Like each of the two 'Invisible Library' novels that preceded this one, 'The Burning Page' is a thoroughly enjoyable read with new caveats.
'The Invisible Library' (click here for review)introduced us to a fantastic concept that fantasy readers will inherently adore. There's a Library, situated outside of space and time, whose Librarians search the parallel universes for unique books. If most readers don't immediately turn to the back page to find the job application form, I'd be shocked. The catch is the viability of the concept. Why do senior Librarians need these unique books, what do they do and how do they know where to send their juniors to retrieve them?
'The Masked City' (click here for review) ignored those questions but added a whole new depth of background as Irene, the Librarian whose stories these are, finds herself on a forbidden rescue mission to recover her assistant, Kai, from a high chaos world. The universe exists on a spectrum: high chaos means high magic and an abundance of Fae, who are the heroes in their own stories, an affectation that allows them to shape the world around them; high order means no magic and an abundance of dragons, Kai's species. Humanity exists across the board but thrives somewhere in the middle. This is wonderful and surprisingly deep stuff but it takes a while for us to realise, for instance, that plot conveniences aren't cheap additions when they're actively generated by Fae spinning their lives.
'The Burning Page' finally answers some of these questions. The Library exists only because of its connections to worlds and those connections exist through unique books. Acquiring them solidifies the links and strengthens the Library. The catch, of course, is why. Does this mean that the Library's job is simply to continue to exist? We know that it has a policy of standing apart from any battles between dragons and Fae, so what else is going on that we haven't been let in on yet?
Book three follows on from book two pretty quickly. Irene and Kai are back on N-395, as is Peregrine Vale, the local Sherlock Holmes, who is now suffering from his exposure to high chaos during that rescue mission and is self-treating with injections of morphine. More surprisingly, Zayanna shows up too; she's a Fae who helped with Kai's escape in the previous volume and who finds Irene here to claim asylum, following those events. Irene has her doubts but Kai is clearly antagonistic.
And something is going down. Irene, working crap missions for the Library as punishment for her disobedience in rescuing Kai, is clearly being attacked. She's almost trapped on one of those missions when the gate back to the Library bursts into flame. She gets home to find it crawling with venomous spiders. And, on her return from the Library to let them know that Alberich, the bogeyman for Librarians, is apparently back, she's kidnapped by werewolves. Is her attacker Alberich, who she temporarily defeated at the end of the first volume? Or is it Lady Guantes, whose plans she foiled in the second? Only time will tell.
Well, while this is framed as a mystery, it's hardly a stretch to figure out who the villain of the piece is because the back cover blurb explains that Alberich is indeed back and with plans to destroy the entire Library. So hey, that may just be what's going on! Everything makes sense and all the pieces fall quickly into their allotted places in the puzzle. If we'd had a larger cast of characters, maybe we could be kept guessing, but instead we're kept to a rather small set. The positive side to this, of course, is that Cogman gets plenty of room to build what characters she does include and she does that well, even if Kai is starting to get so annoying that I wouldn't be unhappy to see Irene palm him off on someone else for book four.
If the big picture is too obvious, at least Cogman does well with the little ones. The setpieces early on are nicely handled, though venomous spiders and giant wasps really aren't the way to go when attempting to assassinate a Librarian who can speak the Language. There is a real mission late in the book, even if it's something of a wild distraction, and it's full of great moments. It's to St. Petersburg, in a world where the Russian Empire is not just strong but the controller of all magic, thus enabling magic sniffing bears at customs and flying sleighs pulled by reindeer to get there. I particularly liked the Belgravia Underground Market, though it's only a stop on the way to solving the mystery; it's where you go in London if you want to buy or sell illegal animals.
Overall, this is the most comfortable read thus far for the 'Invisible Library' series. It's a quick read for all that there's depth in Cogman's writing. It's also the most unsurprising, not only because the mystery is transparent but because we ponder on why the author chose this title until the point where it's completely obvious why.
I'd mentioned in my review of the previous book that the series looks like running to five volumes. If that's the case, then this is the one in the middle, where Cogman has little room for a fresh story because she's too busy wrapping up what has gone before and setting up what's still to come.
I enjoyed this a lot, but it's hard not to enjoy a series built on such a wish-fulfilment fantasy grounding. Book four really needs to carry a punch though to carry us through to the big finalé of book five. ~~ Hal C F Astell