The Burning Page (2016) is the third book in Genevieve Cogman’s THE INVISIBLE LIBRARY series, and it’s safe to say that a lot goes on in this book. I enjoyed it in the moment, but I was left unsatisfied on a couple of points. Even though there is a lot of activity in the book, I have to say that, for me, this was the least successful entry in this fun series so far.
Please note that on Amazon and other sites, my opinion is a minority. Most readers of this series are pleased with this book. So, as we say, your mileage may vary.
After the events in The Masked City, Irene has been busted down to probationary status at the Invisible Library. The Library occupies a central place in the connected worlds and realms, and the realms exist on a continuum ranging from Order to Chaos. By selectively “collecting” (we might call it stealing) unique books from different realms, the Library creates a connection to each realm, helping maintain its polarity and a larger cosmic balance.
Irene and her dragon-lord librarian-trainee Kai are very nearly trapped, or worse, when a gate between library nodes bursts into flame. Kai manages to get them back to Irene’s assigned realm, where they find their residence is infested with very large venomous spiders. Their friend and partner, consulting detective Peregrine Vale, has been Chaos-contaminated, and soon Irene discovers that the Library is under attack once again by the rogue Librarian Alberich. This time he might succeed. As if that weren’t enough, Zayanna, a high-Chaos frenemy of Irene’s shows up and no one knows if they can trust her.
There is certainly a lot going on in The Burning Page, and as before, the action sequences are well-choreographed and entertaining. A few were standouts for me. I loved the scene where Irene faces down a werewolf king and his pack. The ball scene in alternate-Russia, where an Imperial Russia controls most of the world, was well-written and suspenseful. Irene’s visit to an underground market that specializes in rare, venomous, and magical animals, had a nice atmosphere and reminded me of scenes in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. That is a definite plus.
The ease with which Irene uses the Language, the phonemes that underlie all reality, to get out of situations, really lowers the stakes here. Irene is adept at the Language and it gets her out of every situation. Twice in The Burning Page, Irene falls back on tricks of the Language she’s used in previous books — once Irene herself even hopes that Alberich won’t remember that. I love the Language, but it is becoming too easy. I would like Irene to have to rely on her other skills and abilities, and I would like the see the other magics that function in this reality.
In this book there are suddenly limits to the Language and those feel arbitrary. We discover that the Language is more difficult to enunciate and shape in a High Order world. When Irene confronts Alberich in his chaos-library at the end, she discovers that the language is easier to use there, and for the first time ever responds less to the precision of the statement and more to “intent.” She and Alberich race through the rows of books shouting Language orders with ease, yet she is unable, moments later, to craft a two-word command to save Kai from an attack. The reason given is that she is out of breath and it’s happening too fast.
The desperate strategic choice Irene makes near the end to escape Alberich, and her emotional reaction to it, rang true given what we know of her, and it’s dramatic.
On the relationship front, even though Vale and Irene have a moment, nothing changes either. The trio remains static, and given all that’s going on, I’m not sure we needed an attempted romance in The Burning Page at all.
Fundamentally, although a lot happens here and a lot is at stake (Alberich really could destroy the Library) my disappointment comes from the fact that, at the end of this adventure, nothing has really changed. I assume (only an assumption) that the mission to Imperial Russia which Alberich interrupted may have to be completed, and that will show us some new magics and create the threat of real loss.
I loved the visuals of the Imperial Russia world, and as always I liked Irene’s moments of wry self-reflection. We learn a bit more about the dragons and their society, which I enjoyed. Overall, The Burning Page provided a few pleasant hours of reading that didn’t quite hit the spot. It’s not the strongest book in THE INVISIBLE LIBRARY, but it’s still an enjoyable read.