I wanted to love this book. Earlier this year I read The Book of Flying by Miller and was madly in love by the end of the first page. The language and the characters and the story had me dizzy. It was that good.
I looked him up to see if he had other books and ordered The Book on Fire after not being able to find it at the library or in stock at the bookstore. It arrived and landed at the top of my To Be Read pile while I finished up a few other books. I kept looking at it, excited that it was there and ready to dive in.
I liked how it started and settled in happily.
And then it started to drag.
And then I didn’t really care what was happening.
And then it sat unfinished while I read a few other books.
Maybe my hopes were too high. Maybe I loved The Book of Flying so much that this was bound to be a letdown.
I’m not sure why this didn’t work for me. The book is about books and loving books and what people do to feed their addiction to books. The main character is Balthazar, a book thief who follows the scent and promise of books. He has created a collection for himself that he keeps close and are only for him. Other books he gladly trades and makes a living feeding other readers’ addictions. He arrives in Alexandria to break into the famous library, but he has no plan on how to proceed. The library is unlike anything he’s ever faced. At one time it was open to all, but things have changed and it is locked to the world and no books are ever sent out. It is guarded by fierce and deadly protectors. Those foolish enough to try to break in are mercilessly killed and their bodies are left to rot on the gates as a warning to others.
Balthazar is soon tailed by a mysterious figure named Zeinab. Is she a ghost? A prostitute? A woman? He is obsessed and disgusted by her and the two feed each other’s book addictions even though Zeinab destroys what Balthazar wants.
Eventually Balthazar figures out the riddle of the library and breaks in. Overcome with the decadence of pages, words, stories, smells, shelves, inks, pictures and his forbidden presence, he nearly drowns in his success. His thievery serves him well and he is able to hide from the murderous librarians while living in the stacks.
And then he sees Shireen.
Shireen was born in the library from the books themselves and like his books, Balthazar must posses her, open her, learn her stories and memorize her lines. His addiction changes and I couldn’t tell if it was love, lust, the challenge, the forbidden nature, or friendship.
I really liked when Balthazar and Shireen first meet and reading their interactions as they try to figure out what to do with each other. They are both obsessed and afraid, and watching their relationship change was good. Unfortunately, I began to not like Balthazar at this point. At first I liked him a lot because of his obsession with books and his code of thievery. He lives in grandeur, yet poverty. The friends he joins when he arrives in Alexandria make a wonderful supporting cast and I liked watching them all swirl around each other while they fed their individual addictions. They are both connected to each other and completely alone. When he meets Shireen, however, his addiction becomes cruel and he punishes her when he cannot possess her.
Reading other reviews. this is described as a love story, but I didn’t feel it. I wanted Shireen to be stronger, and when she was, I wanted Balthazar himself to become stronger because of her. To me it felt like Balthazar was convinced he was rescuing her, but was he simply trying to steal her for himself? Even when he wallowed in withdrawal and despair, I didn’t feel any love. It was more that he was in agony because he was being denied a thing, not a person. It felt more like a child having a tantrum, not a man in love.
I did like most of the ending. Zeinab’s story is told, and then finished. Everything becomes violent and a pure destruction emerges, and yet suddenly things feel peaceful. I wanted to stay with Zeinab, but Balthazar and Shireen still had their own lives and their stories needed to be finished. While I did like their endings, I found myself wishing this was Zeinab’s story and that the other two would be an epilogue when she was done.
I wonder if this would have been a five star book for me if I had read it before The Book of Flying. I liked the darkness. I liked the cruel moments that came from the other characters because they happened in honest moments. I didn’t feel like Balthazar was honest in his desires. The other addictions are pure, but for some reason I felt like Balthazar was about possession, not about fulfillment. I can’t quite explain it, but I’m sure if you’re sympathetic to him, you will like this book more than I did.