Magic is real, and hungry. It’s trapped in ancient texts and artifacts, and only a few who discover it survive to fight back. Detective Sal Brooks is a survivor. She joins a Vatican-backed black-ops anti-magic squad — Team Three of the Societas Librorum Occultorum — and together they stand between humanity and the magical apocalypse. Some call them the Bookburners. They don’t like the label.
Supernatural meets The Da Vinci Code in a fast-paced, kickass character driven novel chock-full of magic, mystery, and mayhem, written collaboratively by a team of some of the best writers working in fantasy.
I’ve been looking forward to this since Serial Box first announced the Bookburners project; as someone who struggles to read fiction in a non-paper form, it’s been a long wait for it to come out in a paper form, even though that is a 780-page monster hardback from Saga Press. The whole thing is both a fascinating experiment – serialised storytelling using the form of television, with a writers’ room, rather than more traditional ways of serialising? – and a brilliant concept, albeit one that is at first glance unoriginal (see, Warehouse 13, The Librarians, et al.)
Bookburners is, as with all Serial Box’s output, structured in the same way as a television series, and written with a televisual approach to plot: each novella has a “monster of the week” as well as tying into the overall arc of the season, and Gladstone even went so far as to include a mid-season finale in the structure. I’m going to review the season as a whole and pull out elements of specific episodes to comment on, rather than reviewing each episode individually, because that seems like the better approach given how I consumed the season (binging! It’s the culture-consumption mode of the modern world!)
As a season, then, Bookburners mostly works very well; it doesn’t up the stakes too much in any one episode, but makes clear the mounting challenges that the team are facing, and builds from an introduction to the world in the pilot episode to a really full and complete picture of it by mid-season, including looking at other countries’ approaches to the problem the Bookburners face. It feels like the relationships between the team members are explored and built quite naturally and effectively, and revelations about the strictures they work under and their pasts aren’t given freely – Sal, our doorway into the world, has to earn trust and thus gain this kind of access. Gladstone’s team deftly build in a lot of teasers for later events, suggesting that much of the season was storyboarded before the series began, but there’s a midseason pivot that seems to come out of left-field and rather fails to connect to events in the first half.
The structure of each episode feels very familiar from television series; Bookburners is not breaking any new structural ground. It opens with a pilot where Sal discovers magic is real and is sucked into the world of the Bookburners, followed by an episode where she goes on her first formal mission with the team and learns about them more; these episodes are well-written, and they work very well, drawing us into the world. Bookburners isn’t subtle about this approach; but it carries it off well, with the feeling of the fast-paced TV drama which Serial Box are trying to emulate in literary form.
The characters of Bookburners are a bit of a stereotypical lot. There’s Father Menchu, the liberation-theology minded priest who leads the team, driven by faith; Liam, the formerly-possessed tech geek, whose feelings about magic are complicated and very negative; there’s Asanti, the archivist and nominal team leader, who is essentially a research nerd who thinks researching magic would be better than just confining it; there’s Grace, a Chinese fighter who is supernaturally good at dealing with the supernatural threats the team faces; and there’s Sal, investigator and former cop. Each falls into the obvious role, which can be a rather dull and expected thing come the end; some moments are cliche, but well-written, which lets the writers broadly get away with it, and character development is eked out over the season, with the few sudden shifts precipitated by triggers, rather than coming out of the blue.
Finally, a word of warning. Although much of the volume is inoffensive (and unproblematic), there is a moment in Mur Lafferty’s second episode, ‘Under My Skin’, where a secondary character (not the monster of the week) is revealed as trans. The reactions of the cast are at best problematic, and the villain’s motivation is very much founded on the transness of the character; this reader, at least, found that rather a problem.
On the whole, though, Bookburners is a fun, fast-paced series; it’s structured well and does some interesting things with oft-trodden ground, and Gladstone and his team do an excellent job. A very enjoyable tome!
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