Besides Haruki Murakami‘s Kafka on the Shore, The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman was the book that I was looking forward to reading the most from last month’s TBR. While the poll for February’s hiatus pick for Vaginal Fantasy was going on, there were a ton of comments about how good this book was. With thoughts of Doctor Who time traveling in mind, I picked up this book with enthusiasm. I wanted so badly to learn about the mysterious library that the book is named after. I wanted to learn about the possibility of alternate worlds, and of course, I wanted to know how magic is weaved into Cogman’s intriguing world.
Despite my initial expectation for The Invisible Library, I did not love the book as much as I thought I would. Don’t get me wrong, there are many wonderful elements to be found in this book, but something was missing. Sometimes, things were too easy. Sometimes, things were a little too unbelievable. There were a number of errors (albeit small) in grammar that I noticed. In some areas there was too much detail; in others, I found there to be too little. Altogether, there were a number of small problems that really distracted me while I was reading.
I really hate saying bad things about books. Something that I might think is clumsy, another person might think is fine. Usually, the things that annoy me are somewhat subjective. Furthermore, I think all books have redeeming qualities – The Invisible Library had many, in fact. If you love books, or are into fantasy world-building, this book is definitely for you, if you can get past a few small blunders.
This review contains spoilers
I loved the premise behind The Invisible Library. When it comes to the ideas and the world, Cogman does a great job. The idea that there is a massive library that employs a manner of different people, including magicians and dragons, is wonderful. The goal of the library is to preserve and collect, an idea that is incredibly relatable to any book lover – the description of what being around a lot of books is like was comforting and accurate. Through her language, Cogman appeals to the book lover on all levels. Ultimately, the idea that the story revolves around a library is what drew me in.
The atmosphere of the place soothed her automatically, the rich lantern-lights, the sheer scent of paper and leather, and the fact that everywhere she looked, there were books, books, beautiful books.
The general concept of the library becomes even greater as it is revealed that the librarians who work at the library are also time travelers. The Invisible Library explores the idea of alternative timelines and universes through the idea that there are different instances of places in the world. Each alternate is different in some way that reflects changes in history. Furthermore, these alternates are a precious source of new information and rare editions of books that differ from timeline to timeline. Librarians are sent on missions to collect these books. Not only do they provide the Library with new information, they add to the massive collection of rare and unique books and they increase the bond between the world and the Library, making future travel possible. Librarians are given missions to collect books and, in the process, are given new identities and the chance to explore new places. Sounds awesome, right?
Obviously, things are never that easy. As you would expect, there is a manner of things that set alternate worlds apart. Forces of good and evil exist everywhere; they are natural and they shape our society – take war, for example. Cogman develops the idea of Order and Chaos as one of the driving plot points of The Invisible Library. Every alternate world has magic. The manifestation of magic into forces of Order or Chaos are what set them apart, in addition to technology, which in itself, can be seen as a force of Chaos that differs depending on severity and the intent behind the use of technology.
One of the things that I really enjoyed was Cogman’s creativity when it came to forces of Chaos and technology. It’s easy to tag science fiction and fantasy tropes with the idea of evil or chaotic forces, especially when it comes down to creatures. Although Cogman includes a few of the more typical types of creatures deemed evil within the fantasy world within her novel, including werewolves and vampires, she also creates a number of her own chaotic forces. By incorporating the fantastic with the idea of chaotic technologies, Cogman creates a wide array of interesting and extremely dangerous creatures. From technologically enhanced alligators to cyborg insects, Cogman’s creativity is a wonderful addition to the book. Just when I felt like I needed to take a break from the novel, Cogman’s interesting take on what technology can become in the wrong hands kept my interest and drove me to keep reading.
A giant mechanical centipede – well some sort of segmented insect with multiple legs; Irene was hardly going to stand there and count them all – was wreaking havoc in the alleyway outside. There was barely room for it to navigate, let alone turn around, and it was dancing a few steps forward and then a few steps back as its front feelers seemed to search for something or someone. Oil oozed from its crevices, while steam puffed from its head segment and mingled with the ambient fog.
From the beginning of the novel you are compelled to continue forward by a sense of mystery at the unknown. Immediately, it is clear that the mission that main character, Irene, is sent on is different. Firstly, she is sent with an assistant, Kai. She is given no information about the mission and instead is made aware of it by her new subordinate. As if that wasn’t enough to set her on edge, Irene runs into a colleague and enemy, Bradamant, on her way to the door that will lead her to the alternate world in which her mission is to take place.The foreshadowing is very strong and it immediately becomes clear that this mission will not be normal and it certainly won’t be easy.
A number of things happen during this journey for a copy of Grimm’s fairy tales (if that isn’t enough of a red flag that something is supposed to go wrong, I don’t know what is). We are presented with a murder as soon as Irene and Kai enter the world, which is an alternate version of London. Chaos is present in the form of Fae and vampires. A detective journey begins in which cyborg monsters appear, a man’s skin is found in a jar of vinegar, Bradamant appears in the world, and a known villain to the library, Alberich, appears as a dangerous threat. With all of the action and threats, Cogman definitely knows how to keep her readers interested. Just when I found myself losing interest, due to too little detail or small errors and personal annoyances with language use, I found myself immediately interested again because of the elements of mystery surrounding the search for the book in question.
Despite all of the action and interesting ideas present in The Invisible Library, I had a few problems with the novel. While the initial idea behind the Library was interesting, I felt like it was lacking in detail in some respects. The Library itself is wonderful. The concept of alternate worlds offers a lot of room for interesting travels later on in the series. There’s great potential there.
Where I felt the novel was lacking was in the description of a Librarian’s powers. Each Librarian is equipped with the ability to invoke the power of the Library itself, in the form of the Language. This is where I thought things were a little too sparse in terms of detail. I would have loved if the Language was more detailed. The idea the Librarians can alter reality by invoking the power of a secret language is amazing. It’s different from anything that I have seen before and it’s really thoughtful that the power of the action changes depending on how precise the language used is. When using the Language, it works best when changing something in a way that is natural to that object.
The presentation of the language itself is what bothered me the most. Instead of having a cool name and a detailed description of how the language sounds or even a small example of a unique made-up language, instead, the reader is presented with text in bold English to mark what is said in the Language. I understand that making up your own language is extremely difficult. But the idea behind a secret language would be more appealing if there was at least some description of what it sounds like. Instead, the reader is told that the language, when spoken around people who do not speak it, just sounds like the language and dialect that the person in question is familiar with.
Sometimes, the use of language in The Invisible Library felt a little sloppy. Inconsistent would be the best word to describe it. At times it is extremely detailed and well-written prose. Other times, however, it feels a little repetitive and over the top. Being a Young Adult novel, the shifts in language make sense at times, but sometimes, it’s a little too much. There are often bigger words used in this novel that feel out of place. Cogman places them in and then provides a brief definition that will help the reader to understand their meaning, which is great. It boosts vocabulary, but I personally feel like the technique is used a little too often. Instead of using fluffy language (which I am normally a huge fan of), when it comes to a novel that revolves around books and precise language use, cutting down on some of the extra words seems like it would have been a better choice.
In addition to small inconsistencies in language use, there are a number of areas where there is a complete lack of any real detail, which was a little disappointing. While there aren’t many areas where this occurs, one, in particular, stood out and really bothered me.
The cheap clothing shop Dominic had directed them to was certainly cheap, very definitely cheap, and had little that could be said other than the fact that it was cheap.
While a description like this might resonate with a younger audience when it comes to the thought process, this description does not really fit in with the rest of the book, let alone Irene’s character. Irene prides herself on her ability to use language precisely. As someone who loves reading and is able to invoke the power of the Language on a very precise level, the description here just doesn’t seem to fit in with her personal style.
Despite a few qualms with The Invisible Library, I absolutely loved the idea behind time traveling librarians. At times I found myself questioning the events of the story. There were times where I questioned whether or not a character would actually go through with an action (especially towards the end of the novel), but overall, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. The characters are intriguing and have secrets of their own. The journey itself is action packed and full of mysterious creatures. Overall, it was a very different read, with a great concept behind it. I will definitely be giving the other books in the series a shot, because I see a lot of potential in Cogman’s writing.