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The Last Bookaneer
By Matthew Pearl
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
Matthew Pearl has made an entire career out of fanciful, action-packed thrillers set within obscure historical corners of intellectualism (his most famous novel continues to be The Dante Club, concerning a sort of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen supergroup of Victorian writers who band together to solve crimes); so it should come as no surprise that his latest, The Last Bookaneer, continues along this same vein, with its main framing device being the period in the 1800s after copyright laws had been invented in the US and England but before the countries had decided to honor the other's, leading to a shadowy profession of manuscript thieves whose job it was to whisk away famous authors' newest books while still in the production stage in one country, so to be legally ripped off and sold by unscrupulous publishers in the other.
But make no mistake, this is no genteel steampunk tale told in the back alleys of London or New York; in fact, the vast majority of the story takes place on the South Seas island of Samoa, after a rumor starts that self-exiled author Robert Louis Stevenson has recently completed what many consider the most important novel of his career, prompting a number of dueling bookaneers to make a trip to this far-flung location in order to attempt a series of con jobs for the purpose of securing said fabled manuscript. And this is just the tip of the iceburg of this cleverly metafictional "story within a story within a story," which very inventively layers surprise twist upon surprise twist even as the story itself is related to us through a narrator telling the story of a narrator telling the story of a narrator. A book that on top of everything else makes very astute comments about the state of publishing here in the 21st century, and why obsessive book lovers become obsessive in the first place, from a pure entertainment standpoint this is one of the most delightful reads I've had in the last year, a loving ode to the power of printed books that is a must-read to anyone who has ever turned their nose up at the very idea of Kindles. It comes with a huge recommendation to one and all, and will be quite easily making CCLaP's best-of lists at the end of the year.
Out of 10: 9.8