Sefia has been hiding and evading capture for most of her life. It started with the house built on a hill filled with secret rooms and hidden passages meant to guard a dangerous secret. When her father is murdered, Sefia does what she has been trained to do. She hides. She grabs the thing that her parents spent their lives protecting. She goes to her aunt Nin and together they run away.
After Nin is kidnapped, Sefia vows to find her. Sefia turns to the strange rectangular object her father died to protect. As she examines the thing, Sefia slowly realizes it is a book.
The Book may hold secrets about Nin’s abduction and Sefia’s own parents if only she can master the symbols within and learn to read the words. In Sefia’s world, books are their own kind of magic–a dangerous power in the wrong hands. Sefia will need that power if she wants to rescue Nin and stop hiding in The Reader (2016) by Traci Chee.
The Reader is Chee’s first novel and the beginning of her Sea of Ink and Gold series. This book is a layered narrative filled with hidden messages and clues within the text (be sure to look at the page numbers for one of them). The depth and layers within The Reader are impressive and staggering to contemplate. However the hidden clues, messages, and intricate physical design of this novel are distracting at times. Readers willing to give this story time and a proper chance will enjoy the intricate layers and the unexpected ways Chee’s multiple narratives come together.
In the fantasy world Chee has created the written word doesn’t exist. While they have identifying symbols to label things like herbs and other items, this world relies more heavily on an oral tradition for their stories and history. Books and reading are magic in a very literal sense and so both things are closely guarded by mysterious powers and largely unknown to citizens like Sefia.
If you spend too much time scrutinizing the main conceit of this plot (reading doesn’t exist), it starts to crumble. How does electricity work in this otherwise non-industrial society? How do characters leave messages for each other without written words? Are glyphs used? Oral recordings? No one knows or at least no one shares.
Vocabulary that would be taken for granted in any other story also needs further clarification in a book like The Reader. How do characters know about pens or reading lamps? Why do they exist if, as the novel states, reading doesn’t exist? Furthermore, although Chee’s writing is rich and heady, there isn’t a particularly good way to show a character learning to read when that character doesn’t have the vocabulary to describe a book, letters, or words. It makes for plodding passages and very slow progress for the rest of the story.
Readers willing to ignore these niggling questions may find themselves drawn into Sefia’s story. The premise, the larger message about the written word, and particularly Sefia’s own growth is empowering. Chee’s descriptions are vivid and bring Sefia’s multi-faceted world to life.
The Reader is a slow-paced adventure story. Sefia embarks on a journey with unlikely allies and surprising foes. She discovers magic and her own inner strength. She also, strangely enough, learns to read. How you feel about that last one will largely influence how you feel about this story as a whole. Recommended for readers seeking an introspective fantasy with a slow payoff. (Go into this one willing to commit to the series as many of the big reveals come in final chapters.)
Possible Pairings: Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow, Brightly Woven by Alexandra Bracken, Ink, Iron, and Glass by Gwendolyn Clare, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller, The Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier, Uprooted by Naomi Novik, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor