Irene is no ordinary librarian, and her employer no ordinary library. She works for The Library, a sprawling mass of endless shelves surrounding a mysterious and inaccessible city and run by a crotchety cadre of bibliophiles. Or, to quote the Tenth Doctor in Doctor Who: “So big it doesn’t need a name. Just a great big ‘The’.” Irene is sent off to various alternate worlds to retrieve unique copies of books to store back in the Library, but she is low on the totem pole, having suffered a severe setback after being betrayed by her former mentor, Bradamant. She may prefer to conduct research into arcane and abstruse topics, but she still has to pay her dues as a spy and thief.
After completing a difficult mission, Irene is paired up with Kai, a green-behind-the-ears newbie still under apprenticeship in the Library. They are sent to an alternate version of London to recover a missing manuscript. The case starts off straight forward enough but soon twists and turns into a mass of deceptions and secrets. Turns out the alternate is chaos-infected, meaning the Fae and their illogical magic have taken up residency. Fairies and vampires coexist with steam engines and zeppelins, turning London into a steampunk city.
Irene and Kai must contend with Bradamant trying to steal her case out from under her, a cat burglar under the nom de guerre Belphegor, a vengeful fairy, a band of anti-Fae terrorists, a dead vampire, and a private detective named Vale who may be too smart for his own good. Stirring up trouble is a sinister and ancient ex-Librarian named Alberich. He’s also after the book and Irene and Kai must use every scrap of magic they know to track it down before he does and keep it out of his wicked hands.
The debut book in Cogman’s new series was released last year in the UK, but took until now to make its way stateside, which explains why the sequel, The Masked City, is coming out so close to the first. The blurbs for The Invisible Library were practically fawning, and all that praise ended up creating expectations the story couldn’t quite meet. It’s an enjoyable read in a cleverly constructed world but there just wasn’t enough there to merit all the accolades. Not an A+ but a solid B, and there’s no shame in that. After some reflection, I think the book would read better as a binge instead of piecemeal over several weeks as I read it. Tackling it in one or two big sessions would probably smooth over the clunkier aspects and keep the adrenaline going.
Cogman has way too many things going on in her story. There’s the vampire murder mystery, the case of the missing Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the Iron Brotherhood launching robotic attacks on socialites, werewolves working in the service of the Fae, a cat burglar, a dead Librarian, dragons, Kai and Irene’s complicated backstories, political machinations in the Library, Irene’s rivalry with Bradamant, and the setup for a love triangle between Irene, Kai, and Vale, with Alberich as the throughline.
The Language, the magic Librarians use to command the world, is a curiosity that sometimes veers a little too much into deus ex machina territory but the conceit is intriguing. Frankly, the Language is at its most interesting when Irene loses the ability to use it. Watching her struggle to navigate a magical world sans magic is vastly more engaging than when she has complete control over it. We’re told repeatedly that Irene is a competent Librarian, but it’s only when she’s denied her cheat codes that we really see her shine.
Cogman’s biggest crime, however, is infodumping. Great Ada Lovelace, the exposition! Time after time the characters sit down and talk about the plot, explaining every single thing and theorizing on possible future situations. Right in the middle of a thrilling action sequence Irene will pause for a lesson on the Language or discuss their options moving forward. Much of this is unnecessary and comes off as an attempt to lampshade or preemptively close plotholes. I’d rather discover the world and its rules through the events of the story than by having characters tell me the facts. A little less plot and exposition and a little more worldbuilding would streamline the story and and some thrill to the soggy middle bits.
Don’t get me wrong, The Invisible Library really is a fun book. The premise was built on a foundation of tropes but blended together into something delightfully original. The Library and the alternate London are ripe for exploration and I can’t wait to get know each locale more in depth in future books. The cast of characters are also fascinating. Irene is tough but breakable, Kai secretive but protective, Vale logical but trusting. Bradamant and Alberich could use some shading, but they’re still compelling in aggressive and frightening ways. Beyond any misgivings I had about the book, above all I liked spending time with the main characters.
It’s probably apt that a librarian is reviewing The Invisible Library. Just to nerd out for a moment, the only thing that I can’t sort out is the classification system the Library uses to organize its shelves. “A-254” and “B-395” aren’t part of any system I’m aware of. It doesn’t seem like a very versatile or easily expandable system; not nearly enough numbers or letters to adequately describe the content of a book. Since the second book is likely going to take place largely in Vale’s alternate rather than in the Library again, it’s doubtful more information will be forthcoming to sort out the classification issues. Also, it rather annoys me that the Language doesn’t follow any functional classification system or metadata schema. Not that anyone cares except us librarians. Never mind. Moving on.
The Invisible Library is a pleasant start to what looks to be great fantasy series. Cogman has delivered up an exciting world of dragons, fairies, werewolves, giant robot insects, metal reptiles, zeppelins, and genius detectives mixed into a steampunk light mystery. The characters are appealing, the plot (mostly) engrossing, and the style satisfying. There’s plenty of potential romance and daring adventure to entice just about everyone. It may not be your favorite book, but you’ll at least savor the time spent.
The Invisible Library is available now from Roc.
Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.