If a book was called ‘The Invisible Library’, you would buy it just for the title, right? I would, and I did. It turned out to be a pleasant read, though mildly dissappointing. I might try the next books in the series, just to see if the author manages to tie together the cool elements of this story to an actual story.
Imagine a reality wherein important decisions in history create two parallel worlds: one for each choice. This gives us an endless amount of slightly different versions of the universe. To us this might seem a purely theoretical interpretation of quantum mechanics, but for our protagonist, Irene, it’s reality. She is from a different world than our own and an agent of a noble institute: the Library, which exists between the alternate worlds and collects works of literature from all of them. The purpose of the Library is to preserve and study the books that make the worlds what they are, while its existence remains a secret to ordinary people.
Agents like Irene are sent on missions to acquire books that their superiors want to consult or preserve. Sometimes this means quietly buying a copy, other times it means stealing a valuable volume from a heavily guarded vault. In this book, it means Irene has to enter Victorian London in a chaotic steampunk world, with a young apprentice-librarian, Kai, under her supervision. Cue the zeppelins, robots, mysterious Fae, masked balls and a cat burglar, all in the search for a first edition copy of Grimm’s fairy tales that has been stolen by someone else before Irene got a chance to. There’s many stories out there which employ some version of the ‘wise older man with sexy, young, female assistent’-trope. In this book the roles are reversed and this works out fine, especially as Irene is professional enough to to recognise that she’s attracted to Kai but not let that distract her from the mission.
I think the central idea of studying books for intrinsic merit is satisfying, even if there’s remarkably little mention of books in this book about books. The bulk of the book is about the main characters trying to escape from dangerous situations, which is fun, but the story suffers from it. Most characters seem a bit two-dimensional, though the author tries to make them profound and interesting. Take for example the apprentice, Kai: he’s supposed to be beautiful, charming and enigmatic. The way he appeared to me while reading, he certainly was beautiful, but somehow unattractive and frankly, annoying. He seemed just a whiny, pretty boy.
To be honest, I could deal with how annoying Kai is, if only the author would have followed the old adage of ‘show, don’t tell’. Instead, she explains everything to death, leaving nothing to be figured out for yourself. It would be much more exciting to encounter characters who have something to hide, if you didn’t have to read over and over again that they have something to hide. The art of suggestion is a power the writer has yet to discover. Maybe she does in the other three installments of the series – I haven’t yet read those. Additionally, the explanation often happens through comparing alternate worlds to our own – the reader’s world, that is. This bothered me because the story is told through Irene’s eyes, and she’s not from our world. Our reality is not the norm by which she would logically measure what she sees around her.
Fortunately, just as I felt quite bored with the book, something delightfully disgusting happened, and my attention was drawn again. There’s enough adventure in this book to keep you entertained. Combine that with whirring monsters and different kinds of magic, and you have a sort of action film in book form. Don’t expect too much depth from the characters and forgive the author for some predictable plot twists: what remains is a reasonably enjoyable fantasy adventure.
Tardis award for an alternative Victorian London
Genevieve Cogman, The Invisible Library (London, 2015)