Tobias S Buckell’s standalone speculative fiction novel A Stranger in the Citadel opens with literally a killer first line: The gods say, “You shall not suffer a librarian to live”. Riffing on classics like Fahrenheit 451, Buckell creates a future world in which largesse is provided through giant machines known as the cornucopia and books and knowledge are spurned. Set in the walled city of Ninetha, the novel then quickly introduces the stranger, who is indeed a travelling librarian, through the eyes of a teenage girl called Lilith.
A Stranger in the Citadel is in some ways a classic fantasy coming-of-age story. Lilith forms a relationship with the librarian (called Ishmael), finds out dangerous truths about her own life as one of the children of the ruler of Ninetha, and then has her world literally turned upside down as the bubble she has been living in bursts. But Buckell has bigger ideas in mind and the story zigs where jaded readers might expect it to zag, leading to bigger and bigger reveals that constantly upend reader’s conception of the world that they have entered.
This is a story about stories and storytelling. About what happens to knowledge when people are not able to write it down. But also what can be achieved when they can. It once again asks the age old science fiction question (cf Star Trek and Station 11 for other examples) is just living or surviving enough? Or, as humans, do we need more?
Buckell has been writing speculative fiction for thirty years and his experience shows in this book. His ability to lean on but subvert common tropes enables him to deliver an adventure of discovery that is both somehow familiar but also often disorienting as the penny drops. And while this definitely has some YA elements, it also transcends this label to deliver something both exciting and thought provoking for anyone who like great speculative fiction.