Originally published on Fantasy Faction
The premise of The Invisible Library is brilliant. Clandestinely situated between dimensions – and yes, invisible – the Library is a vast repository of fiction ‘acquired’ from myriad parallel worlds. I use the term loosely, as the agents of the Library don’t mind resorting to a bit of larceny when on the hunt for a particular title. Irene is one such agent, a junior Librarian who’s sent on what appears to be a standard mission to retrieve a rare copy of Grimms’ fairy tales. The only things non-standard about it are Kai – a trainee Librarian whom Irene is supposed to mentor – and the fact that the world where the book resides is marked as chaos-infested.
Cogman uses the natural opposites of order and chaos as pillars to support her universe. When a world falls out of balance, it can become infested with the forces of chaos, meaning Irene and Kai have to deal with unpredictable magic, vampires, werewolves and the Fae. You might be tempted to add dragons to that list, but they are in fact agents of order who work to bring chaotic worlds back into balance. I’m a sucker for dragons and although they don’t feature much in this book, I love Cogman’s depiction of them as ancient, unknowable, fearsome beings, half wild, half civilised, existing somewhere behind and beyond time.
The setting of The Invisible Library is Victoriana London, but with all the above elements in play, it’s still very much a fantasy. And not only fantasy: this is detective fiction à la Sherlock Holmes. Cogman gives us our very own Holmes in the form of the marvellously-named Peregrine Vale. His dispassionate, assessing personality provides us with some much-needed perspective, particularly regarding the Library itself. Where its major purpose – of preserving books for posterity – may seem a noble aim to a book obsessive, Vale is underwhelmed and doesn’t see why it’s so important, much to protagonist Irene’s consternation. Like Holmes, Vale doesn’t readily volunteer information about his origins except to admit to his noble birth, and he remains a mysterious figure, whose motives are his own. To complete the Conan Doyle atmosphere, we have the somewhat marginalised police inspector, Singh, who needs to feel he’s in charge of the situation, but ends up relying on Vale to do most of the work.
There are a few other minor characters like Silver, the sinister Fae ambassador, but really the story is carried on the shoulders of Irene, Kai and Vale, who, despite their respective secrets, make an effective crime-solving triad. Irene is an endearing protagonist: sensible, brisk, a little scary – everything a librarian should be. And yet underneath that exterior, she’s emotional and a tad vulnerable in her position, especially when she finds herself so completely out of her depth. But she copes with the situation brilliantly, she’s smart and savvy and charmingly sarcastic and she and Kai make a great team. (One of my favourite conversations between them occurs early on in the book where Kai unabashedly asks Irene whether she really means ‘sleep’ when she says they should sleep). In fact, The Invisible Library is full of humour, as well as peril, and that makes it a light and enjoyable read.
Our group’s primary antagonist is a dangerous ex-Librarian called Alberich (another marvellous name), who has turned from the ordered Library to embrace the forces of chaos. I loved Alberich and his history, which we’re only allowed a glimpse of in this book. Picking up the Sherlock Holmes thread again, you could say there’s something of the Moriarty about him in his genius and his utterly amoral pursuit of power. He’s such a promising villain of the kind you almost want to root for and I suspect that we haven’t seen the last of him.
In its early publicity, Tor described The Invisible Library as ‘Doctor Who with librarian spies’, a phrase which hints at the many diverse influences Cogman has drawn upon to create her world. One scene in particular stood out for me where our main characters are rescued by a river spirit. If anyone’s seen the Studio Ghibli film, Spirited Away, they’ll be familiar with the polluted spirit Chihiro cleanses in the bathhouse. Cogman’s river spirit lives in the Thames, ‘entwined with fragments of garbage and long streaks of filth’ and I loved how well it personified this alternate London, as well as appreciating that nod to Ghibli, whether deliberate or not. You might think The Invisible Library’s patchwork of influences – from the Brothers Grimm to nineteenth century crime thrillers to the science fiction of parallel worlds – would result in a fragmented setting, but Cogman has created something unique with a charm all its own.
The fact that the book is tightly-plotted is disguised behind a pattern of dialogue-action-dialogue scenes, a mode characteristic of a detective story, where clues lead our characters into dangerous situations which in turn provide more clues. This can only result in a charged and exciting denouement, which absolutely delivered in all respects. I read the last hundred pages in one sitting, entranced by a mad zeppelin ride, the British Library, a horde of silverfish and yes, even an elusive dragon. Fantasy doesn’t get much better (or cooler) than this. If you’re looking for a swift, clever and witty read, look no further.