The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman
The Invisible Library (2014) by Genevieve Cogman came along just in time for your vacation or summer reading. The book was published in Great Britain last year but the American edition came out this month. This is Cogman’s first novel, and it is a sure-footed, fast-paced romp of alternate history, self-referential book-love, nods to movies and television, magic, mysteries and secrets. And did I mention the dragons?
Libraries have gotten popular in fiction and on television, and not unlike the young team in TNT’s television series The Librarians, Irene, the book’s main character, slips into alternate universes and acquires particular books which are stored and studied at the Invisible Library, which sits at a nexus of the various alternate dimensions. Irene is clear that collecting these books, even if it requires dishonesty or outright stealing, is a good thing for humanity… even if she’s not sure exactly why it’s a good thing. Irene is not a wizard or a magician, but as a full-fledged Librarian, she has access to a wonderful thing called the Language, a magical ability used very well throughout the book.
When the story starts, Irene’s cyborg-like mentor Coppelia gives her a new assignment and a new trainee, a supernaturally handsome young man named Kai. The new assignment seems simple — merely acquire a specific book of Grimm’s Tales that is unique to a particular alternate world. When Irene and Kai get there though, they discover there is a great deal they weren’t told.
Every alternate world exists on a continuum between Order and Chaos. The dragon are agents of Order and often get involved when a world appears to be sliding into chaos; the Fae are agents of Chaos, doing everything in their considerable power to tilt each world away from logic, rationality and order. This world, which seems to be late-nineteenth century European with a nice sprinkling of steampunk, is suffering from a massive chaos contamination, but for some reason the dragons have not intervened. Soon Irene discovers that the last owner of the book has been murdered and that the book has already been stolen. And that isn’t even the worst part.
Irene comes across as an intelligent, perceptive agent, dedicated to her mission, who is also lonely and sad due to circumstances that are revealed throughout the book. Kai is obedient, but he has secrets, serious ones. In the alternate world, Irene faces a haughty Sherlock-Holmes-like aristocrat, Peregrine Vale, who comes too close to guessing the truth about the library. The villains, Lord Silver, who is a member of the Fae, and another villain with close ties to the library, are convincing and strong, making the action believable, whether it’s an attack of cyber-controlled alligators at a ball or a terrifyingly visual infestation of silverfish insects at the British Museum.
My favorite love-to-hate character is a fellow Library agent and Irene’s rival, Bradamant. She was perfectly unlikeable. Perfectly. I hope I get to dislike her some more in the future books.
Cogman plays with some familiar forms and tropes, but it’s done with a light touch, and near the end of the story one character actually acknowledges some of the popular-culture elements when he says, “Or shall we break from the usual tropes and do something different?” And while airships and interdimensional libraries may have been used before, I do not remember coming across this particular type of dragon in other books.
Near the end, there is a particular name for a character whose parentage is enigmatic that will make Star Wars fans snort. My sense is that the book was written and “in the pipeline” before Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released and that the particular name is a coincidence, especially since the text itself shows that the name was chosen for a specific reason. It’s a little distracting, but coincidences happen.
There are plenty of secret societies, plenty of interested parties, and lots of twists, but not too many to keep track of. Cogman has mastered a pace that is brisk enough with just enough stops for tea or carriage rides to allow everyone to discuss the meaning of whatever just happened, delivering some useful exposition along the way. The book is not light in its subject matter or the consequences the characters face, but it is not gruesome, and the sparkling wit and levity make this a book that I think readers fifteen and up would enjoy, even though it isn’t marketed as YA.
Irene, who is quick-thinking, manages to defeat the villain and regain the Grimm book in question. Her mission is a success but her achievement leaves her with more questions than ever — and us, too.
The Invisible Library is an excellent vacation book. It’s perfect to share with a teenager in your life, and it is an engaging start to an interesting new fantasy series. I eagerly await The Masked City, which comes out in the US in September, 2016.
Alternate-world hopping. A seemingly infinitely large library. A Sherlock Holmes-like quick-minded detective. Bibliophile thieves. This, apparently, was going to be a book for me. And had Genevieve Cogman stopped there, I might have been more won over by The Invisible Library. Or maybe had she stopped at the dragons. Or at the chaos versus order/balance of the universe battle. The vampires. The werewolves. Airships. Magic language. Cyborg-ish alligators. The … well, you get the idea. Cogman packs a lot into The Invisible Library, too much, I’d argue, and between that and some issues of execution, I ended up sorely disappointed with a book I had such high hopes for based on the premise.
So about that library and its group of thieves. Though to be honest, they only steal sometimes, so “agents” is a more accurate term, though they call themselves, no surprise here, Librarians. Irene is a full librarian, albeit on the junior level, and her missions involve entering alternate worlds (the library touches upon nearly all of them apparently) in order to retrieve books unique to those worlds so they may be stored in the Library. In this case, she’s tasked to find a particular version of Grimm’s Fairy Tales in an alternate steampunk-y London. Her first plot complication comes via her just-assigned apprentice Kai (nobody ever likes a tag-along newbie), the second via a rivalry with a higher level Librarian, and the third arrives when she finds out that her alternate London is “chaos-infected,” meaning home to the Fae, those aforementioned vampires and werewolves and other such ilk of varying power. The chaos-affiliated Fae are balanced in the universe by the order-affiliated dragons.
As you can tell from my intro, the complications keep coming, but suffice to say Irene’s mission doesn’t go as smoothly as expected, as the book quest gets a murder investigation tacked on (how she meets this London’s version of Sherlock Holmes), and a potential romance with Kai, as well as a battle against a legendary evil rogue Librarian. And more. It’s possible that all these elements could have played nicely together and meshed into a fantastically rich story. Admittedly, it’s even possible they’ll do just that for some readers. But for me, it was all just a bit too much — too scattered, frenetic, and arbitrary, as well as too surface-level thanks to having so many elements divided over a finite number of pages.
My other issues were, as noted above, matters of execution. One problem is the Librarian’s magical power of Language, which basically allows Irene to tell targets to “do things” — doors to unlock, for instance. There are supposed to be limits, but to be honest, the rules such as they are seemed inconsistent at times, arguable at others, and always flexible depending on the needs of plot (working on not depending on how much suspense was needed), making the ability bordering a bit too closely on a deus ex machine.
Those rules were emblematic of another problem I had, which was the frequently clumsy (and just plain frequent) exposition that runs throughout The Invisible Library. I lost track of how many times the narrative came to a screeching halt while someone (almost always Irene) stopped to explain a bit of the worldbuilding, or to sort of retcon an explanation of why she shouldn’t do A or B in a prior situation (or why she could in this situation).
And in quick fashion: characters sometimes seemed overwrought or demonstrative relative to the merits of the moment, the romance elements often struck me as implausible and a bit trite in their description, characterization didn’t always seem consistent, some plot points seemed contrived, and actions didn’t always make sense to me (not that I didn’t understand what was happening, but why the characters wouldn’t do something else that seemed a lot more reasonable). I could give specific examples of all of these, but don’t want to belabor the points.
Given all these issues with plotting and execution of craft elements, I could have been carried along by rich characterization or great prose. But the characters never really caught me and never subsequently grew on me. Kai seems more a repository of plot complications and Vale (the detective) a pretty two-dimensional Holmes, and where both are seemingly meant to have deeper characterization, those elements felt overplayed in their “mysterious motivation” and their overwrought emotion. The rogue Librarian brings up some nicely complex points (though ones that don’t seem particularly original) about the Library, but feels more stock Villain than a character who is a villain. Irene, meanwhile, is engaging enough, but never really compelling as a character.
This is a much longer review than most of my “didn’t like” sort, and I think it’s because I was expecting/hoping for so much more. Plus, I may be pre-emptively hitting the defense button a bit, because I wouldn’t be surprised if The Invisible Library gets a lot of love (after all, readers tend to love books about books/reading). But honestly, I had a hard time pushing forward in this and considered stopping several times as I grew increasingly frustrated with the level of execution/craft. With such a great premise though, it’s possible Cogman’s craft will rise to meet the challenge of that premise in The Masked City, book two of THE INVISIBLE LIBRARY trilogy. I think, however, that I’ll let Marion, someone I trust a lot, make that call before I consider venturing back into the series.
I’m with Marion on this one. I enjoyed the heck out of it and am looking forward to the next one.
Probably all the things we liked are all the things Bill didn’t like! It’s unusual for Bill and me to diverge on a book, but I see why.
Forgot to rate the book. I like this feature1
If all goes well, we’ll have an interview with Genevieve Cogman in early July.
It’s unusual to see Marion and Bill so very far apart — and makes for some good reading! Now I’m especially curious to read this book. Thanks, Marion and Bill, for the push!
It doesn’t happen often, that’s for sure.. Especially such a huge difference. I’m thinking Marion will be doing the interview . . .:)
Bill, that’s the plan!
I picked this one up recently and just started reading it. It’s light and enjoyable. The author’s language entertains and the story is fast-paced and original enough.
“The pupils at Prince Mordred’s Private Academy for Boys managed to get just as much mud and muck on the floor as any other teenagers would. Clean indoor studies in the dark arts, military history, and alchemy didn’t preclude messy outdoor classes in strategic combat, duelling, open-field assassination, and rugby.”
(Me: open-field assassination ‘messy’ hehe!)
“Damnation!” Silver swore. “They have been armoured in cold iron! Johnson! My elephant gun!”
(I wonder how long the author had been saving that one up? It would definitely be on my list of “things I really, really wish I get a chance to say before I die.”)
But then: (explaining the precision required in using a word-based magic)
“…if you had a broken left arm you could try saying, *My left tibia is in fact not fractured but perfectly whole.* But while your tibia might obey…”
Me:…your left arm would still be as it was, since the tibia is in the LEG. (Terribly ironic in light of the fact that the passage was specifically about how exact the wording has to be in order to get the desired results)
I’m half way through the book. Trying not to let the tibia thing derail me. (That’s more a fault in me than anything else.)