Surely the most literate work of urban fantasy I've read in quite some time, this beginning to a new series is intriguing and ripe with possibility. I'm just wondering whether the foundation is so far into clear wish-fulfilment that it isn't enough on which to build a series.
Title of the book notwithstanding, this is about The Library, which deserves capital letters because it's that frickin' important. It sits outside time and space, where its agents, inevitably Librarians, search the many parallel universes for special works of fiction. I adore the idea and a great many fantasy readers will adore the idea too. However, the critic in me wants to slap the reader in me and point out that it's clearly a ridiculous concept however hard that writer Genevieve Cogman tries to make it not so.
And she tries very hard indeed. The construction here is very careful, with layers upon layers of structure, presumably partly to paint a background against which the story will unfold and partly to use that background as rationale for the basic concept. While she never forgets that she's telling a story, the author does a lot of work in creating rules that must be followed and explanations for when they can't. I have to praise her world building efforts and she worked very hard for that praise.
Our heroine is called Irene, which is a Library name adopted when she signed up, because Librarians have to leave their real names and lives behind. Time doesn't work inside the Library, so family and friends are quickly isolated by the aging process while their lost ones train outside of time. They do age outside the Library, when working on missions in the parallel worlds, generally trying to retrieve unique volumes for Senior Librarians. Over time, as the years add up, however slowly that happens, they spend more and more time safely away from further ageing conducting research in the Library itself.
This is all well and good, but it allows Cogman the conceit that Irene can't explain why Senior Librarians need these unique volumes, how they know they exist or where they are and what those books actually mean. Maybe after a few more novels, she'll have found a way to explain that to Irene and to us. In the meantime, we're just wrapped up in the magic of books and trying not to wonder too hard about the why of it all. At least Cogman gives us a little reasoning at the end of this one, however circular the logic.
In 'The Invisible Library', Irene is sent by Coppelia, her superior, into parallel world N-395 to acquire a unique version of Grimm's Fairy Tales. She'll be exiting the Library in the British Museum in London, a different London than we know even factoring in that it's 1812 there. This particular world has a chaos infestation, which means that the laws of nature are corrupted, which in turn means that the Fae, who are defined here as 'creatures of chaos and magic', can creep in and mess with everything.
So this isn't merely a London with Zeppelins and clockwork technology, it's also a London with vampires: vampires like Lord Wyndham, the apparent owner of the book that Irene and her new assistant, Kai, are in search of. Unfortunately for Lord Wyndham, he's staked before we meet him; unfortunately for Irene, she arrives on the scene to find the book stolen from his Lordship's safe by a notorious cat burglar called Belphegor.
The cast list does increase relatively quickly with enticing and well-drawn characters. Irene is met at the scene by Lord Silver, the Fae ambassador from Liechtenstein, the country driving the chaos infestation; he's an enemy but a polite and well-connected one. After watching the Liechtenstein embassy, Kai finds himself followed back by Peregrine Vale, the fifteenth Earl of Leeds and a very sharp private detective in the Sherlock Holmes mould, who has his own interest in Silver. Add to the mix two more Librarians and things get wild. One is Irene's nemesis, Bradamant, who clearly isn't supposed to be there but stirs things up anyway. The other is a former Librarian called Alberich who's so mysterious that he's almost an urban legend and he's just as dangerous as he is mysterious.
If you're picturing an adventure novel set in a steampunk world into which high fantasy has manifested, with heavy doses of mystery and intrigue, then you're pretty close and, well, that does sound pretty fine, doesn't it? Cogman has a strong vocabulary and she can use it to great effect. She builds her characters in detail but never lets the story get bogged down while she does so. That story is an enticing one for book fans who, after all, are her audience, and it's a ripping enough yarn to please most.
What may polarise some into fans and others into detractors is the Language. All Librarians can use it, though some better than others, and it gives them a major boost on missions. Put simply, they can speak and objects must obey, as far as their nature permits. They can't turn apples into oranges but they can tell locks to lock and unlock or, in a memorable passage at the very outset, flying gargoyles to act like the stones they are and fall out of the sky, thus ceasing pursuit.
The reader and critic inside me fought another battle over the Language. The critic thought that it was overused, a sort of get-out-of-jail-free-card that gives our heroine an unfair advantage over everyone else. The reader, on the other hand, felt that if we're going to accept the Language, then we should accept it as a tool that would and should be used whenever it's not going to stand out as anachronistic. If you have an advantage, why not use it?
Both wondered how Cogman sees it and how it might look visually in a TV or movie adaptation. There are points where it seems rather like a Harry Potter wand war, duellists in Language hurling out words and phrases to defeat their opponents. There are others where it's much more like the Force, borrowed from 'these aren't the droids you're looking for' and expanded from there. Neither side in my head won that battle so I'm willing to give book two a chance and see if it helps to nudge Cogman's use of the Language one way or the other.
My copy of 'The Invisible Library' included an excerpt from 'The Masked City', the second volume in the series and I deliberately avoided reading it. I left this book wanting to read on but not unless I had a full sequel to explore. Like the end of a season finalé, I have a lot of questions but a lot of believed answers too. I think I know where we're going to be and who's going to return from this book (and this parallel world). I'm eager to see if I'm right or if I'm way off base.
I'd also like to wander around the web a little and see what audience Cogman has picked up. This is an odd book in many ways: built on a flimsy wish-fulfilment house of cards but constructed with care and a powerful sense of internal consistency. I'd expect fans of the former and fans of the latter to be different people, but there has to be a crossover and I'd love to know how sizeable it is.
As I mentioned, I'm eager to read 'The Masked City' but I'm almost more eager to read something else by Cogman that would benefit from her writing skill and obvious imaginative talent but avoid entirely the shaky ground upon which the Library sits. ~~ Hal C F Astell
For reviews of other books in the series click here