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The Book On Fire by Keith Miller

1/07/2010. Contributed by Pauline Morgan

Buy The Book On Fire in the USA - or Buy The Book On Fire in the UK

author pic

pub: Immanion Press, 2009. 245 page enlarged paperback. Price: 11.99 (UK), $20.99 (US). ISBN: 978-1-904853-68-8.

There is a strong argument for making it illegal for an author to illustrate the covers for their own books, unless they are also professional artists. This novel makes the point perfectly. Cover and interior illustrations are by Keith Miller.

This is a shame as Immanion have, in the past, used stunning covers by the likes of Vincent Chong. Some of the decisions about content are also strange. The novel is set in Alexandria and the main character is named Balthazar. The book is written in English and can be presumed to be a translation of the original, which purports to be Balthazar's own words. One would expect that his usual language was Arabic or something similar. Even if it wasn't, it would seem reasonable to render words sung in Arabic into a script that made sense in the context of the rest of the writing. Instead, there are passages in Arabic script which are unintelligible to a non-Arabic reader until the translation in the appendix is reached. A strange decision since French passages are written as sounded in the Latin script otherwise used.

Balthazar is a book thief. He breaks into houses and steals rare and valuable books which he packages up and sends on to customers. He also reads the books and can get so involved in the story that he is in danger of being caught.

This is not any Alexandria that has ever existed. It has reached at least the 20th century as trams form part of the transport system but the lighthouse of Pharos still stands, even if in a dilapidated condition. At the heart of the city is the Library. It was not destroyed but exists still. Now, though, it is closed to the public and the librarians are all female. It is Balthazar's ambition to gain access to this library. This is a surreal landscape.

When Balthazar finally finds his way to the enclosure that surrounds and protects the library, he meets Zeinab. Beneath her veils, all he can see of her are her kohled eyes. She is as enigmatic as the library as the latter is veiled behind the surrounding walls with only tantalising glimpses visible. Zeinab offers him sex in exchange for a particular book. It is one on the small, select library that Balthazar keeps to himself. At first he declines but, on a later meeting, he succumbs to the mystery of her. Later, outside his apartment, he sees Zeinab reading the book but as she finishes each page she burns it. She explains that she is liberating it and introduces him to other thieves who meet in a church and shows him the secret way into the library after his fruitless searches for the entrance.

Once in the library, which is a vast warren under Alexandria, he begins to explore. He watches the librarians going about their work of dusting and cleaning and training at the martial arts techniques they will use to kill any intruder into their sanctuary, Sometimes, they stop and read. He is fascinated by one. The youngest librarian spends most of her time reading and he falls in love with her. Although she should kill him as an intruder, he persuades her to visit the outside world before she does so.

This is a book that I am pleased to have read. It is full of allegories and strangenesses but it deserves better packaging.

Pauline Morgan

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