September 20, 2018


The Lost Books: The Scroll of Kings. By Sarah Prineas. Harper. $16.99.

     Any book lover will have high hopes for this preteen fantasy/adventure novel. The main protagonist is a librarian! And librarians are quickly established as keys to a mystery that is pervading the usual quasi-medieval kingdom! And books themselves are characters! In fact, Sarah Prineas explains early on that librarians have “pages,” but not in the traditional faux medieval sense: these are actual pages that fly about helping librarians and tending to their wants and needs – although, being rather simple-minded, the pages cannot handle complex tasks.

     These are wonderful ideas, so it is a shame that Prineas, in developing them, shoots herself in the foot so often (or stabs herself: swords, as in other formulaic sort-of-medieval fantasies, are the weapons of choice here). Where do those librarian-assisting pages come from? Do they tear themselves from books? If so, which ones and why? Or do they come from somewhere else? Where? How is the number of pages attending a librarian determined? By the pages themselves? Much is made early in the book about teenage Alex, an apprentice who is sure he is meant to be a librarian, getting a librarian’s job through a bit of deceit but having no pages to help him – but then, later in the book, he has far more pages than any other librarian, a fact that emphasizes his special nature but is never explained.

     As for that “special nature,” Alex is marked with letters on his wrist by a mysterious book from the library of his distinctly un-bookish warrior father – a book that conveniently disappears when Alex tries to show it to his dad and is never seen again during the novel. What was it? Whence its power? Why did it mark Alex? How? Who knows?

     Then there is the puzzle of the title of Prineas’ novel. It is not until midway through the book that a librarian makes an intended-to-be-mysterious reference to “LBs” with mysterious powers – but anyone who has read the title of Prineas’ book will know what the letters must stand for, so the mystery falls flat. The subtitle refers to a specific book that does not appear until late in the novel – why the subtitle at all? These and many other questions seem to indicate that The Lost Books is the start of a series, although that is never stated. It had better be Book 1 of something, because it is woefully weak as a standalone novel.

     As for the non-Alex characters, the best of them is the teenage queen, Kenneret, who has only recently ascended the throne. She gives Alex a chance to prove himself at the royal library, somewhat against her better judgment and to the considerable annoyance of her uncle, the former regent – a character so obviously the chief bad guy that the only surprise is his lack of a mustache to twirl menacingly. Kenneret’s troublemaking but, it turns out, intelligent and clever brother, Charleren, is a good enough character to be a bit of a scene-stealer when he appears, but the obligatory secrets-revealer, a former librarian’s assistant called Bug, is such a cardboard creation that she can practically be folded into origami.

     There are so many unanswered questions in The Lost Books that it is hard to understand why an experienced author such as Prineas would introduce theme after theme without expounding upon them or explaining much of anything. The underlying mystery of the book involves librarians’ deaths – they are actually being killed by books. Why? Never explained. It eventually turns out that the “lost books” were written in the past and contain the essences of their creators – how did that happen? Never explained. The point is made, specifically about the scroll of the subtitle, that the king was good but the book is bad. How come? Never explained. The entire nation has been on a downward slope since the libraries were locked up to prevent the LBs from wreaking havoc – which they would do, well, why? Never explained. The letters on Alex’s wrist periodically rearrange themselves into words in ways that are inevitably less than helpful. How and why does this happen? Never explained.  And on and on the never-explained elements of The Lost Books go. The pacing of the novel is very good, several characters are memorable, the underlying premise is fascinating, and all those positive things make the numerous explanatory disappointments stand out all the more. If this is not the start of a series, Prineas will have a lot to answer for when readers realize how enticingly she has led them into a potentially wonderful world and then abandoned them there.

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