The Library of Broken Worlds by Alaya Dawn Johnson fantasy and science fiction book reviewsThe Library of Broken Worlds by Alaya Dawn Johnson

The Library of Broken Worlds by Alaya Dawn Johnson fantasy and science fiction book reviewsWith Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Library of Broken Worlds, I found my first Hugo nomination for next year. Mind you, this is a year where I’ve read many good-to-great books. The Library of Broken Worlds is not only a brilliant story beautifully written, it is truly original in its conception and execution, by a writer who is a master of words.

Set a few hundred years in the future, the story is told by our narrator and main character, Freida of the Library. Freida was found by her adoptive parent, Nadi, in one of the many tunnels of the interplanetary Library, the assigned keeper of the peace among three bellicose systems. Freida, who appears human, is actually a secondary AI created by the Library itself, or one of the material gods who are worshipped by the various planetary societies. She was created for a purpose that has been kept from her most of her life.

The structure of the book honors the story of Scheherazade, with Freida telling the story of her life to one of the material gods, the god of war, Nameren, also called the auroch. The opening pages use the language of fantasy, but as soon as we get into Freida’s first story the science-fiction nature of the book becomes clear. Various human communities, some in different star systems, function, trade, and interact via tesseract technology. They are also post-human, nearly everyone enhanced with augmentation, mechanical and biological, that assist people with communing with the material gods. Freida, who is far less augmented than her contemporaries, has found other ways to commune directly with the gods and their avatars, and this makes her a target for Quinn, Nadi’s political adversary at the Library. Nadi, who uses the pronoun ze, holds a position of supreme power, but zir position is weakening. From early in the book, we understand the “peace” of the Library as a precarious balancing act in a society that revers the cube (“a three of threes,”) sees compromise as stability, and is willing to sacrifice the lives of some to avert greater conflict.

Soon, Freida becomes involved with a Tierran boy who is seeking a judicial hearing to stop the Lunars from invading and destroying his community on old Earth. The Lunars have made a time-honored argument that the avatar of their god requires a war ritual (which looks exactly like a war), and that they must have the freedom to practice their spiritual beliefs. Joshua’s people, in this argument, do not have the freedom to live their lives. Joshua, however, has come up with a novel, if questionable, legal argument that shows his people also have Freedom To. The information Joshua needs to support his argument is deeply buried in the Library, so deeply buried as to be unavailable. Freida, who knows all the tunnels in the library, and all the gods, agrees to help him. This begins a long, complex tale that uncovers her true nature and purpose. She is betrayed, and she betrays others, forced to choose between protecting someone she loves and doing the right thing. She is introduced to spiritual belief systems that contradict her own. Gradually, she uncovers the atrocity that gave birth to the Library and has poisoned it since its inception. Finally, Freida makes the connection between the tesseracts and the gods.

Alaya Dawn Johnson

Alaya Dawn Johnson

This is a difficult book to review without spoilers. General language, like “destiny versus free will,” imply a “chosen one” narrative. Freida, a purpose-designed entity, is, in many ways, a chosen one, but this story is far from the conventional messianic hero tale. The relationship with the material gods, which seems simple for a while, is complex and dynamic. People who seem good, like Nadi, make horrible decisions in the name of peace or balance… or even, as Freida herself did, for love. Quinn, Nadi’s adversary and Freida’s antagonist, is almost a flat character when laid against this complex world, and while I believed he would stoop to physical torture if he could (he does), I didn’t need it to believe he was a bad guy.

This is the kind of book I want a friend to read for purely selfish reasons—so I can discuss it with them. I want to discuss why the gods still use avatars like the coyote, the banyan tree, and the auroch. I want to discuss whether “freedoms” are Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms, or Atwood’s two. I want to discuss the nature of faith as it’s portrayed in the story.

Johnson’s publisher is Scholastic, and Freida is a young woman. On Amazon the book is reviewed as if it’s YA, but also as if aimed at a general audience. Pitching this book to teens means it may not find the broader audience that will love it. This isn’t a review comment, it’s a marketing one.

If I hadn’t loved everything else about this book, simply the achievement of telling a clearly science-fictional tale in poetic fantasy language would have wowed me. Instead, I got an ambitious, complex, thought-provoking story, with a complicated and engaging warts-and-all protagonist, with exquisite prose. It definitely gets a Hugo nomination from me.

Published in June 2023. A girl matches wits with a war god in this kaleidoscopic, thought-provoking tale of oppression and the cost of peace, where stories hide within other stories, and narrative has the power to heal — or to burn everything in its path — from World Fantasy Award–winning author Alaya Dawn Johnson. A girl and a god, alone in communion … In the winding underground tunnels of the Library, the great peacekeeper of the three systems, a heinous secret lies buried — and Freida is the only one who can uncover it. As the daughter of a Library god, Freida has spent her whole life exploring the Library’s ever-changing tunnels and communing with the gods. Her unparalleled access makes her unique — and dangerous. When Freida meets Joshua, a Tierran boy desperate to save his people, and Nergüi, a disciple from a persecuted religious minority, Freida is compelled to help them. But in order to do so, she will have to venture deeper into the Library than she has ever known. There she will discover the atrocities of the past, the truth of her origins, and the impossibility of her future. With the world at the brink of war, Freida embarks on a journey to fulfill her destiny, one that pits her against an ancient war god. Her mission is straightforward: Destroy the god before he can rain hellfire upon thousands of innocent lives — if he doesn’t destroy her first.


  • Marion Deeds

    Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town.

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