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Review: Ex Libris by Ross King

ex libris ross king Review: Ex Libris by Ross King

Like most book lovers, I have a bit of a thing about books about anything remotely bookish: mysterious tomes, life in the stacks, binding and printing, the angsty authorial existence, and so forth. Ill happily make a concerted effort to seek out such books, and have a rather impressive collection of these, erm, bookish books. In fact, my very favourite book of all time, Francesca Durantis The House on Moon Lake, is such a book, and came into my hands after only months of searching (oddly enough, its a book about searching for a difficult-to-find book). So when I happened across Ross Kings Ex Libris, which promised to be very bookish indeed, I snapped it up, and Im rather glad I did.


The setting is 17th Century England, and our unlikely protagonist is the improbably named Isaac Inchbold, a Dickensian moniker given his club foot and disinclination to speak out unless entirely improperly done by. Widower Inchbold spends his days amongst the literary delights of his London Bridge bookshop Nonsuch Books (a name that is also portentious) doing little more than stamping, squinting, and complaining about the cold. So when Inchbold responds to the summons of a mysterious letter by heading off on a cross-country jaunt, its all a bit of a surpriseno doubt as much to Inchbold himself as to the reader. From this point on, Dickens takes a backseat, and notes of Umberto Eco and Edgar Allan Poe are suddenly evident in this complex vintage. Inchbold finds himself in the employ of one Lady Marchamont, a bookish and just-a-wee-bit-madcap noblewoman desperate to track down a volume known as The Labyrinth of the World, which has gone missing from her fathers impressive collection.

My thoughts

Inchbolds journey is a fascinating one full of intrigue and scandal, gossip and hearsay, and all the bookish arcana a literary-minded reader could possibly hope to come across. Its a cozy mystery, of course, so a degree of suspended disbelief is necessary, but King is a scholar of this era, and his knowledge of post-Cromwell England is rich and curious, lending the book a sense of felicity that might not have worked in the hands of a lesser writer. His ability to give us a sense of both city and country-manor life in this era is commendable, and the reader comes away feeling as though the setting has been perfectly evoked.'Unfortunately, there are a few things that detract from the novel, and the seriousness of these will likely depending on your lenience as a reader. Theres the parallel narrative of how the book in question came to be in Marchamonts collection, and while its on the whole an interesting enough tale, it seems to run long, and slows down the pace of the book overall. This issue is only compounded by the fact that the novel is exposition-heavy in the first place, and some readers may find the middle section somewhat of a slog. Other issues include the poor characterisation of the minor charactersall of whom have a very grim and dirge-like feel to them, and may well have started off as pirates in a Robert Louis Stevenson novelwhich gives a sense of repetition to the novel. This repetitious feel is only augmented by Inchbolds various efforts to hunt down his elusive chargegiven that this is not the era of mobile phones and motor cars, his every effort is rather laborious.

However, whilst I was willing to overlook these few small problems given the otherwise well-written and fanciful story at hand, theres a confounding factor that I couldnt ignore. And thats the fact that Dan Brown seems to have got his dirty mitts on the last fifty or so pages of this novel. While there were earlier hints that Mr Browns legacy had somehow leached into this otherwise fine novel (a key case in point being the bizarre chapter in which Inchbold spends several days attempting to decipher a code and employing all manner of steganographic expertise to do sobut to utterly no purpose whatsoever), the worst of this came at exactly the point at which I had to ask my boyfriend for the definition of the word peroration (admittedly, Kings vocabulary is far more extensive than my own). A peroration, it turns out, is where someone concludes a speech with a formal recapitulation. And this is exactly what happens during the final eighth or so of the book: between them Inchbold and Marchamont summarise exactly what has happened thus far, and Marchamont explains to Isaac the solution to the mystery that has plagued him. I hope you wont mind the spoiler, but the words wild goose chase do come to mind, and I found myself wincingly recalling the end of the heinous Da Vinci Code, which also stoops to similar lows. Worse, the reason given for Marchamonts interest in The Labyrinth of the World is exquisitely nonsensical, a fact only made worse by the fifty so pages of explanation surrounding it.


Ex Libris is a beautifully written volume, and has much to commend it, with Kings evocative setting and for the most part compelling narrative style pulling the reader along at a good pace. However, the secondary narrative, which isnt essential to the plot by any means, serves to slow down the novel, and the final fifty or so pages feel rushed and out of place, leaving the reader not only confused, but frustrated as well. Its a shame, as Ex Libris otherwise a fine novel that I thoroughly enjoyed, and Id certainly advise readers to pick this one upwith the caveat that the ending is a disappointment.

Rating: star Review: Ex Libris by Ross Kingstar Review: Ex Libris by Ross Kingstar Review: Ex Libris by Ross Kinghalfstar Review: Ex Libris by Ross Kingblankstar Review: Ex Libris by Ross King (very good)

This book appears on our list of books about books.

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Other books by Ross King:

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  1. Great review, it almost sounds like something Carlos Ruiz Zafon would come up with (a gothic mystery in a bookish setting).

    By the way, there was a press in London called Nonesuch Press maybe Nonsuch Books is a pun of that.

  2. Stephanie /

    Now youve reminded me that I need to get to The Shadow of the Wind! Ill move it in to my to-read pile.

    Its a fun name, and Id be curious to check out the sort of stuff that Nonesuch Books publish (they have a shop of the same name, too!)

  3. Thoughts seconded. Stumbled across this in the library just recently and was initially pleasantly surprised. Kings meticulous attention to detail in recreating that world, and pushing the bookish aesthetic to the max, worked a kind of magic in itself in terms of keeping me reading the thing despite an absolute shocker of a plot. I think Deus Ex Libris would have made a more appropriate title.

    I did like the protagonist though. Geoffrey Rush played the part in my head, and did so admirably.

    • Stephanie /

      Thanks for visiting, Damien. It sounds like we have similar thoughts on this onealthough its just now that Im mentally slotting Geoffrey Rush into the narrative! He would be a good casting choice, indeed.

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