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You shall not suffer a librarian to live.

A Stranger in the Citadel

Audible Originals, 2021

A tale of family bonds, royal power, and the truth that threatens it all, from World Fantasy Award-winner Tobias S. Buckell.

“You shall not suffer a librarian to live.”

Growing up in Ninetha, Lilith has known this law all her life. The city’s every need is provided for by a god-machine called the cornucopia, which can produce food, clothing, anything in response to a thought. The gods provided this bounty on one condition: that humanity give up reading and writing.

Then, a librarian, an actual seeker of forbidden written knowledge, walks through the gates of the citadel, his very presence unraveling the life Lilith has known. She learns her father, the Lord Musketeer himself, has been harboring a secret - one that turns Ninetha against Lilith’s family.

Forced to flee, forced to throw in her lot with the librarian, Lilith uncovers even greater secrets - about the lie her life has been, and about the very nature of their world.

I was little skeptical about this one going in. Fierce!grrrl! protagonist in a post-apocalyptic society, finds out everything she knew is a lie, gets betrayed, has to go on adventures, dangles a bookburning premise in front of book-loving readers, sounds very boilerplate YA.

But A Stranger in the Citadel is not really YA despite the teen protagonist. It's a sophisticated, grounded SF setting, not a magical handwavey dystopia with silly rules and sillier science. It takes a while for us to unravel what's really going on because we see everything through the eyes of Lilith, the youngest daughter of the Lord Musketeer, who with his children rule the city of Ninetha, where the gods have provided the "Cornucopia," a machine that creates matter out of air, supposedly providing for everyone. All mankind had to do to receive this bounty was forsake reading. "You shall not suffer a librarian to live."

So of course a librarian comes stumbling into Ninetha, and Lilith being the curious child she is, we know she's going to try to save him and find out about this sinful, heretical, awful "reading" thing. At this point I was still thinking, okay, still a basic YA dystopia. She will find out the "gods" don't exist, some terrible thing happened back when and those in power are suppressing literacy to stay in power, etc.

Then when everything starts going off the rails and Lilith learns the truth about her father, her brothers and sisters, and the city, it went in a direction that revealed deeper worldbuilding and characterization.

Most of the rest of the book is Lilith on the run, though of course she gets her moments to be Little Miss Badass with a musket. This is a humanistic sci-fi fable. Lilith, and even her enemies, are frequently called upon to reflect on their choices, and the moral weight of killing even when they think it's justified, and nobody is really a pure evil, cold-blooded killer. The setting, with details like cities and gods and weapons named after characters we recognize as historical figures and fictional characters, blended together in a post-apocalyptic far future where no one remembers our world, was reminiscent of a lot of classic post-apocalyptic sci-fi.

I liked this story and would read the continuing adventures of Lilith.

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