Universe-traversing Librarian Irene Adler and her assistant the dragon prince Kai return in The Masked City, second in The Invisible Library series following the titular volume in the series. After settling themselves in the Quasi Victorian world of airships, Fey nobles and derring-do, Irene’s life is, if not precisely stable and uneventful, at least predictable. Find rare books for the library in this alternate London, dodge machinations of local villains, spar with her bête noire, and get into adventure after adventure. Routine, right?
Second novels, especially following on high-concept hot ideas like the interdimensional traveling library and librarians of Cogman’s series, are tricky. How do you keep the material fresh? How do you avoid the temptation to “do bigger, and more” as a easier substitution for the harder tricks of building on worldbuilding without making it unstable or unpalatable, and developing characters and their arcs in interesting and meaningful ways? The second novel in such writing is harder than the first, and for me as a reader, with the baseline established, I am looking for that growth and development, and read for it.
The Masked City accomplishes the second novel feat and more by pushing Kai and Irene out of their comfort zone early on in the narrative, setting them on the backfoot and letting them and the reader play catchup, so that more of the universe can be established and the characters can undergo some energetic growth and development. Kai’s kidnapping (right in the prologue, so definitely not a spoiler) leads Irene to join forces with her Fey rival to rescue Kai — a chase that leads Irene to the homeworld of Kai’s powerful uncle, and then to the Masked City itself — a Venice of Renaissance decadence, magic and intrigue completely and utterly under the control of some of the most powerful Fey in the multiverse.
The strengths of The Masked City are similar to those in The Invisible Library, but amplified. The prologue’s launch into the action of kidnapping Kai, as well as the first line of the first chapter having Irene lament about the poisoning of her drink, sets the light action-adventure tone that kept me listening along, impatient for the next bit. With a chance to see more worlds and see Irene on the move, we get an even better sense of how a Librarian handles visiting worlds both known and previously visited, and worlds which most definitely are on the no-travel list for Librarians. And as hinted at before, the Irene that emerges from the crucible of the Masked City is not the young ready-for-a-real-mission Librarian at the beginning of the first novel. She has been particularly seasoned by her challenges and changes in this novel.
As opposed to The Invisible Library, one thing that The Masked City makes much clearer is the physical and mental cost of using the power of the Language, the magical reworking of reality at the assembler code level. When Irene employs it here, there is a much more conscious counting of cost, rather than it being a freewheeling get-out-of-the-reading-room card that it seemed to be to an extent in the first book. The extended period in the titular set-piece location also really gives us a feel for what it is like and how difficult it is to operate deep in “enemy territory”.
Sometimes there is an abruptness of the narrative; resolutions sometimes go into too fast of a gear as opposed to the leadup to confrontations and major turning points. This jarring change of pace was a bit accentuated by hearing the book in audio, which was otherwise a delightful way to consume the book. Susan Duerden is a fine narrator for Cogman’s work and even when the narrative is abrupt, the delivery is always excellent. I could imagine taking this audiobook on to the real city of Venice, and being inspired by it to explore the real city that Cogman mirrors and makes a fantastic wonderland version of in this book. More than a few fantasy authors have created cities based on Venice or that are Venice in all but name, and The Masked City, with its deadly decadent intrigues, action-adventure, and sumptuously described worldbuilding, is high on the list of novels that makes a reader want to visit the real place.
Far from being a feared sophomore slump, The Masked City is every inch a worthy successor to its predecessor, and whets my appetite to read or listen to the third novel, The Burning Page, now out. You can make book on me picking it up and reading it.