I should probably start this review with a bit of a disclaimer. I find myself at a loss of words as to how to adequately approach a review for The Absolute Book. I’m still mulling over most of my reactions to it, all the way down to figuring out if I liked it or not. Apologies if this review becomes a big meandering mess of regurgitated thoughts.
Taryn Cornick is just a teenager when her sister is violently killed by a man who all but gets away with it with a mere slap on the wrist. Upon his release, a rash decision of hers once again threatens to throw her life into a tailspin. She does her best to leave the past behind her, building a successful career as a scholar and writer who writes about the preservation of precious materials in libraries, focusing on the various threats to archived materials. As strange events begin to unfold and Taryn’s past demons begin to catch up with her, she will find herself thrust into a strange and harrowing quest not just to save her own life but to quite possibly save the world.
First of all, this book is hefty. I’m not just referring to its page count of almost 650 pages. It has a little bit of everything. It starts off as a pretty basic crime thriller. A vicious attack, a killer who gets away with his crime, a marriage of convenience, and eventually a crime of vengeance are all packed into the first few chapters of the novel. This devolves into a detective drama in which we want the detective to lose, though we like Jacob Berger, despite his ardent conviction that Taryn is guilty of conspiracy to murder. If you thought that was wild, just wait for the demons, shape-shifting demigods, talking birds, magical gates that allow one to shift from one world to another, magic gloves, strange otherworldly creatures, and mythological gods. Am I missing anything? Oh yeah, the box containing a magical scroll that has existed for centuries and somehow can’t be destroyed and probably contains the secrets to the universe. No big deal.
I do enjoy this kind of fantasy. One of the most memorable of these novels is Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. I read that book a few years ago and I fell in love with it. There’s something magical about this idea of a world beneath our modern world where fantastical creatures roam, only accessible to those gifted with a unique ability to see through the obvious into the unknown realm. I know authors have been doing this for a long time. Gaiman is far from the first, but that’s the first book that really introduced me to the concept in a more adult fashion. Naturally, as I child I assumed they must have sent Errol with my Hogwarts invitation, because it somehow didn’t arrive. I still enjoy the lines that blur fantasy and reality, and I think Elizabeth Knox navigates the melding of the two quite expertly.
There’s no denying Knox is an incredibly gifted writer. She’s especially skilled at setting a scene. Her world building is exquisite. The way she introduces characters and places with important and sometimes meticulous detail is impressive. There’s a very strong emphasis on character development. This novel contains multiple genres all wrapped up into one: fantasy, mystery, thriller, historical fiction, modern fairy tale, and even nonfiction with some pretty detailed discussion about the history of libraries and the tragedies that have consumed much of the intellectual resources of the past.
The plot of this story is quite epic, and I thought it took a very interesting and surprising turn at the very last, once we see the true nature of the quest and its intended purpose. We once again are able to see a real world application for the themes of the book, a blend of modern day problems with supernatural solutions. This book is very cerebral and intricately plotted. Creating something like this is an ambitious undertaking, and I’m extremely aware of the importance of that. A lot of people can write a book, but there are few people who can create something like this. Reading it is an ambitious undertaking as well, as it’s lengthy and quite complicated, but I couldn’t help but appreciate the depth of skill that was necessary to bring all the parts of this novel into something whole and cohesive. This book is an admirable feat of literary creation.
All that being said, I can see how this book isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. It was very easy to get lost. It has a pacing that is quite disjointed, as we jump to and from different timelines, to and from different worlds, and then back again, sometimes in rapid succession. One scene we might leisurely plod along paying close attention to details and the next we’re bursting forth at rapid pace speeding through some pretty important stuff. You have to be really careful not to drift away and miss something. There is a huge cast of characters, though I felt like they were each delineated quite well with unique voices, so that helped me in that regard. Still, this is a frustrating read and the experience wasn’t always enjoyable. I would describe this book as being a bit laborious. It’s not a quick, easy summer read you can absorb on the beach while you sip lemonade and soak up the sun. So, if that’s what you’re currently in the mood for, it’s best to move along and table The Absolute Book for a time you are feeling particularly inclined to give your brain muscles a bit of cardio. Make sure to hydrate.
Frankly, I’m not sure where else to go from here without giving away too much of the plot that should be reserved for the reader’s discovery, so I will end it here. Overall, 4 stars.
Published February 9 2021 by Penguin Audio. ISBN 0593296737. Runtime 18 hrs, 20 minutes. Narrated by Anne-Marie Duff. This post contains affiliate links. Any purchases made through my site will result in me receiving a commission.