The Reader by Traci Chee

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Alright, I just finished this book about two hours ago, so it’s still fresh on my mind. So let’s get on to it.

Rating: 4 / 5

Sefia’s aunt, Nin, was kidnapped by people who want a mysterious object that Sefia’s been carrying all her life but know virtually nothing about. It turns out, this object is a book, a magical thing that tells stories. But not just any stories. It contains everything that has ever happened in history and that will happen in the future. And those who are after it will stop at nothing to get it back.

This book was very frustrating for me to read. Not because I didn’t like it, but because I liked it and I wanted to like it even better. With its premise, I just thought it should have been better. So many things about it were so, so good!

This book is quite meta-fictional. It’s a book about books, about the power of books and the stories they tell. What if books are actually magical objects? And not just in the metaphorical sense? I really appreciated it’s meta aspects, even the ones that are concrete, like the text fading to indicate someone disappearing, or the text being scratched out. I think that was really creative.

There are also many things about this book that I really liked. The world-building, the characters, the writing, and the friendship-to-romance relationship between the main characters. Do you know how difficult it is to find a YA book these days that don’t contain insta-love or a love triangle? I liked this book just for being able to avoid that common pitfall. I also like Chee’s writing. I liked that at times it was whimsical — again, one of those things you no longer see very frequently at a time where grimdark and gritty writing are all the fad. I love the diverse cast, how nobody was pegged to certain roles because of their gender or their race. Nobody batted an eyelash about women being assassins or pirates or lieutenants. I love that!

It seems strange how I could love so much about this book, and still feel so let down somehow.

The main thing that bothered me was the plot. The plot was… whoo boy, it was kind of messy. For several reasons, in my opinion.

I will echo some of the things that have already been said by reviewers on Goodreads. First, there was this rather glaring plot hole in the premise. The world of Kelanna is one in which nobody can read or write. This is why the book is so special. Because very few people, only the ones who are trained, can access its magical powers. But here’s the thing: in the world of Kelanna, people use pictures to communicate. There are pictures that indicate taverns or other markers for places. But nobody knows how to read. Which is really strange, because any society who can communicate through pictograms would eventually learn how to develop a better system of communication, wouldn’t they? They might not use the exact letters we have, but if they can use symbols… I mean, isn’t that sort of like the ancient Egyptian writing system?

The second strange thing was how quickly Sefia was able to teach herself how to read. I know that as a child, she played with blocks of letters, but she stopped doing so after her mother died when she was 5. But within a few tries, she was able to look at the symbols “b”, “o”, “o”, and “k” and somehow decipher that it said “book.” I mean, how does someone who has never read or written before know that, for example, two “o”s make a “u” sound? I mean, just relating it from my own experiences trying to learn English, I would have definitely pronounced it like “boh-ock,”  with two separate “o” sounds. And this is a world where nobody has heard of a “book” before. A book was a mysterious object to Sefia for most of her life.

Anyway, moving on to the plot as a whole…

I felt like this book moved waaaay too slowly for my taste. There was a lot of time spent on characters doing nothing, or not doing enough. I think it ends up being a problem of tension. There just wasn’t enough tension to make me want to pick up this book and continue reading. The only tension I felt was an external one — the fact that I have so many books lined up and they all have library due dates. That was the reason I was able to force myself through the book. But really, after the first few chapters after you have been introduced to all the characters, there was just nothing really intriguing going on. You know what their motivations were, but there was not enough stake.

I mean, yes, Sefia wants to retrieve her aunt Nin back, but after a year had passed, there was just not enough urgency anymore to follow Sefia’s journey. She wants revenge, sure, but she spends 75% of the book chasing after a cart. It was very… underwhelming.

There are many reviewers on Goodreads who praised the way the different threads of the story were interwoven. I, personally, found it to be pretty messy. At first, things were interesting. When we start learning about a new character, I was excited. Chee has a way of introducing characters that make you want to know them, what they’re up to, what makes them tick. But once I knew those things, my interest just fell. Like I said, there was just not enough tension.

For example, there was a thread about Lon, a librarian apprentice. At first, I was like, “Oh, cool, this boy who can see the future is about to receive training!” And then all the chapters of him after that is about him in the library just talking with his mentor. Then there’s Reed, the gentleman pirate. At first, I was like, “Oh, a kindhearted pirate who goes on cool adventures!” And then all the chapters of him after that is like a different adventure that barely relates to the overall plot of the story, like watching one of those anime episodes during the first season where they’re trying to get you hooked by showing separate 30-minute stories that don’t have an overarching plot.

And then there was Tanin. Oh dear lord, Tanin. You know, I understand when an author doesn’t want to reveal something, because it’s supposed to be a twist. I get that. But when it’s so obvious that your character is holding something back from the reader, it just makes for an extremely frustrating experience. Every time I get to a chapter with Tanin, she always loses her wits around this random woman, only referred to as her. The reader doesn’t know who she is, we don’t know anything about her, but we’re supposed to feel as if she’s all important, because Tanin just comes undone whenever she remembers her. It’s so frustrating! I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, maybe I just don’t have the patience for this kind of drama-inducing trick. Even in real life, when someone tells me “Oh… something really bad happened. It was so shocking. I was totally surprised. You won’t believe it. I can’t tell you. You have to find out later.” And I’m just here going, “Dude, I might fall off a plot hole in my life later. If you had enough time to tell me a ten second warning, you have enough time to tell me what it is.” It drives me crazy.

There are dozens of wonderful techniques to pull off a twist, ones that don’t dangle a really-important-thing in front of your reader’s face, and not tell them what it is. Some of them, like in The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner, includes playing with your reader’s assumptions and not telling a single lie, and not hinting at a secret and then refusing to tell it until “it’s time.”

So I think by now, you can sort of understand why I didn’t like the way the threads of the story were interwoven. It felt very contrived. Other reviewers were praising it because “everything was connected,” but… of course everything was connected! You can clearly see the hand of the author laying out the blocks to make everything connect.

I felt like a little bit more subtlety could have gone a long way. And I don’t just mean this about the plot. The themes of how important books are and how important it is to have your story told and remembered are constantly clubbed over the reader’s head. Constantly. Every chapter. I get it. Really, I do. I think this was partly the reason why I felt the book dragged a lot. It’s because there are paragraphs dedicated to reiterating these themes almost every single chapter, and it does get tiresome after a while. I think I would have preferred a cleaner unification to the themes and the plot, in a similar way that Howl’s Moving Castle was able to connect the power of words to Sophie’s curse. It wasn’t obvious. But when everything came together, it was very powerful.

I have to say, the twist about Lon and the Second was pretty cool. But like I said, I just wish it wasn’t so contrived.

Anyway, I think I’ve pretty much expressed almost everything I need to say. I have a few things to mention about the consistency of character personality too, but looking back now, it’s not as important as I thought it was. Overall, I really did like the characters, even if the story didn’t make me curious about their fates as much as I wish it could have. Again, I’d say that the friendship-to-romance relationship between Sefia and Archer was a breath of fresh air, something rarely pulled off anymore in this genre. If I were going to read the next book, most likely it would be because of Sefia and Archer.

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