Pearl North begins Libyrinth by dropping the reader into the middle of the fantasy world she has created, and it is only as the story unfolds that you begin to understand that this world is possibly a future Earth, or at the very least, these are people whose ancestors came from Earth. The main character, Haly, is a teenager studying to become a Libyrarian – one of a small group of people who protect and care for the books in the fortress of knowledge known as the Libyrinth.
Aside from having the love of books instilled in her from a young age, Haly feels an even stronger connection to them because they speak to her. When she is in the presence of a book, she can hear the words in her mind, without even needing to open the covers. This talent is not limited to books alone – any written word speaks to her, which is how she learns of plans to turn over information about the most sacred (and lost) book to a militant anti-book organization that has very nearly taken over every other city-state in the world. Haly and her friends determine that the only way to save Libyrinth is to retrieve the book themselves.
The Eradicants, as they are called by the Libyrarians, seek to destroy all written word and their religion forbids any follower from learning to read or possessing a book. However, they have a rich oral tradition and access to technology that the Libyrarians can only dream of, which they use to bring light and warmth to the lives of the poor and downtrodden classes. And, the Libyrarians and the Eradicants have a common history that neither suspect until Haly susses out the truth. Haly's talent and her will may be the only things that will save the Libyrinth and bring peace between the Libyrarians and the Eradicants.
North drops just enough hints about the world and history she developed for this book that I am eager to read more about it, from the design of the Libyrinth to the evolution of the societies. The story reminds me of Anne McCaffrey's Pern series, not only because the people have forgotten their Earth origins, but also because North uses the story to address broader societal issues that have applications to the real world.
"Information wants to be free" is the mantra of those who advocate for lowering the barriers to access, but in our capitalist economies, information is a commodity that is sold at the highest price the consumer is willing to pay. The same is true in Libyrinth, with the Libyrarians selling books or information from the books in exchange for food, goods, or protection. Those who do not have things to trade in exchange for the information are destined to remain ignorant and illiterate, thus the appeal of the Eradicants and their promise of a better life without the need for the written word.
North is able to tell the story from the perspectives of all sides, subtly pointing out that stereotypes and cultural misunderstandings are prevalent everywhere, and that no one can easily understand the motivations of others until they drop their assumptions and try to see the world through different eyes. That message is one that transcends all age groups.
Libyrinth has the essential elements of a young adult novel, but because North does not talk down to the reader or turn her lead characters into simpering children, it has a readability that will appeal to older adults as well.