This is a review of The Invisible Library, a steampunk mystery book by Genieve Cogman.
Irene works for the Library, a shadowy organization in a pocket universe that collects books from different parallel dimensions that the Library deems worthy of preserving from all time.
The story even begins in Indiana Jones fashion, at the end of a former adventure where Irene escapes with a necromancer’s grimoire from Hogwarts-ish boarding school. Oddly enough, though I loved this device in Indiana Jones, this opening adventure is one of the weakest parts of the book (don’t worry, it ends quickly).
Irene returns to the Library through the portal that exists in all actual libraries (clever) and quickly gets whisked away to a suspicious new mission to retrieve a book about Grimm’s fairy tales in a parallel dimension so unstable it has been quarantined, and could collapse at any time.
The way the parallel dimensions are described is one of the coolest parts of the book. Not content with the tired cliche of diverging timelines, the author added the element of chaos, a destructive force that not only creates vampires, cyborgs, and magical fey, but also creates a unstable reality where no one in the world realizes this is abnormal.
Once Irene arrives with a new partner named Kai, the race is on to collect this book before the Library’s enemies, Irene’s nemesis, or the conspiracies of this world get their hands on it. But why does the Library want what is seemingly an ordinary collection of fairy tales so badly?
I feel it is very difficult to create a good steampunk novel, especially when no one has any real idea what the hell ‘steampunk’ actually means. (Do you know? You don’t know. No one knows)
But the greatest strength of this book-the device of ‘chaos’ where both magic and incredibly advanced technology can exist in an otherwise ‘normal’ world with no one realizing the oddities-actually works supremely well.
Not only do we get a dirigible chase scene, giant mechanical centipedes, and even cyborg alligators, which may be as close as Dr. Evil ever gets to his dream, but these naturally co-exist with magic, dragons, and vampires. And it’s awesome.
Two elements that particularly stood out are the dragons and a fey named Lord Silver. The dragons are actually well-done, not the rehashed and unimaginative beasts we see in a lot of fantasy novels. These dragons are inspired more from their Eastern cousins, wise, book-loving and regal, they are the only creatures that can fight ‘chaos’. They look to the Library with more disdain than elves do dwarves, and many of the characters treat them with a mix of respect and terror.
And finally, Lord Silver, who is hands down the best and most entertaining character in the book, and one of the better villains I’ve read recently. He’s a powerful fey, whose personality is a cross between the fey from Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell and the MOST MELODRAMATIC MAN YOU WILL EVER MEET. Turns out his power (in addition to shooting lightning and making fireballs) is the ability to exude ‘chaos’ like a pheremone, so that other people around him start to believe his reality. Lord Silver’s reality is that he believes himself the hero of a great story, so anyone too long around him will start falling into the roles he wants them to play-believing themselves to be damsels in distress, or a weak man unable to stop the ‘hero’, Lord Silver .
It’s a really creative premise for a villain, and created an excuse for a flaming villain to actually be sort of threatening; since everyone around him believes this ludicrous character is actually more Conan than pride parade.
The magic of the Library is called the Language, which include the true name for everything ever, an can only be spoken or heard from Librarians. The problem is if you don’t say exactly what you mean, the Language will interpret it literally and cause something wrong to happen. It’s like the pissed off genie of magic systems.
The only real problem here is that the Language has some incredibly complicated laws, restrictions, and caveats, which I am normally fine with, especially since the ‘rules’ of the Language always adhered to. The problem is the ‘rules’ are given to you piecemeal through the book, and only when they become relevant. This makes it appear like the author is making it up as she goes, and is often annoying when a high-speed chase scene has to be slowed down for exposition on how the magic works.
Speaking of exposition and explanation, there is a lot of it here. Now, there is a large and complicated world the author is building, so that exposition I don’t mind at all. The problem is the novel is mostly revolving around the race to get this powerful book and the mystery of where it is/who has it. So in between almost every action scene, the characters discuss what happened with Sherlock Holmes (not really, but he’s clearly inspired by the character. The protagonist notes numerous times how much she loves Sherlock Holmes, how much this detective reminds him of Sherlock Holmes, and how she is attracted to him because of Sherlock Holmes. And her name is Irene, a named she chose herself after the famous femme fatale)
These discussions with the not-Holmes are useful as the protagonists try to figure out the mystery, but waaaaay to long and detailed. The problem is that they give you sooo much information, including things you already know, and other details the readers could probably piece together. It slows down a great narrative.
The only other complaint is a sex proposal literally out of nowhere between Irene and her new apprentice. Not that sexual tension doesn’t have it’s place, and both characters are noted as attractive. But in what dimension does someone get hired, mess up his job for about four hours, then propose sex to his boss and GET OFFENDED WHEN SHE SAYS NO? It’s just very out of place for both of these characters and their development, who end up more mentor/lost boy then sexual partners. And besides a small, misleading clue Irene deducts from her apprentice’s willingness to be naked, it adds nothing to the story.
The Verdict for THE INVISIBLE LIBRARY by Genieve Cogman
8 Umbrellas in the Fog (Out of Ten)
This was a great, really imaginative and really fun book to read. Even many of the foibles are forgiven as they come from author’s own clear passion for books, and Lord Silver is one of my favorite antagonists. There’s a whole lot I didn’t even cover with this review, and all of it awesome (including another badass antagonist and Irene’s rivalry with her nemesis). So give it a read!