All sorcerers are evil. Elisabeth has known that as long as she has known anything. Raised as a foundling in one of Austermeer’s Great Libraries, Elisabeth has grown up among the tools of sorcery—magical grimoires that whisper on shelves and rattle beneath iron chains. If provoked, they transform into grotesque monsters of ink and leather. She hopes to become a warden, charged with protecting the kingdom from their power.
Then an act of sabotage releases the library’s most dangerous grimoire. Elisabeth’s desperate intervention implicates her in the crime, and she is torn from her home to face justice in the capital. With no one to turn to but her sworn enemy, the sorcerer Nathaniel Thorn, and his mysterious demonic servant, she finds herself entangled in a centuries-old conspiracy. Not only could the Great Libraries go up in flames, but the world along with them.
As her alliance with Nathaniel grows stronger, Elisabeth starts to question everything she’s been taught—about sorcerers, about the libraries she loves, even about herself. For Elisabeth has a power she has never guessed, and a future she could never have imagined.
The cruelest and kindest thing a good book does is make you believe you live inside it for the space of a few hundred pages, that you are a part of something, part of its world, not just skating around the edges, too tied up in yourself to join in…until it ends and the illusion winks out, like a snuffed flame, and you’re left marooned, adrift, your head chilled in its absence.
The real world takes a seat at the back, and Rogerson’s imaginary one holds center stage. Here where books are a soft warding from the beings that stalk the night and trapdoors to something beautiful and wicked that trickles beneath the surface, but when damaged—even inadvertently—they mutate into ravening monsters rising up in clamorous fury, the warp spreading from the pages as sinuously as ink clouding through a glass of clean water. And they’re called “Malefics.”
The gist of the story concerns Elisabeth Scrivener who is an orphan raised in the Great library of Summershall where she learned the delicate arts of tending to books and the blunter arts of guarding them against the world, and guarding the world against them. Her apprenticeship as a warden was a sapling graft that barely had time to take when one night, Elisabeth wakes up to find the library’s Director slain and a Malefic free to loosen its wrath on her city. She takes the monster outright, vicious and victorious, with the strength of the Director’s sword, but before she could even begin to comprehend the magnitude of what had happened, Elisabeth is branded a murderer and a traitor, at only a word and a whim from the library’s new Director, and the charge of her punishment is given to the Magisterium.
When the Great libraries start falling under attack, dread sluices through Elisabeth and a surety rises in her, lodging in her throat: someone is gathering arms against the Great libraries, colluding in treacheries, and, growing resigned to anyone believing her account, Elisabeth’s darkest self rises to the challenge: the heft of protecting the libraries would suit no one’s strength but hers—she who is “a true child of the library”.
But when secrets start melting into the dark, and all the doors slam shut in Elisabeth’s face, she seeks the help of Nathaniel Thorn, a sorcerer whose family is dogged with rumors of necromancy, and together they are soon yanked into the machinations of blood, greed and power. Revelations turn truths Elisabeth had known all her life into a tripwire primed to catch her off balance, and danger is dragged to her feet before she even sought it.
Ink and parchment flowed through her veins. The magic of the Great Libraries lived in her very bones. They were a part of her, and she a part of them.
Reading the first couple chapters, the strength of my delight, the speed with which it flowered, shocked me. Sorcery of Thorns burned through my initial skepticism, bright as a comet in the night’s sky, piercing me with vicious pleasure. In Rogerson’s luscious prose, Sorcery of Thorns weaves a pleasant spell indeed. This is a vibrant novel, and an unstintingly lush one. The author spins her tale with directness and wit; I enjoyed her storytelling, as one might enjoy music freely played, and was left clutching at each page as it slipped between my fingers.
As familiar as the novel’s template is, Rogerson’s success lies in the way she infuses exhilarating new life into it through tenderly compelling characters, luxurious writing and an exquisitely wrought premise. It would be easy to say that it’s laden with genre tropes, but the author takes several classic fantasy stances and makes them seem utterly fresh on the page, and, though it occasionally dips in and out of cliché, the author never lets it linger there long. The result is an immensely immersive novel, as graceful and thoughtful as it is action-packed and pulse-pounding.
Of course, no fantasy setting, however much entrancing and fresh it is, springs to life without strong characters to navigate it. On that end, Sorcery of Thorns delivers. The novel’s characters are engaging, and the relationships between them occupy the seething center of the sparsely ornamented stage.
Elisabeth’s character takes on a magical aura all her own. Rogerson boldly, brilliantly places her protagonist at the center of a sprawling conflict, and with unremittent relish, she begins to undermine what Elisabeth understands about magic, grimoires, libraries, and her role in it. She challenges not only everything Elisabeth knows, but everything she has come to learn and think about herself. Elisabeth’s compelling blend of wide-eyed vulnerability and world-weary wryness anchors a deeply moving journey of self-realization.
Elisabeth has never seen the world beyond the library where she grew up and tucked her dreams into her books for safekeeping. That her suspicions are so easily allayed first strained credulity, and I was often frustrated with how readily she settled into the words people dripped like sweet poison in her ear. But there was an edge to her, a keenness of anger and determination, and it soon strikes to life like flint. Elisabeth grows strong, unbent, scraping up all her fears and crushing them into an unlit place inside her. The grimoires called to her like signal beacons burning on a vast black sky and she flung herself into the air, fearless and unflinching. Elisabeth will protect the libraries like a mother wolf looking out for her cub, and she will not count the cost.
Although the supporting cast of characters is not granted a vivacity as stark as Elisabeth’s, together they made a whole like the heart of a flame. Nathanial Thorn is rich, handsome, and beset by a tragic past. Not to mention: seductive toward men and women alike and blessed with a set of social graces that makes him look suave. Y’know…perfect daydream fodder. But Nathaniel is always alone, strangely solitary in the space everyone else gives him, and Elisabeth was acutely aware of the vast gulf between them: his fathomless barter with his unsettlingly taciturn servant, his tormented nightmares, the secrets she glimpsed only quickly through the corridors of his lonesome mansion; she wanted to shatter the cold mask of stone that Nathaniel slips down over himself in her presence, uncaring of how jagged and sharp he might be for her to cut herself on him.
I liked Nathanial’s character, but I was frankly far more intrigued by Silas and the inscrutable turning of his thoughts, like the cogs within a machine. Silas is Nathanial’s silver-haired servant whose face was always a blank for just about any emotion one might care to project and who was a mystery, the safe Elisabeth (and the reader) could never crack, and I wanted to know if his icy exterior masks an even icier interior, or if it were a veneer for what was, at bottom, a warm and kind-hearted nature.
If there’s a failing in Sorcery of Thorns, it’s that the ending is rushed in the novel’s last few chapters, and although a little light coruscating at the end of the tunnel is always a welcome respite, the conclusion felt a little too easy, too attainable, which knocked down some of my satisfaction. Minor quibble notwithstanding, Sorcery of Thorns is a remarkable achievement and I kind of hope the author writes more in this world.
For these were not ordinary books the libraries kept. They were knowledge, given life. Wisdom, given voice. They sang when starlight streamed through the library’s windows. They felt pain and suffered heartbreak. Sometimes they were sinister, grotesque—but so was the world outside. And that made the world no less worth fighting for, because wherever there was darkness, there was also so much light.