This is Genevieve Cogman’s debut novel. The Invisible Library is a fascinating creation that appears to have be of indeterminate size and exists in inter-dimensional space. It is inhabited by a hierarchical network of librarians.
The Library inhabits the space between an almost infinite number of alternate worlds to which the Librarians can travel to act as local agents or to find unique books for their masters, whose days of adventure are behind them and are spending their time carrying out research. When I say unique, I mean it in the strictest sense of the word. A unique work is one that exists in only one of the alternate realities.
Junior Librarian Irene is given a mission by her immediate superior and mentor. This is not of out of the ordinary but she grows suspicious when she is assigned a trainee, named Kai, who appears to be a little out of the ordinary. From an early stage it becomes clear that Irene’s mission is not one you would want to take a trainee on.
Before Irene has stepped through to the alternate reality in which she and Kai are to carry out their mission, her former mentor, Bradamant, attempts to take Kai and the mission from her. It is clear that there is no love lost between them. Irene manages to retain her mission and Kai but soon realises she has more to worry about. She is sent to find a unique story by the Brothers Grimm in an alternate London where werewolves, vampires and other magical beings live.
The London in question is a Victorian Steampunk nirvana, full of smog, strange clattering mechanical devices and, that most beloved form of steampunk transport, zeppelins.
Unfortunately for Irene, a number of other characters take a keen and deadly interest in the Grimm book (there is a pun about a Grimmoire that I could make but won’t) including Bradamant, a magical Fae lord and a particularly malevolent ex-Librarian called Alberich. ‘Ex-Librarian’ sounds too timid a term for Alberich who is more akin to Lucifer, cast out of Heaven, than a mild-mannered book lover put out to pasture due to local authority budget cuts.
There follows a compelling and twisting storyline in which seemingly unlikely alliances are forged and many characters are not all they appear to be at first. I found myself trying to second guess the story, expecting shock reveals or double crosses at any moment (I was unsuccessful in my guesses!)
The pace is very lively and the social interactions are very genteel and subtly nuanced as befits a novel set in Victorian London. Cogman gives a lot of weight to the meaning of a slight nod, pursing of the lips, or arched eyebrow.
The characters and the Library universe are yet up beautifully for further adventures. Given the massive range of options that she has, it would be a missed opportunity if the characters were to continue to dwell in a Steampunk version of a Sherlock Holmes novel.
The literary interest of the main characters and the ability to travel through space and time did bring to mind the works of Jasper Fforde and I think this book would appeal to anyone who has enjoyed Fforde’s books.
This is an inventive and page-turning first novel and I look forward to reading Genevieve Cogman’s next book.