I am ashamed to admit that this book is one that has been on my TBR for a very long time. But this year I set myself a target to read at least 5 new authors and this happens to be one.
Of course, this was a brand new book when I first ordered it from Amazon back in 2014 (yes, it’s been that long since I added it to my TBR pile), but now this is a nicely established series of 6.
I decided to try my hand at something different, and that’s why I picked up The Invisible Library and The Masked City by Genevieve Cogman.
This series is 100% fantasy, a little bit steampunk, a little bit The Librarians (you know, the TV show with Christian Kane?). It also has a few elements that remind me of Mortal Engines (the book, not the movie).
When I started reading this (a good few years too late, truly), the first few chapters actually made me think of an episode of Castle where they were investigating a murder that takes place in the New York steampunk community (if this community really exists I wouldn’t mind visiting, though without the gruesome murder). The thing that really sets this book apart from others that I’ve read is the fact that it uses a device that I’ve rarely read in books (though obviously this is down to what I normally choose to read and I have no doubt whatsoever that I can find it in other books – recommendations below?) and that is different versions of reality.
I have read several books that use alternate realities and timelines before and, here I have to be completely honest, I’ve found them very confusing…however though there is mention of different realities and we are aware that they are a thing that librarians have access to, this book is based in one…I am sure that other realities are encountered in other books in the series (of which there are currently 6 as I write this). Each of these realities is given a number and a designation, depending on what criteria it falls under, whether it has magic, steam power, or has electronics. There are many different criteria, many different worlds, however, the one we’re in is steam, a little of the supernatural and chaos…lots of chaos.
When we first encounter our lead protagonist, Irene, she’s undercover as a cleaner at a school for magical students (not Hogwarts). She’s a spy for The Library, a secret organisation that seems to be outside any reality, and her job is to steal special books that are kept in the Library archives.
The Library is possessive and anyone who works for it is gifted with immortality in exchange for markings in their back, but they can cause pain. Something we are made aware of when a Fae Ambassador tries to tempt Irene to his side with gentle seduction when she’s trying to locate a book capable of causing incredible chaos, a book that went missing after its owner was brutally murdered.
Unlike some other initiates who give their lives to the Library, Irene was born to Librarians and cut her teeth on the less dangerous missions that her parents went on.
Kai is clearly hiding something. While he is on his first mission outside the library with Irene he gives away small details that show he’s not been 100% honest about his lack of ties with the outside world. From things that are hinted out throughout the book, the library recruits people without family or outside loyalties, yet during a conversation, Kai mentions a younger brother and family loyalty in horror when another character – the enigmatic Earl of Leeds (aka Vale) states that he left his family in order to pursue his own interests.
Vale is somewhat reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes, hyper-observant, interested in investigation, overjoyed at the prospect of a battle (whether of wits or physical pursuit) and he is intrigued by the idea of the unknown. He also has a very small amount of mystical power from his family, able to sense when someone will be important to his life, but with no idea as to whether it’s good or evil intent.
It’s clear that Irene feels a little out of her depth and unsure of who to trust, though she trusts Kai, her apprentice, her companion (who at one point offers himself to her bed as easily as if he were offering her a cup of tea). However, there are so many questions she still has about him at the same time.
“She still trusted him. […] Whoever he was, whatever he was, he was sincere and he was on her side.”
The book is filled with interesting characters, we have Bradamant, Coppelia, the fantastically animated Elder Miss Olga Retrograde and the Sherlock Holmes dupe, Peregrine Vale.
For all that Irene and Kai are meant to hide who they are, they don’t seem to be incredibly good at it if their speedy uncovering by Miss Retrograde and Vale is anything to go by.
There are also a lot of red herrings in here, is Bradamant merely horrible? Or is she the bad guy? What about Aubrey, the librarian who was based at the British Museum? Silver the Fae ambassador (is he bad or misguided?)…Belphegor, we know that the mysterious cat burglar is anything but good, but who is he/she? And of course, the dangerous ex-librarian who has somehow managed to stay alive outside the library for over 500 years, the man that Irene gets a very public warning about, Alberich.
OMG…in the midst of chaos, darkness and danger, when their very lives are at risk, Kai’s true form is revealed and though I was anticipating something unexpected, unusual, definitely magical…I was not expecting what actually happened.
The library is a place for those who love books, who breathe them, absorb them, want to dedicate their lives to the preservation of every single tome there is. The idea is fascinating to me, as a child I wanted nothing more than to become a librarian, but my grades weren’t good enough to get onto the course I needed at university and then I realised that as much as I wanted this to be my future unless I holed away in the academic world of university libraries the future was not mine. As much as I hate to admit it (or acknowledge it at all) the library as it was is far too quickly dying out in the UK. Reduced funding has affected village libraries to the point where they’re closing down, and larger libraries are having to become far more like community centres than the home of much-beloved tomes in order to survive.
I recorded an episode of my Reading Room back in February all about this book, and I have to say that it’s a book that has made me want to read more of Cogman’s work, it’s well-written, carefully thought out and everything that is in the book has a purpose. This is the sort of writing I enjoy reading.