Helena Davies, a twenty-one year old who’s been living in her parents’ basement since dropping out of community college for lack of funds, is at loose ends and clueless about her future. She needs a job ― any job ― while she tries to figure out what she wants to do with her life. Surprisingly, the proprietor of Abernathy’s Bookstore immediately hires her, despite her sparse resume. But her new boss barely has time to have her sign an employment agreement (“I … swear to uphold the standards of Abernathy’s without fear or favor, and to seal its secrets in my heart”) when he’s murdered in the basement on Helena’s very first day.
As the sole surviving employee of Abernathy’s, Helena unexpectedly finds herself in charge of the bookstore … which is far more than an ordinary bookstore. Helena gets swept into a society of hidden mages within our world that she never knew existed, and a ceaseless war (it’s called the “Long War” for good reason) with Lovecraftian creatures from another dimension, intent on draining the magic from people in our world, leaving them dead. Abernathy’s Bookstore itself, together with its proprietor ― who is now Helena by default, though some want to change that ― functions as a powerful oracle, answering questions and providing prophecies for those willing to pay its price.
With minimal knowledge about Abernathy’s and its oracular powers, and about the magical society she’s now a part of, Helena has to rely on a few new acquaintances to help her find her footing. Malcolm Campbell, a handsome magus fighting on the frontlines of the Long War, just might be one of the people who will help Helena. But there are factions that oppose her elevation to the custodianship of Abernathy’s, not to mention an unidentified murderer who might decide Helena, too, is in the way of his plans.
The Book of Secrets (2018) is the first book in a new contemporary fantasy series, THE LAST ORACLE, by Melissa McShane. McShane has commented that the series will likely include ten books, so we’re playing a long game here. That’s evidenced in the plot of The Book of Secrets, in which the murder mystery plays second fiddle to the set-up and world-building, as Helena, and the reader, gradually orient themselves in a new world. The pace bogs down somewhat in the process. At the same time, while we’re introduced to concepts like stone, steel, wood and paper magi, not enough really happens with them (at least in this first book) to cement the different types of magic practitioners in the reader’s mind.
However, Helena and her friends are appealing characters, and Helena’s primary antagonist ― a young woman who is convinced that she was supposed to be the next custodian of Abernathy’s ― turns out to be a more complex character than I would have guessed. And it’s extremely hard not to love a magical bookstore with a definite mind of its own! I’ve got the second book, The Book of Peril, in hand and am definitely on board for seeing what happens next with Helena and Abernathy’s.