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Reviewed by Indigo Tomlinson
Opening sentence
Today cannot know what tomorrow will need.
I was overwhelmed by the sheer size of The Absolute Book when I first received it in the mail. At over 650 pages, it looked to be a heavy weight to carry everywhere (as I am wont to do with any book) and an intimidating novel for its size alone but also for the density and complexity of its blurb. I could tell from the start that it would contain a tangle of threads I would struggle to understand, and that there was something indescribably odd about its uniqueness and individuality.

Taryn has always been haunted by the death of her sister Beatrice, and by the man she convinced to kill Beatrice’s killer, Timothy Webber; a mysterious individual she only ever thinks of as the Muleskinner. Now she has written a book, The Feverish Library and, though popular, not all of the attention it brings her is good. DI Jacob Berger has questions about Webber’s death, there are silent telephone calls to her house and a shadowy young man named Shift appears, a man who is half-human, half-something else, pulling both Taryn and Jacob are pulled into the world of the sidhe: a world where beautiful individuals sacrifice human souls to Hell for their own eternal lives, where “gates” to other places can be created with a magical glove, a world of talking ravens, demons and enchantment. Hanging over all these complex characters—Shift, suffering from delusions of grandeur, Taryn, tormented by her past, and Jacob, a man who has always done what others tell him—is the Firestarter, a magical box that could hold the key to solving all of their problems.

As I read, my feelings changed, and I went from a reluctant reader to an invested one; there is a strange lyricality to Knox’s writing and a sense of intentional resonance in every sentence she writes that both bewilders and enchants. It is jerky in places, especially at the start (or maybe it is just more noticeable to a reader not familiar with Knox’s style) and the characters seem too calm for some of the situations that they find themselves in.

Suddenly, from what seems to be a literary piece on murder, guilt and complicity, fantastical elements emerge. This combination of fantasy and reality blurs the line between real and imagined in a way that feels utterly unique. There is a horror and magic in the world Knox has created and a complexity to her morally grey characters that is gripping and confusing simultaneously.

Yes, the characters have a tendency to talk in circles and never say exactly what they mean, but that’s all part of the charm, and Knox’s clever characterization and character development. And yes, it can be really very pretentious at times, but Knox is so good that somehow that pretentiousness feels justified. As I read, I started to realise how formulaic most of the books that I enjoy are. I am a YA fantasy lover, yet I’m coming to understand that even if worlds, characters, and plot are totally different, there is a similar kind of vibe to the books I read and enjoy that The Absolute Book completely destroys and then remakes into a layered masterpiece. That said, it took me two weeks to finish, and at times I just Could. Not. Convince. Myself. To. Pick. It. Up. Yet, when I did, I often realised it was worth it and became entranced.

I believe Knox is a rare kind of person; someone who can translate the “big questions” into haunting prose.

“Is memory what makes us who we are?”
“Is the life of one we love worth more than the lives of many we don’t?”
“Can anyone save the world?”
“How far can revenge be justified?”
“Who decides that the books of our past are not worth preserving for tomorrow?”

It is these kinds of themes and questions that make The Absolute Book a very specific kind of triumph; not everyone will understand it, and not everyone will agree with it, but it does what it needs to do. It simply exists. A book, like any other, waiting for the right person to come along and feel as though it allows them to make sense of the world.

- Indigo is 15 and lives in Whangārei.
Publisher: Te Herenga Waka University Press
ISBN: 9781776562305
Format: Paperback
Publication: 2019
Ages: 15+
Themes: Fantasy, Young Adult.