Critiquing Chemist Blogger: Jennie
Medium: Kindle ebook (351 pages)
Overview (No Spoilers):
Before May 2020, the last book that I remember checking out from a public library was New Moon by Stephenie Meyer. I’d been drawn to the cover and wanted something to read for fun outside of my academic endeavors (I don’t know about you, but college was draining). Little did I know that it was actually the second book in the series, and, if you recall the premise, it wasn’t quite the lighthearted read I’d been expecting (so selfish, Edward, breaking up with Bella for her own safety). Obviously, from that point on, I swore off books forever! Kidding. In actuality, I was just more apt to borrow something like Electrochemical Methods: Fundamentals and Applications by Allen J. Bard and Larry R. Faulkner during the grad school daze. This isn’t to say that I haven’t read a nonacademic book in over a decade – rather, I have built quite the collection, carefully curated from the shelves of Meijer, Costco, Amazon Prime, and friends (some on indefinite loan…). So, why go back to the library now, you ask? Well, with the pandemic and ensuing orders to stay home, I was happy to discover that my local public library has been allowing folks to apply for a new card remotely. And let me tell you, although it is thrilling to have a seemingly endless supply of good reads at my fingertips, it has been awhile since I’ve had to finish a book on a strict deadline…
Armed with an account number, I signed into OverDrive and sought to expand my horizons in the fantasy genre. Sorting by popularity (global, not local), and based on what was readily available, I chose to borrow The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman. And, bonus, this hasn’t been reviewed previously by The Critiquing Chemist! Here’s what we know: this book was originally released at the end of 2014 (by ebook, with the paper copy out in January 2015) and is, in fact, book 1 (take that, New Moon!) of at least 8 in The Invisible Library series, with 6 already published. Its claim to fame (aside from being likened to Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy and Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series in its reviews) is ranking #2 on The Independent’s Best Fantasy Novels of 2015 list, behind Fool’s Quest by Robin Hobb and above Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo (a copy of which is currently waiting patiently/staring daggers at me to be read on my bookshelf as I write this).
Let me start off by saying that the subgenres associated with The Invisible Library are hard to pin down, as it incorporates elements of fantasy and science fiction, complete with steampunk, supernatural entities, murder mysteries, conspiracy theories, secret societies, cat burglars, librarians, cyborg alligators, …you get the gist. Such a range of topics may not appeal to the masses, but hey, this just means it’s got something for everyone! Although it sounds like a lot, Cogman effectively sprinkles in different aspects for world-building purposes, and then chooses to settle more into the realm of ‘whodunit’. But whether you like it or not, the premise does leave the door open for any world to exist and be explored in the future.
All in all, I really enjoyed reading this debut novel by Cogman, because I’m someone who thrives on <just enough> mystery and mayhem to keep my brain busy. There were moments of action (get the elephant gun!), followed by moments of reflection (with tea or brandy!), followed by moments of questioning one’s motives (you’re either with us or against us!) – lather, rinse, repeat. I did find some of the vocabulary to be unfamiliar, but luckily, there was this handy-dandy feature which allowed me to look up definitions directly in the Kindle App (#notanad). I also appreciated how the prose was full of dry wit and steeped in character conflicts (both internal and external). In this tale, we’re treated to a cast of characters led by Irene, a junior Librarian, and her not-sure-if-he-can-be-trusted-yet sidekick, Kai, a Librarian-in-training, as they venture out on a mission for the Library. These two are rounded out by Peregrine Vale, a supersleuth, who has a knack for finding missing links and taking Irene to task on why she does what she does for her job. I’m interested to find out what adventures await in The Masked City!
Additional Insight (Spoilers Abound):
- Seeing as Sarah hasn’t read this book yet, she won’t be able to edit this section. I can write whatever I want! Muahahahaha! I suppose I’ll start off by noting a few of my favorite lines from the book, without context:
1. ‘Being chased by hellhounds and blowing things up were comparatively unimportant parts of the job.’
2. ‘Belgium always seems to get invaded, fall prey to meteorites, or get infested by alien fungus or something.’
3. ‘This was apparently not one of those alternative worlds where the British Empire mandated a tradition of woman and children first.’
4. ‘Plus ten for genuine concern for my welfare, Irene decided, minus several thousand for perception.’
- One line that I did not like: ‘I would have enjoyed partnering you.’ That’s one way to talk about ‘sexy time’ in a book… Is this a British saying? Regardless, not a fan of it.
- Something worth mentioning is that there’s an author error which resulted in unintended irony (noted by Becky Aswell in a comment for the review published by Fantasy Literature) – during a discussion on how careful one needs to be with word choice when using the Language to control something, Irene considers the following example: ‘Oh, certainly if you had a broken left arm you could try saying, ‘My left tibia is in fact not fractured but perfectly whole’. But while your tibia might obey, your muscles would still be torn and any wound would still be open. Unless you could name every single thing that required naming, you would probably end up with a partly healed wound that would be more trouble than letting it heal in the normal way.’ For those of you following along at home, the tibia (aka the shinbone) is found in the leg. Guess we’d better leave the left arm to heal on its own this time, lest we have some Harry Potter-esque consequences.
- Can we take a moment to discuss how much Irene spilled about the Library to Vale? I’m sure part of it was to help the reader understand a little bit more about where Irene was coming from and her motivation to assist the Library, but she still spoke fairly freely about the rules (not to mention its entire existence!) with an outsider. This resulted in an important line of questioning by Vale: ‘“Has the Library laws?” Vale cut in. “Has it signed treaties with all the worlds, allowing it to steal books? Has it any authority save that which it claims for itself? I would like to know if there is any reason in the world why I should respect it or its servants.”
- They say that technology from alternate worlds won’t function properly inside the Library, does this same principle apply to magical objects? I’m thinking yes, since technology itself tends to come across as magic until you understand the science behind it. What if you were bitten by a werewolf or became a vampire while on assignment, would the Library-tethered tattoo manage to keep you human, all while hurting like the dickens? If you did succumb to it, would your supernatural traits disappear (or be inactivated) upon re-entering the Library? What effect does the Library have on Kai’s abilities?
- I’d like to know more about the concept of time as it exists in the Library. Cogman writes that ‘there were neither days nor nights’ as Irene talked to Coppelia, and yet, time is still used to measure how long it would take to travel between locations: ‘The Traverse to B-395 was within half an hour’s walk.’ Perhaps time still exists (and that’s why they’re able to celebrate birthdays), but Librarians, themselves, are left in a state of suspended animation while time freely marches on. Also, if you don’t grow older (physically), do you still need food or sleep? Since ‘…there could be no birth nor death within the Library’, what if someone (off the top of my head, say, Alberich) tried to murder you there? And if you can’t heal in the Library, can you bleed?
- I thought it was really interesting when Irene explained the importance of works of fiction compared to scientific advancements to the Library: ‘Mr. Vale, while all the alternate worlds exist, and while they may have different metaphysical laws, their physical laws are the same… Scientific discoveries are the same across the alternatives, and while they are no doubt important, we don’t value them as we do creative work. There may be a hundred brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in a hundred different worlds, and each time they may have written a different set of fairy tales. That’s where our interest lies.’
- Is Irene the sister’s child from the 88th tale of the 1812 Grimm manuscript (volume 1)? How old is she (mentally, if not physically)? What was it about the back tattoo that drove the brother in the Grimm manuscript wild (and we’re sure it’s Alberich?)? Are all Library tattoos the same? Was his tattoo different from everyone else’s if he’s the only one that seems to have been affected by viewing it? What does the mark even say? What is the Library’s secret!?
- I would like to know more about Kai and his family. How did Kai’s family feel about his use of power in the chaos-afflicted alternate world? What prompted Kai to join the Library when dragons and Librarians aren’t known to play nice with each other?
- Final Thoughts: This is a library that never closes, so sit a spell and lose yourself in a fantastical book such as The Invisible Library (you just have to find it first).
As I mentioned before, there were a number of words in these pages that were not a part of my everyday lingo. Perhaps some of them are chiefly British, while others were chosen to make it more steampunk/19th century-period appropriate. And a portion of this book did take place in a museum. We’ll see how much I retain.
Aberrancy: the quality or state of being aberrant, which is a deviation from what is known, usual, or expected
Aquiline: of, relating to, or resembling an eagle
Arras: a tapestry of Flemish origin used especially for wall hangings and curtains
Assignation: an appointment of time and place for a meeting
Canopic jar: a jar in which the ancient Egyptians preserved the viscera of a deceased person usually for burial with the mummy
Censorious: marked by or given to censure, which is the act of blaming or condemning sternly
Curare: a complex poison of South American Indians used on arrow tips that causes muscle relaxation and paralysis, includes various substances of plant and animal origin, and typically contains an alkaloid extracted from one of two South American vines (Strychnos toxifera of the family Loganiaceae or Chondodendron tomentosum of the family Menispermaceae) as the primary active ingredient
Diplodocus: any of a genus (Diplodocus) of large herbivorous sauropod dinosaurs of the Late Jurassic known from remains found in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and Utah
Embrasure: a recess of a door or window
Gestalt: something that is made of many parts and yet is somehow more than or different from the combination of its parts
Hansom: a light 2-wheeled covered carriage with the driver’s seat elevated behind
Harridan: an ill-tempered scolding woman
Incipient: beginning to come into being or to become apparent
Insouciance: lighthearted unconcern
Invidious: of a kind to cause harm or resentment
Jabot: a pleated frill of cloth or lace attached down the center front of a woman’s blouse or dress
Judder: to vibrate with intensity
Lissajous: any of an infinite variety of curves formed by combining two mutually perpendicular simple harmonic motions, commonly exhibited by the oscilloscope, and used in studying frequency, amplitude, and phase relations of harmonic variables
Louche: not reputable or decent
Mollify: to soothe in temper or disposition
Mulish: unreasonably and inflexibly obstinate
Prevaricate: to deviate from the truth
Prognostication: an act, the fact, or the power of prognosticating, which is to foretell from signs or symptoms
Raffish: marked by or suggestive of flashy vulgarity or crudeness
Rapacious: excessively grasping or covetous
Reticule: a woman’s drawstring bag used especially as a carryall