Keith Miller,
The Book on Fire
(Immanion, 2009)

Keith Miller's The Book on Fire is essentially a love story. By love, I don't mean romance, though there is a hint of that. And by love, I don't mean lust, though there is plenty of that. Instead, the love Miller writes of is too passionate, too transcendent to be encumbered by any categorical labeling.

Balthazar, the novel's enigmatic protagonist, is tortured by this love, its physical manifestation being the books he spends his time -- and risks his life -- stealing. Balthazar delights in books the way lovers do in one another, perhaps more. Books are more human to him than any person he has met, more real than the ground he treads, and he is willing to go to any length to possess them.

His endeavors lead him to the fabled Library of Alexandria, an impenetrable fortress of sacred texts, soldiered by librarians trained to break the necks of any intruder. Here he meets Zeinab, a literary prostitute with a penchant for burning books, and Shireen, a librarian that is half-book herself. Balthazar finds himself torn between his love of books, his attraction to Shireen, Zeinab's inclination to free books through fire and a past secret that unites the three of them together.

The Book on Fire is a survey into a binary universe that is at once extraordinary and vaguely familiar. Miller explores the dichotomy of preservation and destruction, imagination and reality, possession and loss, and the measurement of love, which touches them all.

Through elegant, creative language, Miller weaves a tale that is as smart as it is exciting. For a story about books, it is surprisingly fast-paced, full of adventure and suspense, mysterious to its last page. I haven't been so thoroughly moved by the influence of books since reading Fahrenheit 451.

review by
Justin Tenley

24 April 2010

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