A seemingly endless Library, with books from across multiple worlds. A library with connections and portals to endless worlds. It can take hours, even days, to get to locations within the library. It is a Library of the first order, in the same tradition as Pratchett’s multidimensional and universe-spanning idea of L-Space in his Discworld novels. The Librarians are devoted to the love of books, their acquisition and preservation. They travel to alternate worlds in search of rare books, of key books, of special books to add to their collection. This process does not always go well, especially with the rarer finds.
Irene is a junior librarian of the Library. When she is assigned a new assistant (who is clearly more than he appears) and a seemingly simple task to find a book in an alternate London, things start going wrong immediately.
A rival Librarian demands that she hand over both the job and the assistant over to her. The chaotic world she steps into makes trying to find the book far more complicated than she anticipates. The book itself seems to be extremely dangerous in nature. Faerie, Chaos, and the possible appearance of a dread enemy of the Library are going to make this simple book acquisition far more dangerous than Irene anticipated.
And then there is the possible ally who is hauntingly familiar in his nature, especially given Irene’s own name…
The Invisible Library is the debut novel from Genevieve Cogman.
As a reader, I’ve been fascinated with multiple worlds, alternate universes and cross-dimensional doings ever since reading Roger Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber. Books that cross dimensions and worlds as fundaments of their worldbuilding quickly go from engaging my curiosity to getting my full attention. Given that the author, like myself, is a longtime veteran of playing the roleplaying game based on Zelazny’s novels, I am not surprised by the author’s choice for her debut novel. Cogman makes the best use of this, providing a theoretically limitless canvas for adventures in her universe. The idea of Librarians going forth and doing interesting things in the multiverse is an excellent high concept. It reminds me of the fictional “Librarians Militant” mentioned in Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End.
After an opening one-chapter adventure, and some time in the Library itself, the author mainly restricts the action to one world. And that is quite a world that Irene and company wind up exploring. The world that Irene and Kai investigate is the London we know … and it isn’t. It is a melange of genre elements (a fact explained within the text itself) that is part steampunk, part magic, and part Doctor Who. The classic Doctor Who episode “The Talons of Weng Chiang” is a spiritual sister to Cogman’s novel. The crazy-quilt nature of that London provides an excellent canvas for Irene’s adventures, and the novel simply knows how to have fun with the premise and the setting.
As fun as this wide canvas and setting are, the real heart of the novel is the character. First and foremost, Irene is an example of a young but not unskilled protagonist, working her way through the ranks. It would have been easy for the author to make her a neophyte Librarian as a way of limiting her ability and allowing her to explore and understand the world through the lens of youthful enthusiasm over competence. Instead, Irene is a junior Librarian but she is a Librarian. This is far from her first mission, she has history with various members of the Library (a fact that becomes plot relevant), and skills and a good head on her shoulders to boot. She is our POV character for almost all of the book, and I took to her immediately.
There are some lovely bits of worldbuilding, plotting and character above and beyond Irene herself. For example, given the nature of the library, the names of characters from The Library are literary references, which provides an interesting channel to further explore their character and nature (at least, as they see themselves). There’s tension between Order and Chaos (the Library is a force for Order, with universe-spanning abilities to match in its use of “The Language”). And when in doubt, and whenever the action and fun seem to want to flag, the novel follows Doyce Testerman’s sage advice to add Genre-Appropriate Ninjas. The novel is also chock full of allusions, jokes, references, motifs, and easter eggs, and I am certain that I missed some, too.
The Invisible Library’s greatest drawback is one that’s not really its fault. The novel is currently only available in the UK and Europe, having no US publisher. Readers, anywhere, though, looking to see the intersection of multiple worlds, spies, librarians and cosmic doings, however, will really enjoy The Invisible Library and what Cogman has to offer.