by Ross King

"Quite amazing how determined kings and emperors have been to
destroy books. But civilisation is built on such desecrations, is
it not?"
horrifying premise for book lovers, yet before you've reached the
midway point of EX-LIBRIS, Ross King manages to drive home this
very point. Fervent reflections on the detestable practice of
conquering armies setting libraries ablaze form a powerful
narrative for the literary suspense in this 17th century
Isaac Inchbold, a London bookseller, is commissioned by a
widowed woman to recover a rare text that was stolen from her
father's mansion during the English Civil War. Alethea Marchamont
has dreams of restoring her father's magnificent home and, in
particular, his prestigious library, to its original state. Her
father, Sir Ambrose Plessington, was a world renowned book
collector and served many foreign kings and dignitaries in the
capacity of procurer of ancient works. However, the elusive volume,
The Labyrinth of the World, is more than just an ancient
manuscript. Many died trying to obtain it; both Plessington and
Lord Marchamont were murdered because they once possessed it. The
secrets it contains are purported to be in the form of a Hermetic
text that caused tremors in every civilization since it first
appeared nearly 200 years before.
Inchbold soon discovers, what appears to be a search for a
significant literary work soon becomes a dangerous quest to stay
one step ahead of a trio of killers and other political agents who
are seeking this same ancient prize. While he is told that its
value is purely literary, Inchbold soon believes there is far more
to the story --- and the missing text --- than he has been led to
believe. From the naval archives to the dangerous back alleys of
London's seediest sector, Inchbold begins to piece together the
history of the provocative manuscript and Alethea's personal
obsession to find it.
King's novel is categorized as a literary thriller, yet the
historical overview of this period in history and the relevance of
the written works of ancient scientists and philosophers is by far
the dominant theme. Copernicus, Galileo, and Hermes are but a few
who are enumerated for their impact on the religious and secular
worlds. The emperors and cardinals, the Counter-Reformation,
Cromwell and Raleigh, and the continuously fluid allegiances that
spawned wars among nations form the tapestry from which the
mysterious quest to obtain The Labyrinth of the World
EX-LIBRIS is, in a word, mind-boggling. While King's knowledge
in the many fields that interconnect within his story provides an
illuminating experience, readers may want to brush up on their
European history before tackling this masterpiece. Its complexity
and the sheer volume of references is staggering, and he doesn't
dumb it down for the average reader. On the contrary, he tosses in
the who's who in every field and remarks on their noteworthy tomes,
interlaced with doses of theology, philosophy, astrology, alchemy,
and science. There's even an entire lesson on the intricacies of
cryptography --- a bit more complex than most of us are equipped to
handle --- as related by Inchbold while attempting to decipher a
Despite the sometimes excessive tutorial, the suspenseful
storyline isn't altogether smothered. Readers will find the
imaginative backstory that alternates with the current events
unfolding in Inchbold's life to be equally intriguing. There's the
young girl and her lover who become caught up in the early
religious wars of Europe and the frantic race to protect the
precious library of a king from destruction. And central to the
action is Alethea's father, a colorful but puzzling character that
the author parcels out in tantalizing pieces, never quite letting
the reader know whether he's hero or villain. Simultaneously,
readers are entertained by Inchbold's various adventures in search
of a clue to the present owner of the stolen text. As the two
stories finally begin to merge they may present some fairly obvious
conclusions to be drawn, but readers won't be able to pry
themselves away before learning the final revelations in this
elaborate, masterfully orchestrated novel of historical

Reviewed by Ann Bruns ( on January 21, 2011

by Ross King

  • Publication Date: January 1, 2001
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Walker & Company
  • ISBN-10: 0802733573
  • ISBN-13: 9780802733573