Collins’ dystopian novel is set in an alternate England at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.
In the absence of specific dates, this novel suggests its period with various clues: small farms, no plumbing, gaslight, horse-drawn carriages, factories but no trains. The backdrop is a Crusade that, indeterminate decades ago, caused books to be, if not entirely forbidden, then tightly regulated and socially taboo. Emmett is sent by his farmer parents to be apprenticed to an elderly Bookbinder named Seredith, who practices her craft in an isolated house near a marsh. Recently, Emmett suffered an illness which marked him as unfit for anything but binding, which, he rapidly learns, means more than handcrafting books. Customers come to Seredith to have their memories wiped of disturbing experiences through confessions she then enshrines in beautifully bound books and locks up. One such patron/patient is Lucian, a young gentleman who will figure—or has figured; we won’t know until later—significantly in Emmett’s life. There is a brisk underground trade in true bindings, as opposed to mere novels, and unscrupulous binders exploit this market. Among them is Mr. de Havilland, Seredith’s son, who, after her suspicious death, appropriates her stock of secret bindings, which, like loaded guns, will make explosive appearances later. He also takes charge of Emmett. The middle section, in which Emmett is back on the farm with his parents and his sister, Alta, is a flashback in which we learn the source of Emmett’s ailment and also more about the peasant culture that seems to hearken back to Britain’s pre-Christian age. Except for the fact that a corrupt binder’s wares play a role, the concluding section, told from Lucian’s point of view, presents a mostly fact-based dystopia of Victorian aristocracy and its excesses. The worldview of this novel is bleak, but readers will not fail to appreciate the many sly analogies to the true-story–obsessed publishing world of today.
Though set in an alternate universe, Collins' fictional world rings very true.