RogerBW's Blog

The Invisible Library, Genevieve Cogman 12 July 2023

2014 alternate-world fantasy. The Library connects all libraries; agents are sent out into alternate worlds to collect unique books. Irene is going to a steampunk Victorian London to retrieve a particular edition of Grimm's Fairy Tales, but it's all going to get terribly complicated.

It's also a little uncomfortable. The Library appears to be run at the whim of its infinitely deep bureaucracy, and its policies are at best troubling. Many series would go to some trouble to establish the meta-setting first before going into the world of this particular book, but that's quickly whisked away and Irene is dumped into a hazardous mission with minimal briefing and an apprentice she's never even met before. This kind of casual carelessness with lives leaves me somewhat out of sympathy with the place – obviously as an enthusiast for books I start off in favour of libraries, so it shouldn't need much to establish this organisation as the good guys, but the end result seems more like self-interested hoarders, stealing books and putting them away where only the privileged few can read them.

The writing is often awkward, and several times I had to re-read sentences to try to work out exactly had been meant and who had actually done a particular thing. It doesn't flow well. The Natural History Museum has a Department of Cryptidology – "cryptid" was not coined in English until 1983, and I was surprised by how much this irked me.

Characterisation is decent, though we don't learn a great deal about Irene as an individual rather than as a placeholder competent heroine. If the world is a bit stock "every Victorian melodramatic trait, plus airships" there's at least something of a justification. The detective plot is mostly an excuse for the action, but the action does work.

I was expecting, from the premise, to love this book, but instead I merely quite liked it. That said, I'll probably read more in the series.

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Series: The Invisible Library | Next in series: The Masked City

  1. Posted by J Michael Cule at 12:06pm on 12 July 2023

    Ah, nitpicking about dates of word-coinage! You progress, my padwan!

    Yes, these are... fun but I wouldn't call the books entirely coherent. It feels like I'm meant to be shocked by the revelations of What's Really Going On in each book when I don't have a clear idea of how the world is supposed to work in the first place.

    This didn't stop me buying five books in the series, not that I can recall much about them now.

    I wonder how much the fact I can quote books I read in my teens, twenties and thirties and not stuff I read a couple of years ago is down to my brain decaying and my memory filling up and how much to the decay of modern writing. Discuss. If you must.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 01:09pm on 12 July 2023

    Because I have a bit of a book-review buffer, I've just finished book 3, and I'm having serious doubts about continuing. Will see how I feel when book 4 comes up in the rotation.

    There's something that I guessed here which is still being strongly hinted at in book 3 and I don't know when it'll be confirmed but I'll be amazed if it isn't. (Verar vf Nyorevpu'f qnhtugre.) I read a lot of SF and mystery stories in which one challenge to the reader is to work out what's going on, and these seem to hint at that structure, while making the puzzles really easy, so that the characters look stupid for not solving them faster.

  3. Posted by Owen Smith at 04:41pm on 12 July 2023

    Was there a good reason for sending a female agent to a Victorian world? All other things being equal a man is going to have less difficulties in that time period.

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 05:02pm on 12 July 2023

    Goodness knows! The faceless bureaucracy doesn't deign to explain itself.

  5. Posted by John P at 11:03pm on 12 July 2023

    How disappointed will you be if the ultimate secret is a librarian who says "Ooook" and eats bananas?

  6. Posted by RogerBW at 08:05am on 13 July 2023

    At this point it would feel pretty derivative, of course, but it would show a sense of humour which I find largely lacking in the series so far.

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