The Mortal Word (2018) is the fifth book in Genevieve’s Cogman’s INVISIBLE LIBRARY series. Irene Winters is a librarian who works for the Invisible Library, which helps maintain the balance of the worlds between order and chaos. Irene’s former protégée, dragon prince Kai Strongrock, is no longer assigned to the library, but the two of them meet now and then at the home of Vale, a consulting detective in the Victorian-era world where Irene is currently assigned. During her visit, rival librarian Bradamant comes to hire Vale to investigate the murder of a prominent Dragon lord on another neutral world. The murder is particularly important because it happened on the eve of a vital peace conference between the champions of order, the Dragons, and the Fae, who represent chaos. In no time at all, Irene is assigned to assist Vale in the investigation, alongside a Dragon investigator named Mu Dan, and the familiar, notorious Fae, Lord Silver.
The peace talks are precarious. Plenty of people want to see them fail. The Library’s once-legendary neutrality has been called into question recently, and so the Library has a lot to lose if the murder is not solved in a way that both parties can accept. Almost immediately, Irene’s superiors tell her that the truth of the murder may be less important than a story that all sides can accept. Irene is not sure she can accept that.
Soon, though, a convenient suspect appears on the scene: the dreaded Blood Countess, a Fae who models herself on Elizabeth Bathory. The Fae, who thrive on chaos, live by manipulating the magical force of narrative, imposing roles upon anyone who wanders into their orbit. Part of the reason Silver is so annoying to Irene is that his “role” is that of a rake and libertine, bent on seduction. In The Mortal Word, we meet the lead delegate for the Fae, the Princess, a beacon of sweetness and purity, so good and trustworthy she makes some Disney princesses look cynical, and The Cardinal, who styles himself after Richelieu in The Three Musketeers. Among the Dragons, investigator Mu Dan is unusual in the sense that she does not draw on her family affiliations. We also meet several Librarians, and we find out that the Library is more fragile than we, or Irene, knew.
If, like me, you enjoy the INVISIBLE LIBRARY series, you will enjoy The Mortal Word. I think certain plot points will only make sense to people who have read the earlier books, particularly the fourth one (The Lost Plot) which introduced the Dragon courts and some of the family dynamics. You might feel, like I did, that the idea of a peace treaty between Dragons and Fae came up pretty quickly and was quite a surprise.
I enjoyed so many things about this book. The Blood Countess is silken and terrifying, and the numerous attacks on the peace talks are inventive and interesting. (The cake was one of my favorites.) Irene is most interesting to me when she uses her familiarity with plots and fiction tropes to reshape contacts with the Fae. In one of my favorite scenes Irene tries to rewrite a truly Grand Guignol melodrama plot (literally; the scene takes place in the Grand Guignol Theater) as she and Mu Dan confront the Blood Countess and a contingent of her minions.
“This is not the sort of story where anyone comes to help you, maiden. This is my story. This is my domain. You are a victim here.”
“No,” Irene said softly… “No, you’re wrong, your ladyship, and do you know why? Mu Dan has the power here, and she has all the power she needs — because this is the part of the story where the law comes to take you down and imprison you, and she’s a judge-investigator!”
It’s fun to see Irene expand her skills in this book, and I enjoyed the new Fae characters. The banter is humorous and descriptions are lively, like this one:
Dorotya lurked at the base of the throne, an animate mass of shawls.
It might be hard for me to decide which new Fae was more fun: the smooth, sanguinary, sinister Countess or the eyelash-fluttering, open-hearted, sweetness-and-light Princess… on second thought, it isn’t hard. It’s the Countess.
The Mortal Word doesn’t deviate from its readers’ expectations in any way, yet by the end, Cogman has changed the worlds Irene protects, changed the Library and changed the relationship between Kai and Irene once again. I enjoyed it and I’m eager for the next one.