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The Library of the Unwritten
Hell's Library #1
by A. J. Hackwith
Ace, $16.00, 384pp
Published: October 2019

I frankly adored this book, the first in a series called Hell's Library but it does become a victim of its own success. A. J. Hackwith's concepts are a seemingly neverending set of delights (especially for those readers who also happen to be writers), which deepen her already magnificent worldbuilding. However, there is a story that must be told here and there just isn't a way in which that's going to live up to the setting.

Let me introduce you to the Unwritten Wing. It's a library, within Hell but not of it, so Claire, the head librarian, does not report up to Lucifer, who she never fails to demean. It contains works that haven't been written yet, or at least not completed, and Hackwith deepens it by throwing out a set of observations that continue to make a glorious concept more and more glorious until I, for one, was grinning like a lunatic.

For instance, unwritten works don't stay static. They get restless. And, if they get too restless, they might turn into a character, who naturally seeks escape from the Unwritten Wing to seek out their authors. Bad things happen, as we discover with one such book turned character whom, by the time Claire tracks it down, has found his author and endeared himself to her. After she summons him back, she finds that he's left his first ten pages with her and, thinking that her one and only has dumped her, she burns them, meaning that his own book now rejects him and is becoming something else without him.

He becomes, with no other function, a sort of assistant to Claire. His name is Hero. Claire's real assistant is Brevity, a former muse, which is exactly what you think. When something serious happens, they put the Unwritten Wing on lockdown (so generating writer's block) and team up with Andros, a former Duke of the East Infernal Duchy, who runs the Arcane Wing, which stores all the objects and books of power that slip down from the mortal world. Last in the team is Leto, a mortal cast into Hell who delivers a message to Claire and decides to help with the problems that ensue.

What could be serious enough to generate all this? Well, let's pop upstairs. Not the regular upstairs, as that's our world, but all the way upstairs to Heaven. Ramiel, a Watcher, known as the Thunder of God, is a fallen angel, but that doesn't mean that he was cast into Hell. He works in what can only be described as customs for Heaven, checking all the souls who want through the Gates, serving until such time as maybe he'll be allowed back in.

Such a soul shows up with a scrap of paper from the Devil's Bible. The Codex Gigas. Enochian black magic. Created by Lucifer and into which he siphoned some of his power for redundancy. It's intensely dangerous. And an anomaly, because demons inherently have no imagination and so can't create anything. Lucifer should never have been able to create the Devil's Bible, the Codex Gigas, but managed to do so anyway. And now it's apparently out there again ready to wreak havoc.

Claire and Ramiel meet as the former is recovering Hero from our world and a misunderstanding prompts battle, which prompts discovery. And so we have two teams eager to track down the rest of the Devil's Bible before it causes any more trouble. This quest takes them all over, including to places that serve to deepen this mythology further. For instance, Claire enlists Andros so she can get into Valhalla. There isn't just one Heaven, you see, and a librarian that went before her is there now, because that was his culture. And he's a crucial part of the search.

I'm not going to go any further here because you really should dive into the book yourself and discover yourself the many joys Hackwith has in store for you. I've already mentioned some of my favourite concepts but there are more in store and I'm not going to run through all of them. There are damsels and horrors and ravens. You'll have to find out what they each mean and do. I'm certainly not going to detail what happens in chapter 23, but I will let you know that it carries a serious amount of weight. We learn things that shake up everything and we do so through some elegant writing.

I will say that I liked almost everything here. Claire isn't everything she appears to be, but then she is running a library in Hell, so there had to be some sort of darkness in her past, right? Brevity has serious potential and she reaches some of it here. I'm looking forward to watching her grow more. Hero has a wild story arc indeed, because of who and what he is, but he has a lot of growth too in how he goes about it. We spend more time with Hell's contingent than Heaven's, but I like Ramiel too. Uriel's a pain in the ass, but Ramiel is deep for someone who's not supposed to be.

I believe this is Hackwith's first novel under that name, but she's written a couple of non fiction books as well, plus a pair of sci-fi romances under the pseudonym of Ada Harper. She's clearly not new to the process of writing but this is an absolute gem for something that sort of counts as a debut. It captivated me during its first chapter and kept on getting better and better until I wasn't sure I could take it. Eventually, it settled down to tell its story and became merely excellent, but it had to.

Now, because this is clearly the first book in a series, I have to wait for the next one. With so much groundwork already done, I wonder if I'll like it more because it's free to get out and do something new, or whether no future book will be able to recapture the sheer magic that peeps mischeviously out of the first third of 'The Library of the Unwritten'. I'll take 'Things That I Dearly Wish I'd Have Come Up With First' for 1,000, Alex. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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