Genevieve Cogman The Invisible Library Tor 2015
Take a love of books, add a dash of fairytale, blend in some steampunk, season with distinctive characters, add essence of danger and top it off with a garnish of wittiness and voilà! we have The Invisible Library, the first of a projected trilogy featuring the extremely resourceful Irene. She is a Librarian in an extremely unusual library, one which exists out of time and place. From its rambling corridors and innumerable rooms lined with shelved books one can access any number of alternate worlds in different dimensions. The purpose of the library is to acquire, by whatever means, one copy of every book of fiction published in those alternate worlds, even multiple versions of a book where, due to variations in developments in those worlds, the resulting editions may only differ in a word, a paragraph or a chapter.
To complicate matters, the mix of magic and the mundane in each world will be different, and the magic wielded by the Librarians of a different order again. The two worlds that we are introduced to in The Invisible Library have many of the tropes of steampunk embedded in them: technology largely operated by steam power or Victorian mechanics, quasi-Dickensian costumes, detectives and shady characters roaming streets blanketed in smog, structured if sometimes fluid class divisions and, woven through all, the red strand of danger and the blue thread of magic.
Irene’s attempt to retrieve an alternate-world version of Kinder- und Hausmärchen — what we call Grimms’ Fairy Tales — is, unsurprisingly, to be thwarted by the characters she meets, the circumstances she finds herself in and the several types of magic she encounters. It all runs counter to Irene’s name which, irony of ironies, in Greek means ‘peace’; for she will find little peace in the course of some 300 pages.
Now, if you or I would hope to be thrilled by a rattling good yarn we’d certainly be satisfied. The plotting is excellent, there are clever twists and turns, and important loose ends do eventually get tied up. Despite The Invisible Library being her first novel this is all of a piece with Cogman’s experience as, among many other jobs, a roleplaying game writer and a classifications specialist — she is used to dealing with disparate data and analysing systems. And this has got to have been more than a little help in her world-building, as much as we can glean from the limited glimpses we get of alternate worlds; a Hogwarts-like boys boarding school is an inauspicious start, though thankfully a 19th-century or Edwardian London with no telephones but plenty of horseless cabs and zeppelins is the main setting, and for the first sequel we are promised an alternate Venice.
But Cogman also loves literature (she only lists Tolkien and Sherlock Holmes as juvenile passions, but you can be sure she is widely read), and happily for those who enjoy these subtleties she mixes in a lot of cultural references, from books to TV shows, via the odd familiar turn of phrase. In particular, it’s delightful to note the custom of Library staff assuming new ‘work’ names: we have Kai (from Welsh Arthurian literature), Bradamant (from the medieval Orlando Furioso), Coppelia (from the ballet by Delibes), Alberich (after the evil dwarf in The Nibelungenlied and Wagner’s Ring Cycle), Dominic Aubrey (in English Aubrey, sometimes appearing as Oberon, could be a variation of Alberich) and Kostchei (the Slavic fairytale villain whose soul, like Voldemort’s, is cunningly hidden so that he is, in effect, immortal, and who appears in Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird).
So, we can have fun spotting the nods to other stories but we can also appreciate the logics she has built into her magical systems. But a novel doesn’t really work unless we can believe in and invest in the protagonist and associated cast. Irene is the epitome of an admirable kickass heroine, one who is sorely tested but who has the talent and doggedness to win through. Her colleagues Kai and Bradamant have secrets of their own which make their motivations opaque at times; they contrast with the detective Vale and Inspector Singh who seem competent, incorruptible types in a London where one can depend on little else, one where werewolves, vampires and sinister fairy folk called the Fae will inevitably cross one’s path.
There we have it, then: there’s no peace for the wicked, nor any peace for Irene herself. The Invisible Library, though no great piece of literature, is certainly greatly enjoyable — and more intelligent than some tales of ho-hum derring-do I’ve read.