
One thing that makes The Reader unique is the sense of wonder. This is the kind of book that makes you see the magic in ordinary things, that lets you see the world in a different way. It has, in a way, the timeless feel of classics, and it reminded me of the books I read when I was younger, the one that made me a reader in the first place – and also the ones I wouldn’t be able to reread today.
Here’s the thing: if this book is magical and complex and well-written, at times it also feels immature. I don’t know if it’s debut syndrome (but: I’ve read many debuts that didn’t have this problem) or the fact that I’m not exactly the target audience anymore, since I’m 18 (but: I know I would have felt the same way last year), but this didn’t work for me as much as I hoped. Not because of the characters – I don’t have a problem with teenagers being teenagers – but because of part of the premise itself.
The beauty of the writing and the wonderful magic system couldn’t distract me from the fact that the worldbuilding made no sense. You’re telling me this society has guns but writing is mostly… unheard of? I can understand analphabetism, but no, most people don’t know what a book is or what writing looks like – and that just doesn’t work.
And that’s far from the only thing I struggled to suspend disbelief for: everything that had to do with Archer bothered me, basically. I don’t have anything against him, his only fault is blandness and even then I’ve seen worst cases of it, but the storyline surrounding him makes as much sense as the worldbuilding. There’s a mysterious pirate-like figure, Serakeen, who is kidnapping children to turn them into soldiers, and he is looking for Archer because he needs a great fighter to lead a great army. Yes, you see, one of this book’s major plot points is that this mysterious, powerful figure needs a 17-year-old (I presume? Maybe he’s even younger) to lead his army, just because he’s really good at killing. Because, you know, that’s the first thing you need to look for!
You’d need someone who has experience with leading people and strategy, and Archer has neither; what he has is the charisma of a puddle, and that also doesn’t help.
This is the kind of plotline that prevents me from taking villains seriously.
On Archer and disability rep (spoiler-y)
I understand that he was never mute to begin with, he had just forgotten everything and wasn’t speaking because of trauma, but… eh. It depends on how it’s handled in the sequel; if he goes from “never speaks” to “charismatic leader”, it’s erasure and magically cured disability; if he struggles I don’t have a problem with it. But I don’t know if I will read the sequel.
The writing was beautiful, and the descriptions made the world stand out: this is not your typical medieval fantasy book, it has an atmosphere of its own, unique enough to be memorable. There’s magic in the narration, in the interwoven stories that manage to be surprising in completely unexpected ways. It may be a little bit difficult to get into at the beginning, as you don’t know what the plot threads have to do with each other, but the ending it’s worth all the not-so-perfect pacing.
The Reader is, mostly, a book about reading. If you’ve read Laini Taylor’s Strange the Dreamer and your favorite aspect of it was Lazlo’s love for stories, you should try The Reader: it explores this theme even more, and does it justice.
If, on the other hand, your favorite aspect of Strange the Dreamer was the morally gray situation, this book may not be for you. The Reader is many things, but it’s not morally gray at all – the main characters are very Good people, the villains are pretty Bad. I don’t consider this a flaw, as sometimes it’s good to read a YA that feels lighter, but Sefia and Archer, just like many other Good characters, lack depth. Their romance didn’t make me feel anything, it was a “she was a girl, he was a boy” kind of deal – a they-got-together-because-heteronormativity kind of couple. They’re fine, and nothing more.
I did appreciate the diversity – it’s great to have a book that feels like classic YA fantasy but isn’t completely white. There’s also a side character with OCD and I’ve heard there’s a queer couple in the sequel.
My rating: ★★★¼