Feeling somewhat bereft by having just finished reading Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, I was pleased to find the eBook of Genevieve Cogman’s début novel on summer offer at Amazon.co.uk and I duly snapped it up, seeing how it contained more stories of alternate worlds, magic and faeries. However The Invisible Library is absolutely nothing like Susanna Clarke’s much-celebrated tale: where the latter had been intricately constructed and exquisitely detailed, Cogman has no such pretensions for her own story which is quite simply just a good, old-fashioned, fast-moving rollicking action-adventure yarn.
Irene is an agent of the eponymous institution that exists outside of normal time and space. Librarians are dispatched to various alternate realities to retrieve rare books, and we first meet Irene in a ‘pre-credits teaser sequence’ (in cinematic parlance) mid-assignment obtaining one such tome from a school for magic that has the distinct whiff of Hogwarts to it. When she gets back from that mission she’s immediately handed a new assistant called Kai and packed off to a much more dangerous location, a steampunk Victorian London that’s been infested by chaos – chaos being the mortal arch-enemy of any genuine, right-thinking Librarian of course.
In this alternate world, chaos manifests itself not only in magic and faeries, but also in vampires and werewolves. To succeed in her task, Irene is forced to accept the grudging help of London’s greatest detective called Vale, who depending on the specific moment is either distinctly Holmesian or else at other times more than a little Wimsey-cle. As dangerous as this unfamiliar and twisted world is, however, Irene soon comes to realise that the biggest threats of all actually originate from the bookstacks of the Library itself.
As you can likely tell, the book is far too steeped in the worlds of fan fiction and the Young Adult genre in general to ever be taken seriously in the higher circles of the book world, but at the same time it’s also far too literate and well-written to ever be easily dismissed as just passing ephemera. There’s also a certain delightful archness to it, for example in the way that it talks about the Librarians’ love of books as being their driving force for their Indiana Jones-esque exploits. To me it felt as though the biggest influence on the novel was actually from animé, the likes of Akira or Hiyao Miyazaki’s greatest works for Studio Ghibli such as Laputa: Castle in the Sky or my own personal favourite of his early films entitled The Castle of Cagliostro.
In other words, The Invisible Library is, quite simply, just terrifically good crowd-pleasing fun and a tremendously fast-paced read – I can’t remember the last time I got through a novel as quickly as I did this or felt so satisfyingly entertained by the time that I got to the end. The only downside was that it felt so short and the second instalment in the series isn’t out until the end of the year, meaning there’s quite a wait before the clearly-signposted continuation is available in book stores.
Yes, there are holes and oversights in the story – a lot of questions about what the Library is for and why certain books are marked for retrieval compared with others are raised on several occasions and never properly answered, for example. As is often the case with the best loved action film franchises, Cogman gets around this by pure force of narrative drive meaning that such trifles never get in the way of the action and don’t even occur to you until well after you’ve turned the final page with a happy sigh of pleasure. Certainly I for one was more than happy to leave such hanging plot threads for another day and another eagerly-awaited volume.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ 1/2
The Invisible Library is currently available from Tor Books at all good bookshops and in eBook. The next novel in the series, The Masked City, will be published in December 2015.