The Invisible Library, Genevieve Cogman’s debut novel and the first book in a new fantasy series, was released in the UK earlier this year. The second book, The Masked City, will be available in December of this year, and at least one more book will follow. I’m quite looking forward to the next installment since The Invisible Library is one of the better books I’ve read in 2015 so far!
The premise of The Invisible Library will probably appeal to many fans of genre fiction—the main character, Irene, is a spy who collects books from alternate worlds for the Library, an organization with headquarters outside time and space. Sometimes this is an easy job, simply requiring that she go to the world and purchase the book in question; sometimes it’s even a glamorous job when acquiring the book requires posing as a rich member of society, complete with stays at classy hotels and expensive, delicious meals. Other times, the assignment is difficult and laborious, such as the one Irene is attempting to complete at the beginning of the novel: spending months working as a maid at Prince Mordred’s Private Academy for Boys with the goal of stealing a book on necromancy.
After being outed as a thief and chased by hellhounds, Irene returns triumphantly to the Library with the book, planning to spend some time reading and working on her own projects. However, her supervisor has other plans for her, and soon Irene is headed to one of London’s alternates in search of a specific copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales along with a new student to mentor, Kai. Unfortunately, they arrive to the news that the situation has changed significantly since the initial report was submitted: the book changed hands from an elderly man to a vampire, the vampire who purchased the book has been staked, and the book has been stolen by an infamous cat burglar. Irene knows this may be a dangerous assignment when she begins to suspect Fae involvement, but she’s not expecting the news she receives in an urgent message from the Library: to beware of Alberich, a notorious traitor to the Library who has been known to kill Librarians.
The Invisible Library is a story that seems custom made for bibliophiles, especially those who love fantasy and mystery, and it is so much fun. Any number of settings are possible due to the alternate worlds, and the idea of being a Librarian is quite appealing despite the possibility of not-so-fun missions. After all, when not on assignment, a Librarian is surrounded by books, plus once Librarians get older they no longer have to go to different worlds if they don’t want to do so. They can remain in the Library where no one ages. Also, they have their own sort of “magic” called the Language that requires using the correct words precisely. It’s necessary to study and keep up to date with it, and it can be a very powerful tool when used logically.
Irene is a bookworm who particularly loves mysteries and is therefore delighted to make the acquaintance of a renowned detective in her quest to recover the Grimm book. Although I wasn’t quite as invested in her as many characters I’ve read about, I still really liked her and thought she was a wonderful protagonist not just because she too loves fiction but also because of her personality. She is a quick thinker with the ability to evaluate the situation and decide the best course to follow when she is on a mission. Sometimes that means taking action like diving on top of a bucket of dirty water so it looks like someone pushed her over and ran off with the book she stole or hitting an attacker on the back of the head with a chair; other times it means letting someone else take the lead while she plays a role that fits what someone expects of her. She’s very practical, and she seemed like she was quite good at her job since she was able to quickly make decisions based on current circumstances.
Irene’s narrative voice is a great combination of practicality and humor. She does frequently make observations about reality compared to fiction, such as how competent detectives can be much more inconvenient in real life or how it’s not necessary to dash into potentially dangerous situations like fictional characters often do. Normally I find reading statements about a character’s life in relation to fiction irritating, but in this particular case, I thought it worked quite well. As someone who has devoted her entire life to books, it makes perfect sense that Irene would analyze her surroundings this way, plus her thoughts are not as hackneyed as the horrible conceit of “This isn’t how things happen in books, but of course not, because this is my life, not a book!”
There are some intriguing secondary characters as well, although I wasn’t overly attached to any of them. The Earl of Leeds (the famous detective Irene meets) has a somewhat mysterious past related to his family, and Irene’s student Kai has a secret identity that is revealed partway through the novel. I really enjoyed the dynamic between Kai and Irene and thought it was quite refreshing that Kai respected that she was the one in charge and didn’t test her authority. He’s willing to do his share of the work, and he doesn’t seem to have any problems at all with her taking the lead, although he does become angry and argue with her when he strongly believes her to be wrong at one point—but in the end, he accepts her decision because she’s the leader in this mission. When Kai does challenge Irene’s views on what they ought to do, Irene listens to his concerns and suggests ways she may be able to but him feel better about it, but she remains firm when she believes her choice is their best option.
By the end, the book also sets up some intriguing mysteries about Alberich and the Library that I’m quite eager to learn more about in the next books in the series. When I start reading a new series, I want to know more than when I started but be left with some questions to ponder related to the bigger picture, and this first volume managed to do that quite well.
I know I already said this, but I just need to emphasize it again one last time: The Invisible Library is so much fun. The concept of the Library is delightful, Irene’s narrative voice is engaging, Kai and Irene are great together, and there are hints of more to be revealed in future volumes. While I do wish I had been a little more invested in the characters, I enjoyed it immensely and recommend it to my fellow bibliophiles, especially those who are particularly fond of genre fiction!
My Rating: 8/10
Where I got my reading copy: ARC from the publisher.