” The library in Prague had become a Pandora’s box out of which, in the eyes of Rome, a swarm of evils was about to fly. ” (28:351)
Ex-Libris beholds a theme that readers, especially bibliophiles, find irresistible: a mystery in which books play in prominent role. It features Issac Inchbold, an unassuming bookseller bookseller as the protagonist who owns a shop in 17th century London. Sealed off from the conumdrums of the world, his cloistered life is shattered one day, when mysterious Lady Machamont summons him to recover a secret manuscript on which the political and religious turmoil hinge. A parallel story, some 40 years preceding Inchbold’s time, also unfolds as Emilia, a lady-in-waiting to the young Queen of Bohemia in 1620, who flees the destruction of Prague with the treasure-trove of books from Prague Castle, as Rome becomes weary that Protestants have wielded too much power.
There was nothing so dangerous to a king or an emperor, he went on, as a book. Yes, a great library—a library as magnificent as this one—was a dangerous arsenal, one that kings and emperors feared more than the greatest army or magazine. (5:57)
From the moment Inchbold accepts the commission, we follow him along on a complicated (fortuitous) mission to solve a mystery. He becomes target of sabotage and invisible forces of violence. The network of historical facts supporting the puzzle plot sometimes threatens to overwhelm it, as intrigues become more than the actual story. As Inchbold follows clues to London’s most disputable alleys and into chapel transformed into archives by overwhelmed royal functionaries trying to reassemble landholding records despoiled by Cromwell’s forces, he also stumbles upon pieces of rare editions of old books and book fragments. Reading about these rare classics is great fun but I can see why some readers would be frustrated if they were expecting a more straight-forward mystery. There is no shortage of revelations about the books concerned but the ending, which bear little relation to them, is rather anticlimactic.
A Pandora’s box has been opened which Rome is trying to slam shut by whatever means. Sorcery and magic now rank with dogmatic heresy. (23:287)
The book is well-written but I have mixed feelings about the resolution. Despite the unforgivable ending, which attempts to tie so loosely the million shreds that keep me plugging along, the book, with all the intricate details about manuscripts and binding, is worth the time reading. A refresher course in 17th century European history s recommended, but without it careful readers won’t feel they are missing intricate details of the story. In fact, these details, along with the fact that books were smuggled to rouse bands of defeated rebels and malcontents make me trek briskly uphill to reach a destination that I incrementally demand better-be-worth-it with each trudging step. Ex-Libris is full of facts and details, but the story could have been tied up better.
392 pp. [Read/
Skim/ Toss] [ Buy/Borrow]