To suggest that I have a troubled relationship with Genevieve Cogman's 'Invisible Library' series overstates the case but there are things that I struggled with throughout the original three novels, which I believe were aimed at being a trilogy. However, she hooked me with her language and her ideas from moment one and each book is better than its predecessor. It's like the author is making a conscious effort each time out to look at the problems in the previous volume and fix them going forward.
By the fourth book in the series, 'The Lost Plot', there wasn't much left to fix and pretty much all of that is fixed here. 'The Mortal Word' is even more of a joy than its predecessor and that makes me very happy indeed. While reports suggest that the trilogy became a series of five books, their success would prompt more and it's left clear where we're going next.
Much of the joy comes from the control that Cogman has obtained over her series. This is the most comfortable and, dare I say it, cozy of the books thus far, but that's not a bad thing. It flows very well indeed.
For those of you new here, the multiverse in which the Library functions works on a scale: high order is the domain of dragons where the laws of nature rule and high chaos is the realm of the Fae, where, intriguingly, the laws of story take over. Humans thrive best somewhere in the middle. As the series expanded, it introduced us not only to humans and Librarians but an increasing number of dragons and Fae and, most importantly, an increasing background into why. This novel, an agreeable 'ending' to the initial thrust of the series, brings them all together.
The impetus for all this is a peace conference that the Library is hosting to broker some sort of an agreement on disputed worlds at the middle of the order to chaos spectrum. Both sides are doubtful that any real progress can be made but they seem willing to give it a shot and there are high ups present to lend credence to that. Lord Ao Ji is dragon royalty and able to speak on their behalf, while the Princess and the Cardinal, powerful Fae, are also present and talking. Even against a heady backdrop of anarchists in the streets of an alternate late 19th century Paris, things look pretty good.
Until, of course, one of the delegates is murdered. That's Ren Shun, Ao Ji's second in command, and so doubt is replaced by deep mistrust, sending the peace process into a dangerous tailspin from which it could take decades to recover. Absent of any other viable suggestion, the Library calls in one of its own: Irene, the heroine of this series, because of the success she's reached against great odds in previous ventures, and the great detective from her particular Victorian London, Peregrine Vale, a human who has also proved repeatedly worthy in the past. To Paris also goes Kai, a dragon who was Irene's former assistant. He wants to help but he can't officially do so as he's no longer part of the Library, following the events of 'The Lost Plot', so he finds his own way to this Paris, ostensibly because Lord Ao Ji is his uncle.
Cogman gets down to business quickly, peppering this story with characters whom we already know and taking her time in explaining why that's actually appropriate. The entire Invisible Library series is enticingly exempt from the usual rules about plot convenience, at least when it comes to the Fae, because their particular brand of chaos has each of them at the centre of their own stories, which means that stereotypes, conveniences and other literary black sheep have different meanings and can even, in the right circumstance, be leveraged by characters who understand how such chaos works.
It isn't a plot convenience that Lord Ao Ji is Kai's uncle, because there just aren't that many royal dragons, but it could easily be argued that most of the Fae delegation are plot conveniences. The Princess is entirely new, I think (it's been a while since I read the earlier books in the series), but the Cardinal was associated with Lord Guantes who drove 'The Masked City' by kidnapping Kai; his assistant, Sterrington, was part of that saga too; and their contribution to the investigative team is Lord Silver, a long-running nemesis to both Irene and Peregrine Vale. It all seems too much, of course, but this particular concept of chaos leads to it all making perfect sense. I have to congratulate Genevieve Cogman on deliberately subverting the rules of fiction and doing so in a way that actively aids her worldbuilding. That's a particularly neat trick and it's working better for her with each succeeding book.
And so it's Irene and Peregrine Vale, with Lord Silver and a dragon investigator named Mu Dan, plus whatever unofficial assistance Kai can provide, versus potentially everyone else in Paris. Mystery novels are supposed to come with a large list of potential suspects, the more the better, but Cogman sets this mystery up with very little for them to go on. All the dragons distrust the Fae. All the Fae despise the dragons. Even in the middle, the Librarians on site to run the conference include a wildcard. Irene can trust her mentor, Coppelia, and her colleague, Kostchei, but Prutkov seems off from moment one, though she can't explain why. What's more, the Cardinal suggests that the real villain of the piece is a renegade fae, the Blood Countess, for reasons he won't disclose.
There's a lot to be found inside the gorgeous covers of 'The Mortal Word' but it's deceptively hidden within the smooth prose and apparently effortless build. Cogman, five books into this series, has found a fantastic set of balances: not only between the order of the dragons and the chaos of the Fae but in many other ways too. There's a good balance between her characters and her plot, and indeed a balance between these characters and thoseVale and Kai are used just enough here, with Irene centre stage. There's a neat balance between the matters at handthe murders and assassination attemptsand the mythology that sits behind it, on all sides. There's balance between the backdrop to the series that has its own impressive story arc and the backdrop to this bookan alternate Paris with an enticing trip to the Grand Guignol. There's a strong balance between characters we're aware of because of previous actions and new wildcards like the Blood Countess. There's even a firm balance between the need to wrap up a series at the contracted five book limit and the need to set the stage for future volumes in motion.
If I have a complaint, which I really don't, it would be that the book that seems to play a part in proceedings, a variant copy of 'The Myths' by Herodotus, becomes just a detail in a subplot. This book is, in its way, a pause from the business as usual of Librarians seeking out books on parallel worlds, not only to include them in the Library for their own sake but because these variant editions work as the string that ties these worlds together. I'd love for book six to be another book five, but it shouldn't be because there was only one point to tell this story and it was now. I'm keen to see how the inevitable next volume will progress things once more.
And, after all, the best thing anyone can say about a series is that it gets better and better and 'The Mortal Word' is, for the fourth time in this series, an improvement on its predecessor. Bring on book six! ~~ Hal C F Astell
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