Honestly, color me a bit surprised that no books really get burned in Bookburners, a series from Serial Box written by Max Gladstone, Margaret Dunlap, Mur Lafferty, and Brian Francis Slattery and collected in a single print volume for the first time by Saga Press.
In the world of Bookburners, magic is real and ridiculously dangerous. It lives in ancient books, and a secret society within the Vatican known as the Societas Librorum Occultorum is responsible for keeping the magic corralled and ensuring that the outside world is none the wiser to its existence.
Halfway across the world, Sal Brooks is a regular member of the NYPD thrust headfirst into this world of magic when her younger brother, Perry, is possessed by one of the magical beings hiding in a book.
Although Perry is physically saved, he’s rendered comatose and his recovery is uncertain. In the meantime, Sal joins Team Three of the Societas Librorum Occultorum, who are in charge of tracking down magical books and making sure that they never see the light of day again. They’re the ones who helped her save Perry, and she works with them to find a cure for her brother while also fighting monsters and learning even more secrets of the Vatican.
Sal is essentially the Piper Chapman of Team Three: we’re exposed to everything going down in the Vatican through her point of view for most of the book, but it’s clear early into the narrative that her fellow teammates are the ones with the really interesting backstories.
We’ve got Arturo Menchu, the Guatemalan priest who inadvertently made a deal with a demon disguised as an angel and was responsible for the destruction of an entire village; Grace Chen, a Chinese martial artist whose life is intertwined with a candle made of human flesh; Liam Doyle, a snarky, heavily-tattooed Irishman who lost two years of his life after being possessed by a demon; and Asanti, a funky, mysterious Black woman who serves as Team Three’s archivist. All way more interesting than Sal Brooks, former cop who stumbled into this magic-is-real realm after trying to save her brother from a particularly evil demon.
(Speaking of which, see all that diversity up there? And, drumroll, please…not a single one of them dies! See, the majority of popular media today? It can be done!)
Serial Box, Bookburners’ first home, has a unique style, and the concept of Serial Box itself is one of the things that piqued my interest in Bookburners in the first place. Basically, works published under Serial Box get the TV treatment—chapters are referred to as episodes and released weekly for around fourteen to sixteen weeks until a season is complete. A different author writes each episode, and subscribers have the option to either listen or read e-versions of the stories, creating a TV-like effect.
The option of listening to each episode is nice, but I’d love to see what Bookburners could do with an ensemble cast—a la The Thrilling Adventure Hour podcast—as opposed to a single narrator. There are some clear attempts at humor in the book that I think could’ve been perfect if delivered the right way, and reading them in my head just made them fall flat.
I like my sci-fi rooted in reality, stories that’ll make me do double takes and wonder if there really could be something lurking just below the surface of everyday life, and Bookburners definitely delivers on that front. I especially loved the episodes “Under My Skin” by Mur Lafferty and “Big Sky” by Brian Francis Slattery, which dealt with people dying after being tattooed with a demonic kind of ink and a town under attack from imaginary monsters come to life, respectively.
I loved the idea of multiple authors working together to create a singular work and looked forward to being able to see each of their styles and signatures on their respective stories. Unfortunately, while the writing did blend together and flow well from story to story, there wasn’t much of anything to help me tell each author’s voice apart. Bookburners read like a story written by one person, which would normally be great, but in a series that boasts a collaboration between four different authors, I had been expecting something more.
Additionally—and this is mostly personal preference—I would’ve appreciated more variation in sentence structure in most of the stories; the structure pulled me out of Team Three’s missions more than once. Each author wrote similarly. Lots of short sentences. Choppy, and not flowing. That was fine at first. I could ignore it. Until it became overbearing.
Although the size of the book itself is a little bit intimidating—I know it was for me when I pulled this 800-page tome out of my mailbox—Bookburners is a fun, fast read, something I’d curl up with on the couch and start, only to look up later and see that two hours had passed. Serial Box has recently started releasing episodes from season two of Bookburners, and the end of volume one answers enough question while still posing the perfect amount of unanswered ones to whet readers’ appetites for what will happen next.
One thing’s for sure, though—Gladstone & Co. definitely has a new reader who needs to catch up fast on season two. I’d recommend Bookburners for readers age 16 and over who want to start 2017 off on a good note with a fun, campy, diverse sci-fi story.
3.5 out of 5 stars
Allison Racicot is the Audiobook & Podcast Reviewer at Girls in Capes. She spends too much time listening to podcasts, and enjoys reading, writing, comedy, and getting overly attached to fictional characters. If you like tweets that regularly consist of fangirling over Hamilton, comic books, and comedians, you can follow her on Twitter @allisonracicot.
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