After Seveneves, a book admittedly on the heavy side of the genre spectrum, both in literal and metaphoric sense, I wanted something lighter and unassuming, a comeback of sorts to typical urban fantasy. In short, I wanted a bit of easy entertainment ;).
So it’s not entirely The Invisible Library’s fault that I got what I wished for – and I wasn’t happy about it, not a bit.
But to the point. The Invisible Library is the first installment in the Invisible Library series (3 books total now). The novels are fairly popular, with solid reviews and good opinions of readers. It’s an urban fantasy with a twist – the “urban” part being Victorian, and the twist being the titular Invisible Library, a place intended to hold all books of all worlds, and their countless variations appearing in the thousands of possible realities. To sum it up, the keywords list would look something like this: urban fantasy, YA, parallel universes, steampunk, mystery, books.
And what made me pick Cogman’s novel over hundreds of similar others was the Invisible Library itself – the fundamental idea of a between-space library, a hub of intersecting paths to thousands of worlds, a place where all knowledge, actual and possible, is stored and treasured by a host of very peculiar librarians. This sounded so much like Borges and Eco and Pratchett that I was instantly hooked. The librarians of the Invisible Library are skilled in deception, theft, martial arts, alternate histories and bunch of other really interesting topics, all of which should automatically make them into a nerdy form of James Bond. Plus, a bonus of being a librarian is that you can live almost endlessly – in the Library time literary stops. If you stay there, within the immaterial borders of this Universe’s center of order and structure, you don’t age. You can always go for a field trip, a mission to retrieve a rare and important book, and some such, but after reaching certain age you stay on the grounds of the Library and do research. Sounds wonderful, if you ask me – a bookworm’s dream made real :).
However, the library is not the only setting. Not even the main one.
The novels take place mostly in a pseudo-Victorian world with elements of magic and steampunk. I don’t really get that infatuation with all this shiny brass, cogs and levers and steam in places where they have no right to be. And zeppelins. In the name of all things big and small, what IS the deal with zeppelins??! Why can’t there be a steampunk setting without them? Anyway, Czajkowski shot the whole idea of steampunk into another level entirely, and I am not content to read about brass and cogs placed here and there without any logic or technical thought. It’s like the cargo cult: you put up a bamboo tower in the middle of nowhere, you make a model of comms set from bread or potatoes or whatever you have at hand, you wave your arms in the air and believe that you’ll be granted an aerial dispatch of the goods you so sorely need. Well, it doesn’t work that way. If you want steampunk, fine. Make it work. Think it through, or at least think! Don’t treat it like some illogical embellishment, designed only to look pretty.
Union zeppelin courtesy of Radioactive Software and Gettysburg: Armored Warfare 😉
I am also wary of worlds where elves look like something copied and pasted from numerous successful recent novels, such as Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, or The Split Worlds, a shallow, cruel and beautiful race of beings whose only aim in life is to have fun on the expense of others. It feels so flat and lifeless – and predictable – that it’s almost depressing. Here the elves are a caricature of themselves. As if this wouldn’t be enough, they are also the agents of chaos – one of two main forces ruling all the worlds. The more chaotic worlds become, the more magic they contain. The more structured and orderly they are, the more technology gains upper hand. The main problem, however, is that the force on the side of order is… dragons. That too makes total sense, right? Mythical, magical creatures from fairytales and myths all over the world are the sure choice for pro-technology, anti-magic prodigies who use the selfsame magic to remove it from the world. And the Library itself, with its lifeless, unending lines of books and the frozen state of being, is somewhere in between those two. I don’t even want to imagine the truly technological world. I wonder though, how could the dragons be there at all?
And here comes the main hitch. The worldbuilding of The Invisible Library. It’s just poor. Chaotic, unskilled, with a hundred ideas a minute, none of which gets developed. What is worse, Cogman is unable to truly explain the fact of the Library’s purpose and the reasons for its existence. Normally it wouldn’t be a problem, not everything needs to be clarified, after all – if she didn’t try. But the author herself raises that question – and is unable to form a convincing answer. It is in part a result of poor language skill: Cogman strings the action scenes one after another, but her descriptive skills are lacking and the language remains dry and unimaginative.
And of course, there come the characters. The female lead, Irene, is intelligent, dedicated, self-reliant and likeable, even if awfully bland. Obviously, like Baron Munchausen, she can drag herself out by the hair from every bog she had put herself into.
She is praised by almost every character of the book, especially by the main antagonist who values her enough to propose her a deal. Mary Sue? Yes, to an extent, but not painfully so. More painful is her lack of personality. Much worse are the rip-offs: Vale, Sherlock Holmes’ alternate version and Alberich, the Big Bad, eerily reminiscent of Gutenberg from Jim C. Hines’ series Magic Ex Libris (and I bring him into this mess for a reason, for Cogman seems to have read Hines’ series and borrowed more than a bit). The rip-offs are even entertaining, dutifully playing their assigned roles, but they remain woefully underdeveloped for the length of the book. Aaand the main male character, an underage dragon of unearthly beauty, openly showcasing his perfect body and asking the main female character to sleep with him, because he’s really good at it. Read it, if you want a sample of some really bad writing. It’s by far the most cringe worthy moment of the book. [Facepalm].
To sum it up. There are some nice pieces of magic, the action flows, and the whole thing can be at times quite entertaining, if you don’t have too high expectations. Reading The Invisible Library definitely won’t kill you (although there are moments when the alternative versions of you have indeed taken their lives), but you might consider spending your time on something more worth it. I, for once, won’t be coming back to Cogman’s world.