Intrepid bookworm to the rescue

Our perception of librarians is overdue for a change. Forget the short pencils without erasers, the homemade scrap paper, and the collected penance of pennies and nickels. These hushed sorters and filers are, in fact, intrepid rulers of the world's knowledge. True, we may askjeeves instead of Marian, but we're still wholly dependent on them to navigate the avalanche of information.

Despite the Internet's new new thing, Ross King suggests in his wildly complex novel, "Ex-Libris," that it was ever thus. His unlikely hero is Isaac Inchbold, who has, if stretched, about an inch of boldness. He's the near-sighted, club-footed, asthmatic proprietor of Nonsuch Books, the finest stationer in London in the year 1660. "Mine was a quiet and contemplative life among my walnut shelves," he writes. "It was made up of a series of undisturbed routines modestly pursued." He gets lost in the streets outside his own house.

One day, he receives a provocatively oblique summons to travel several days to the estate of Alethea Greatorex. A warning to keep this missive secret piques his interest as much as it rouses his ire. But he goes, and by doing so he falls into a mystery that will carry him far from his cozy den.

Lady Alethea receives Isaac in a mansion badly ransacked during the civil war by Cromwell's soldiers. Only her father's library remains, an enormous, rotting collection of thousands of books.

With exquisite patience, Lady Alethea leads Isaac through a complex story of her father's illustrious career as collector, scientist, explorer, and politician. Finally, she takes him into a dark crypt to examine the papers she keeps hidden in her father's casket.

Just when Isaac thinks he can endure the darkness no longer, she lays out the assignment: As part of her efforts to restore the house "in every last detail," she wants Isaac to find a missing book called "The Labyrinth of the World."

Isaac knows this is a ludicrous proposition: First, in a house so badly used for so long by a group of cold soldiers, it's likely the book was burned. Second, "The Laby-rinth of the World" is part of a fraudulent collection of texts allegedly written by an ancient Egyptian priest. With all the work needed on this house, there's no credible reason poor Lady Alethea should pay a fortune for one missing text.

But Isaac feels "the first twinges of a confusing and unexpected distemper" as he considers Lady Alethea. (He's been living alone a long time....) Turning over a new leaf for her, he enters the labyrinth in search of "The Labyrinth," an adventure that just about breaks his spine and tears off his covers.

No sooner does Isaac begin looking for the missing book than a shadowy group of thieves and murderers begins looking for him. It's every bookworm's forbidden fantasy - "Isaac Inchbold c'est moi!" - an outrageously convoluted descent into the world of codebreaking, disguises, poisons, potions, cemeteries, ancient wisdom, and forbidden magic, all drawn through King's extraordinary knowledge of the 17th century.

In alternating chapters, the story flies back to the city of Prague in 1620, at the start of the Thirty Years War. As the Cossacks advance, the royal court of Bohemia flees through a grueling mountain range in winter. And who should be in charge of rescuing the city's wondrous library but Lady Alethea's father. Assisted by a librarian and his girlfriend, this slippery explorer takes them on a spectacular flight over land and sea.

Then as now, information is power. While the Roman Catholic Church claws at the splinters of Protestantism, every court in Europe is grasping for the astrological, navigational, and medical wisdom held in this errant library.

Despite the dizzying level of historical and scientific detail lavished through these parallel stories, King never loses the scent of high adventure or even the whiff of macabre camp. This is the spawn of the Encyclopedia Britannica and Edgar Allan Poe.

Appropriately enough, "Ex-Libris" is a novel that will live or die at the hands of independent booksellers - those quixotic folks who take the time to lead customers through a daunting maze of titles. Bookworms who yearn for thrills beyond the shelves will eat this up.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor,

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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