This is a book.
At its core Traci Chee's enchanting debut novel is a book about the magical act of reading. Sefia, the young protagonist, lives in the land of Kelanna where people have never seen a book and don’t know what reading is. When she was little, Sefia's parents were secretive, living apart from others on a lonely hilltop shrouded in mist. They kept Sefia herself a secret. She never saw other children or even other adults, with the exception of her Aunt Nin, a woman with a singular talent for picking locks. Sefia's mother taught her the basics of reading when she was too young to understand the strange shapes and sounds of letters as anything more than a game. Her mother dies mysteriously when Sefia is six. When she is nine, Sefia returns home one day to find her father brutally murdered. In their ruined home she stumbles upon a secret compartment in which she finds a strange rectangular object. When she opens it there are words written on pages inside. She puts sounds to letters and reads:
This is a book.
Traci Chee's The Reader is a book to hold in your hands. Chee is a self-proclaimed lover of book arts and paper crafts, so it comes as no surprise that the power of a beautifully crafted book plays a central role in her novel. The experience of The Reader is not limited to the evocative words of the story alone. To the observant, the words “Look Closer” appear as an acrostic within the opening poem. There are secret messages hidden in the page numbers (and other places). Sefia reads the unusual book she carries, and its magical story-within-a-story is set off in framed and shaded pages. There are manipulations of the text in the primary narrative too, words blacked out, pages smeared by inky fingers—evidence that the book you hold has been in the hands of other readers before you. Each of the five kingdoms of Kelanna has its own finely drawn medallion. There is beautiful map of the world and images of the symbol that is engraved upon the book itself.
It would be lovely to have a fine art edition of The Reader, bound in leather and fitted with its golden clasps—a fully realized map drawn in ink and gold, pages interleaved with the feathers and notes that Sefia uses to mark the infinite pages of her own strange book. I want to smell a bit of actual tar and feel it’s texture where it is smeared over the text describing the details of her father’s murder.
There are four storylines in The Reader.
The first is Sefia’s. She is sixteen, an orphan and on the run. Her Aunt Nin is kidnapped in the first chapter. Sefia begins her story seeking answers and revenge, in that order. The key to her quest is hidden in the infinite pages of her parent's strange book.
As Sefia practices her reading, she discovers that more things can be read than words. Paths in the forest left by those who have gone before, scars on the skin and on the heart. These are books as well. A second world appears to her reader’s eyes. She learns to read the past of any damaged object in a world of swirling golden light that overlays the world that others see.
The second story belongs to the boy she rescues. He has lost his memories, voice and name to a trauma of unspeakable brutality. Using her vision of the golden world she reads the history of his scars enough to understand that his past, the fate of her parents, her aunt, and the mysterious book are all linked. Sefia declines to read the boy more deeply though, as she begins to realize the invasive nature of her ability to read a person’s history in damage done to their body.
Lon’s is the third story. A street performer who is recruited to be trained as the apprentice librarian in a world where no one knows that reading exists. The librarians are secretive and closely guard the mysteries of their books.
The fourth story is contained within the book Sefia carries. She reads it aloud to the boy as she practices her growing skills. It is the tale of the pirate Captain Reed, his crew, and their outlaw ship The Current of Faith.
Here be spoilers - ye have been warned!
The four stories intertwine in time and space. Sefia and the boy run into people very like the characters in the book, but they are not imagining things. Sefia finds bits of the boy's story in her reading and then pieces of her own. But unless she marks the pages she cannot find them again. Sefia reads ahead. There are rumors of a future that is dark, violent and unavoidable. But must she and her friends live what is written? Quite by accident Sefia steps into the golden world and turns a bullet that was meant for her back on the man holding the gun. His story seems to have changed in the pages of the book, but in the golden world Sefia can still see the paths the dead man was meant to walk. She and the boy follow them in their quest for answers. Sefia's book and the book in your hands merge. There are moments when you, the reader, while completely immersed in the momentum of the story, can't help but be acutely aware of the act of your own reading as Sefia is beginning to understand her reading. In these marks on paper there is some marvel of magic, allowing the thoughts of one human being to exist in the mind of another. Characters struggle to understand if they should respond to what is written as fate or if their choices could change the future, rewriting the things that have not yet come to pass. In the experience of reading The Reader, the thought of finding bits of your own story in the pages seems entirely possible. Which begs the question: Are you the reader? Or the one being read?