It’s been six months since Alice moved to the Library and began her training as a Reader, and in that time she’s acquired more powers, but little information on her father’s fate. Geryon doesn’t seem especially motivated to look into the matter for her, but she receives an opportunity to investigate for herself when he sends her to the fortress of Esau-of-the-Waters, the Reader who hired Vespidian to negotiate with (and threaten) her father. Esau has purportedly been murdered by his apprentice, Jacob, and Alice and a group of other Readers’ apprentices are going to be sent to retrieve the apprentice, even if it involves lethal force. If Alice can get Jacob to speak to her, perhaps she can start to find the answers she’s looking for.
Right off the bat, The Mad Apprentice is both pacier and more fantastical than The Forbidden Library. Esau’s fortress is like a living Escher print, impossible geometry ever-shifting like the labyrinth of the Library, only less contained, and navigating it takes Alice and us further into the nature of the creatures, like Ending, who dominate such places. We still don’t really get to see a lot of other worlds, though. The fact that most of the book is focused on a fairly straightforward (in theory if not in execution) quest — find Jacob — keeps the narrative from hitting some of the first book’s slower ruts.
The other apprentices also contribute greatly to the more fantastical feel of this second volume. Their powers are diverse and impressive, and the fact that there’s an entire team of mini-Readers whose abilities have been handpicked by their masters lets more potent threats be unleashed against them without ruining the suspension of disbelief when they find ways to overcome those trials. Some of the apprentices are also pretty charming characters in and of themselves — it’s hard not to laugh along with the joy of the group’s eternal optimist when she gets to ride a carpet of swarmers — and the knowledge that they don’t necessarily enjoy the same protected status as our main character raises the stakes for some of those encounters.
This addresses one of the main complaints I had about Alice in book one, her lack of friends, of people with whom she can be more or less an equal. Not all of these apprentices will really become friends, but some certainly do, and Alice’s likeability is improved by her interactions with them. There’s still something missing, though. There’s a certain emotional dimension that the books just fail to develop, which in the first book felt like it was a problem solely with Alice, but the more time we get to spend with other characters, the more it feels like it’s not an issue restricted to her. Two other characters go through what should’ve been incredibly emotional moments in this book and after a matter of pages, they feel like they’re just sort of over it. It’s nice that Alice inspires courage in others, but those moments too would be more poignant if we could actually feel Alice’s fear. Courage is feeling terrified and overcoming it to do the right thing anyway, it’s not feeling sort of hum drum in the face of danger, and Alice’s bravery reads a little too much like the latter.
Ultimately, The Mad Apprentice doesn’t really progress the overall plot very much, but it does contribute a lot to our understanding of how things came to be the way they are now. It also makes the isolated, paranoid nature of Reader society a much more visceral thing, and by the end of the book it left me with a sort of repulsed but intrigued feeling towards them that builds nicely on the doubts sown by Ending in the first book. I was really pleased with where the book finished up; if Wexler can pull it off, there’s a fabulous set up for the next book in place at the end here.
Another thing I have to compliment is that the author does not pull his punches, even if the emotional follow-through from the big moments is a bit lacking. People die, children die, and their deaths aren’t necessarily grand and heroic. At least one is kind of ugly and meaningless. That’s a realistic outgrowth of the society the Readers have created and their antagonistic relationships with some incredibly powerful beings, but it’s also a matter some children’s authors would have softened or shied away from, so I’m glad Wexler doesn’t.
Despite some continued issues I would rank this book as an improvement on the first, and I hope for continued growth in the promising-sounding third volume.