Irene must be at the top of her game or she’ll be off the case – permanently…
Irene is a professional spy for the mysterious Library, which harvests fiction from different realities. And along with her enigmatic assistant Kai, she’s posted to an alternative London. Their mission – to retrieve a dangerous book. But when they arrive, it’s already been stolen. London’s underground factions seem prepared to fight to the very death to find her book.
Adding to the jeopardy, this world is chaos-infested – the laws of nature bent to allow supernatural creatures and unpredictable magic. Irene’s new assistant is also hiding secrets of his own.
Soon, she’s up to her eyebrows in a heady mix of danger, clues and secret societies. Yet failure is not an option – the nature of reality itself is at stake.
The pulicity for The Invisible Library describes it as Doctor Who meets librarian spies; a better comparison might be Sherlock Holmes meets Multiversity, but even that doesn’t quite capture Genevieve Cogman’s debut.
This is an unusual novel, in that its protagonist is not a hero. That is, she is in some senses a hero – she does her job, she tries to save people while doing that job, and she is dedicated to her job – but the Library of the title is not interested in heroism, and nor is she; Irene is a character many of the readers of Cogman’s debut will recognise in themselves, someone driven primarily not by altruism but by curiosity and a desire for books. The Invisible Library doesn’t flinch from this, and Cogman even uses it as a point of conflict between our “heroic” team; the primary ally Irene finds in the alternate London questions her motives and those of the Library, and this leads to Irene having an ongoing internal conflict about her reasons for action, about what the right thing to do is. It’s fascinatingly played out across the novel, and Cogman resists the urge to easy conclusions; The Invisible Library neither rewards nor condemns Irene for her quandary, nor suggests her actions on either side are right or wrong, leaving it up to the reader to draw their own conclusions.
There’s also an interesting thread of argument about power differentials and responsibilities running through the novel. The Invisible Library has discussions about the ethics of taking a book from a culture, even if it is only a copy, to add to a “universal library”; Cogman doesn’t explicitly draw the link but there is a clear continuity here between the actions of the Library in taking unique works away from worlds, and storing them where they can’t be accessed, and antiques collectors or even museums buying treasures from different cultures, and removing them from their cultural context for display and the edification of a completely different group of people. Again, The Invisible Library never gets preachy about this, but it does engage in the discussion quite strongly; and I suspect Cogman intends to do so, and she does so interestingly.
The Invisible Library is also praiseworthy for avoiding falling into one of the most significant traps of steampunk; it both acknowledges and averts the limits Victorian society put on women. Cogman has Irene discuss the problems of dresses versus trousers, especially for a woman of action; talk about how different roles in society – maid, society woman, et cetera – allow her different possibilities and accesses; and how she can use the expectations of a society against it. Throughout, Irene is a kickass heroine, who isn’t without weakness, nor is she invulnerable; but she is someone with her own agency, her own beliefs and opinions, and who acts in a way that is excellently human, frustrations and all.
This isn’t all high-concept intellectual discussion, though; The Invisible Library is primarily a steampunk romp, a heist-cum-Great Detective tale, with a primal conflict between Order and Chaos (not good and evil, though seen from Irene’s point of view it becomes so somewhat) thrown in for good measure. Cogman balances these elements rather well, and throws in a good bit of suspense and even some body-horror for good measure; we have people being skinned and their skin being worn at one point, whereas at another mind-controlled crocodiles attack a party. These disparate elements, which sound like they should have a completely different feel, are managed excellently by Cogman to create a unified whole that fairly zips along, with a sense of fun underlying the whole thing, the sense of a swashbuckling romp that, even in the darkest moments of the novel (and The Invisible Library does have its darkness), pervades everything.
The place where The Invisible Library falls down a bit is in some of its plotting. Cogman has thrown a whole lot of elements together and, while stylistically they work, it makes for a plot that is incredibly busy, with all sorts of false trails laid and red herrings thrown in for little benefit; there are any number of unresolved plot strands at the end of the novel that feel as if they have just been rather abandoned, such as the role of the Fae Lord Silver in affairs or the hatred between the British and the Fae of Liechtenstein. The Invisible Library does end with a sort of conclusion, in tying up its main plotline and indeed feeling as if it has finished, but so much remains unresolved, despite the promise of resolution earlier in the novel, that the conclusion is a little unsatisfying, as if things have been simply forgotten by Cogman.
In the end, though, I strongly come down in favour of The Invisible Library; Cogman asks some interesting questions, and discusses them well, through the lens of an enjoyable, readable, fun and fast-paced steampunk romp.
DoI: Review based on an ARC solicited from the publisher, Tor Books. The Invisible Library is currently out in ebook form, and will be released in paperback on 15th January.