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Collecting books can be a dangerous prospect in this fun, time-traveling, fantasy adventure from a spectacular debut author.
One thing any Librarian will tell you: the truth is much stranger than fiction...
Irene is a professional spy for the mysterious Library, a shadowy organization that collects important works of fiction from all of the different realities. Most recently, she and her enigmatic assistant Kai have been sent to an alternative London. Their mission: Retrieve a particularly dangerous book. The problem: By the time they arrive, it's already been stolen.
London's underground factions are prepared to fight to the death to find the tome before Irene and Kai do, a problem compounded by the fact that this world is chaos-infested—the laws of nature bent to allow supernatural creatures and unpredictable magic to run rampant. To make matters worse, Kai is hiding something—secrets that could be just as volatile as the chaos-filled world itself.
Now Irene is caught in a puzzling web of deadly danger, conflicting clues, and sinister secret societies. And failure is not an option—because it isn’t just Irene’s reputation at stake, it’s the nature of reality itself...
I received a review copy of this book from the publisher.
The Invisible Library has a fantastic premise, interesting world-building, a complicated mystery/thriller plot, a steampunk alternate world setting, plenty of action scenes, and an intriguing cast of characters. Intellectually, I was hooked from the very first page. However, I had a harder time connecting emotionally until almost the climactic scene toward the end of the book… at which point, the book grabbed me and didn’t let go.
Part of my problem may be with the narrator and main character, Irene. She tries very hard to stay analytical and detached, even when she might prefer to give in to screaming hysterics; I think that contributed to my own sense of detachment. That said, I do like her: she loves books, is dedicated to the Library, is conscientious in her work and feels a strong sense of responsibility toward both her assignment and her new assistant/student, Kai. And she harbors a love of detective novels, particularly (one suspects) Sherlock Holmes. She could do with a little more sense of humor—she takes everything a little too seriously—though to be fair, there’s a lot for her to be serious about. But not until events take a turn for the catastrophic did her feelings, and thus the danger of her situation, become real to me; she seems to lose the ability to distance herself, and becomes more human and more relatable.
Kai really interests me. There are hints as to his true nature fairly early; Irene suspects, and we’re in her head so we know what she thinks. But even once he reveals that truth, we still know very little about Kai’s past, how he came to be an apprentice at the Library, or his motivations. Cogman lets clues trickle out throughout the book, but there’s still a lot to find out in later books. Kai is friendly, curious, extremely intelligent, apparently eager to help, a little arrogant, and decidedly protective toward Irene, though they aren’t romantically involved. (Yet. There’s nothing to rule it out later on. And I have my suspicions about his feelings toward another character.)
The major secondary characters are likewise fascinating. One of the strengths of the first-person narrative structure here is that I didn’t know any more than Irene does, which means I had no idea who is trustworthy, what ulterior motives anyone may have, or even if they are who they say they are. This added to the suspense, leaving me wondering whether Irene was right to trust certain characters and what each person might be hiding… and I’m pretty sure that everyone, including Irene, is hiding something.
I mentioned the complicated plot; it rivals a spy thriller or detective novel for convoluted twists and unexpected turns (which definitely kept me reading!) That similarity is clearly deliberate, though I didn’t as much of a sense of a meticulously-crafted plot that I do from, say, Christie or Sayers or even Conan Doyle. It felt a little as if the author was riding a spirited horse that she didn’t quite have under control. Of course, the mystery doesn’t come to as neat a conclusion as in a detective novel, because it looks like the overarching storyline will span the series, leaving plenty to be uncovered in subsequent books.
The worldbuilding is wicked cool, both for the Library itself and for the specific alternate Europe in which most of the book takes place. Establishing the Library, its relationship to the alternate worlds, and the general cosmology (for want of a better term) of the universe(s) requires some pretty extensive infodumps initially, but those slow down fairly soon and the rest is parcelled out more sparingly, mainly through conversation. I enjoyed the steampunk or gaslight aspects of the main setting, from zeppelins to giant mechanical centipedes, as well as the secret societies and aristocratic villains reminiscent of a Sherlock Holmes story. It’s an exciting tale, as well; Cogman packs quite a lot of suspense, mayhem, danger and occasional widespread carnage into the novel. The cyborg alligators in particular were a bit gruesome.
Or they would have been, if that scene had felt real to me. There are two other factors that kept me emotionally distanced for a while. One is that it sometimes felt as if the characters were being manipulated like pieces on a chess board—by the author, I mean, not by some character or other (although that might also be true.) In other words, they were being put into situations required by the plot, rather than the plot arising naturally out of what the characters would do. And the second factor is that my suspension of disbelief was broken several times by things that simply aren’t consistent with reality, by which I mean the ways in which human beings feel and act and react. I can cheerfully believe in Fae, in cyborg alligators, in a Language that lets you control things in your environment. But there are several things that happen to or around Irene that fail to evoke the intense reactions (physical pain, horror, deep fear) that they would, in a normal human being. Yes, she’s striving for detachment, to stay analytical and in control, but we should see her struggle to do so, far more than we do. As I pointed out in the second paragraph, once her feelings and reactions became more real and were more clearly communicated, my sense of connection to the character and the book became much stronger.
I don’t want you to get the idea that I didn’t enjoy the book, because I did—even staying up late into the night to finish it. The Invisible Library is Cogman’s debut novel; as she gains more experience, I’m sure the drawbacks I’ve mentioned will disappear, and the strengths—and there are many—will shine even brighter. It’s a promising start to an imaginative, exciting series, and I’m really looking forward to reading book two.