Review: Ex Libris edited by Paula Guran

Byline: Stories of Librarians, Libraries, and Lore
Published by: Diamond Book Distributors
ISBN: 1607014890
ISBN 13: 9781607014898
Published: May 2017
Pages: 384
Format reviewed: eVersion from NetGalley
Site: Publisher Site
Goodreads: Book Page
Stars: Three out of Five

This anthology is made up of reprints, taking from other anthologies or magazines such as Uncanny and Subterranean, so some you may have come across before. Of these, I’ve already read the shorts by Elizabeth Bear, Kelly Link, Scott Lynch, and Tansy Rayner Roberts – but as these are my favourite authors I eagerly reached for the rest. After all, what better subject than libraries.

Unfortunately I struggled with this anthology. Usually I love to review each story individually, but I didn’t find myself able to have enough to discuss about each one. Please find following what I loved about a few of them. This is a steady anthology, one that has a beautiful cover and a few very excellent pieces in it, but unfortunately is not an easy collection to read through continuously (either in a week, or a few weeks).

In the House of the Seven Librarians by Ellen Klages

In a fitting start to the anthology we see a quaint proper library replaced with a new one that boasts proper fluorescent lighting and ergonomic chairs, and it’s written with the kind of tone we can appreciate – a library isn’t just a place with stacks of books, libraries that were our friends growing up are places of comfort – not sharp lines and electronics. Not all the books make it over, and for some reason the seven librarians remain in the old building also – and it’s here they receive a late return. As we all know, late books require a fee to be paid, and this payment is quite odd indeed.

This is quite a lovely short – a little bit magical and a little bit of old comfort you instantly wish you were one of the librarians in their quiet comfort, or the lucky little bundle of payment. Reading this one was an excellent start to the anthology, and is so lovely in such a gentle way that it beautifully sets the tone.

The Books by Kage Baker

I love the premise of this – just like how I loved it in Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – how in a not so distant future a rabble group of people travel the world to entertain and remind others of things so they can’t be forgotten and lost to the ravages of time in a post-apocalyptic world.

This one is an excellent piece to broaden the anthology out. We start with a safe library we’ve always found comfort in as children with Klages’ story first, and then Baker takes us out into the big unknown, and shows how stories are our constant, and the one thing we can’t do without – up there with food, water and shelter.

In Libres by Elizabeth Bear

Euclavia has been instructed by her advisor that her thesis really needs another source. He recommends a full rare book, rather than a particular article, and this means she has to go to the library. To the Special Collections section in particular. And for this, she wants her oldest friend, Bucephalus, (a centaur) to come with her, as libraries are a cause for concern.

They arrive, and the librarian they meet both recommends against it, and asks whether she’s done anything to earn the ire of her advisor – slept with the tutor’s spouse, etc. ‘Any reason for him to want you dead?’ is literally asked.

This creates such a fantastic piece of work where librarians carry both sword and wand, and people like poor Eu who need to enter are instructed to bring a ball of twine, three days of food, a bedroll, no fire, no shoes on antique rugs, no pens (but pencil and notepaper are allowed)… though as a plus, there are first air and water stations wherever there are restrooms which is say, every five kilometers… however they all move around, so who knows, really.

Brilliant through each part, and Bear, I want a full novel of this, please.

Summer Reading by Ken Liu

‘After mankind had scattered to the stars like dandelion seeds, Earth was maintained as a museum overseen by robot curators.’

We have CN-344315 as our protagonist. He last saw a human over five thousand years ago, but he still goes about his routine – just like our favourite Wall-e, and like him, he cares so much about what humans have left behind.

This short story is endlessly quotable, like a lot of what Liu writes. ‘Data only lives when it is constantly copied.’ ‘Books are long alive when they’re read.’ ‘For books are seeds, and they grow in minds.’

Beautiful.

The Inheritance of Barnabas Wilcox by Sarah Monette

As one can guess from the title, Barnabas Wilcox has passed away, and his inheritance involves a country house to his nephew. One of the stipulations being that his library catalogue of an astounding number of books be finished – only his nephew doesn’t know where to begin, so he writes to a boy he knew in school – one he was never close with, but he’s the only one he knows who to turn to. And as Booth is in awe of the now deceased antiquary Lucius Wilcox, he agrees.

Like a good horror or murder mystery, the pieces slowly fall into place. The insane ramblings of the uncle. The abundance of a certain type of tree in the garden, and the horrid scratchings on the library door. I haven’t yet read any of Monette’s work but now I really, really want to.

What Books Survive by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Like some of the oldest and best fiction, space invaders have come. Now nothing electronic works, but as long as they stay behind their walls, the invaders seem to leave them pretty much alone. The only issue is that some houses have no or very few physical books, and along with half the houses (which means everyone has to squish in together), the shops, and the school (so now the town hall acts as the school also)… they left the library on the other side of the barricade. Something that 16yo Katie Marsden can’t stand.

This is such a fun and wonderful piece – kids with gumption, and it tackles the hard questions. Such as ‘Should I pick books [to save] because of posterity and shit like that, or should I just be selfish and save the ones I wanted to read?’ Personally I reckon save the ones you want to read – life is too short if invaders have come.

Now Tansy is a fan of the kindle, as am I, but this certainly is a strong reason to be a fan of both mediums for sure.

The Green Book by Amal El-Mohtar

This is such a clever piece that the least said about it, the better. Even if you pick up this book and flick to Amal’s section first – totally worth it.

In the Stacks by Scott Lynch

An old favourite. Fifth year exams for the High University of Hazar require the aspirants to enter the library and return with a library book.

Simple, right?

Well, the motto of the librarians here is: RETRIEVE. RETURN. SURVIVE.

Dressed in armour, equipped with swords and years of training, four of them are there to take the test. As one of the thankfully longer pieces in this anthology, we get such a fun romp of a tale where you see so much of their whole world even though we mostly see their sprawling library alone. Another piece that demands a full novel or ten. The language and dialogue makes anything by Lynch such a joy to read. The descriptions, witty banter – in many awful moods I’ve picked up something by Lynch and felt better within minutes – if only it could be bottled.

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Xia Jia, translated by Ken Liu

After college, a young girl returns to where she grew up to work in the library her father ran – as it’s always felt like home, and other people don’t make much sense anyway. She’s had a feeling that she’s always been looking for something, and she finally finds it in a slim volume of poetry, that’s part of a collection donated by a family clearing out their father’s estate.

This is a beautiful piece of work. ‘It was still there, a slim volume squeezed between other books like a mysterious woman hiding in the attic.’ Basically one can be assured that if Liu has translated it, then it’s always going to be worth reading.

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