Many years ago, Claire was named Head Librarian of the Unwritten Wing—a neutral space in Hell where all the stories unfinished by their authors reside. Her job consists mainly of repairing and organizing books, but also of keeping an eye on restless stories that risk materializing as characters and escaping the library. When a Hero escapes from his book and goes in search of his author, Claire must track and capture him with the help of former muse and current assistant Brevity and nervous demon courier Leto.
But what should have been a simple retrieval goes horrifyingly wrong when the terrifyingly angelic Ramiel attacks them, convinced that they hold the Devil’s Bible. The text of the Devil’s Bible is a powerful weapon in the power struggle between Heaven and Hell, so it falls to the librarians to find a book with the power to reshape the boundaries between Heaven, Hell….and Earth.
The first book in a new fantasy series by author A.J. Hackwith, The Library of the Unwritten publishes October 1st with Ace Books.
Stories want to change, and it is a librarian’s job to preserve them; that’s the natural order of things. The Unwritten Wing of the Library, for all its infinite magic and mystery, is in some ways a futile project. No story, written or unwritten, is static. Left abandoned too long and given the right stimulation, a book goes wrong in the head. It is a story’s natural ambition to wake up and start telling itself to the world.
This, of course, is a buggered pain in the arse.
–Librarian Fleur Michel, 1782 CE, Unwritten Wing, Librarian’s Log entry, Personal Ephemera and Errata
Books ran when they grew restless, when they grew unruly, or when they grew real. Regardless of the reason, when books ran, it was a librarian’s duty to catch them.
The twisty annex of Assyrian romances, full of jagged words and shadowed hearts broken on unforgiving clay tablets, had a tendency to turn around even experienced curators. The librarian, Claire, cornered the book there. The book had chosen to take form as the character of a pale, coltish girl, and her breathing was nearly as ragged as Claire’s was from the run. Claire forced her shaking hands still as she approached. The book was young, and so was its character, back pressed into the bookcase, dandelion-fluff hair fluttering around thin shoulders. Muddy jeans, superhero tee, a whimper like dried reeds. “Please. I can’t—I don’t want to go back.”
Damn. Claire preferred them angry. Angry was simpler. “The Library has rules.”
A flicker of color swung around the corner. Her assistant, Brevity, skidded to a stop just short of the book. Her apple-round cheeks, usually a shade of robin’s-egg blue, were tinged purple from the run. Seafoam green bangs puffed above her eyes, and she mumbled an apology as she handed Claire a slender bit of steel wrapped in cloth.
Claire stowed the tool in her pocket, where it would stay, she hoped. She considered the cowering figure in front of her.
There were two parts to any unwritten book. Its words—the twisting, changing text on the page—and its story. Most of the time, the two parts were united in the books filling the Unwritten Wing’s stacks, but now and then a book woke up. Felt it had a purpose beyond words on a page. Then the story made itself into one of its characters and went walking.
As the head librarian of Hell’s Unwritten Wing, it was Claire’s job to keep stories on their pages.
The girl—No, the character, the book, Claire corrected herself—tried again. “You don’t get it. In the woods—I saw what it did.…”
Claire glanced down at the book in her hands and read the gold stamp on the spine. The font was blocky and modern, clearly signaling this was a younger book despite the thick leather hide of the cover. It read: dead hot summer. Her stomach soured; this job had ruined her taste for the horror genre entirely. “Be that as it may, you have nothing to worry about. It’s just a story—you are just a story—and until you’re written…”
“I won’t make trouble,” the character said. “I just—”
“You’re not human.” The words snapped out before Claire could censor them. The girl reacted as if she’d been slapped, and curled into the shelves.
Claire took a measured breath between gritted teeth. “You can’t be scared. You’re not human—let’s not pretend otherwise. You’re a very cunning approximation, but you’re simply a manifestation, a character. A book playing at human… But you’re not. And books belong on shelves.”
Brevity cleared her throat. “She is scared, boss. If you want me to, I can sit with her. Maybe we can put her in the damsel suite—”
“Absolutely not. Her author is still alive.”
The character zeroed in on a more sympathetic target. She took a step toward Brevity. “I just don’t want to die in there.”
“Stop.” Claire flipped open the leather cover and thrust it toward the character. “This is only wasting time. Back to the pages.”
She looked uncertainly at her book. “I don’t know how.”
“Touch the pages. Remember where your story starts. ‘Once upon a time…’ or what have you.” Claire slid a hand into her pocket, fingers finding metal. “Alternately, stories always return to their pages when damaged. If you require assistance?”
The scalpel was cool in her palm. It was normally used in repairing and rebinding old books, but a practiced hand could send a rogue character back to its pages.
Claire had plenty of practice.
“…I’ll try.” The girl’s hand trembled as she flattened a small palm against the open pages. Her brow wrinkled.
A chill of quiet ticked over Claire’s skin. The books weighing down nearby shelves twitched sleepily. A muffled murmur drifted in the air. The wooden shelves towering overhead pulsed with movement, old leather spines shuffling against the bronze rails. Dust shivered in a spill of lamplight.
Brevity shifted uneasily next to her. An awake book was a noisy thing. Returning it, even noisier.
They couldn’t waste time. The girl startled when Claire took a quiet step toward her. “I’ve almost got it!”
“It’s all right.” Claire spoke through a tight throat, but her tone was gentle. She could be gentle when it was efficient. “Try again.”
The unwritten girl turned her attention back to the pages. It was an act of contemplation, and Claire could sense the weaving of realities. The girl was a character; she was a story, a book. She might feel like something even more, but Claire couldn’t afford to consider that. She placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder. Then she slid the scalpel between the character’s ribs.
Brevity swallowed a squeak. Claire stepped back as the unwritten girl fell. She made small, shocked gulps for air, twisted on the carpet, then began to fade. Within a minute, nothing was left but a small smudge of ink on the floor.
Only books died in Hell. Everyone else had to live with their choices.
“Couldn’t we have given her another minute? It’s awfully hard to feel like the good guys when we do that.” Brevity took the book after Claire snapped it closed.
“There’s no good or bad, Brev. There’s just the Library. The story is back where it belongs.” Claire couldn’t keep the resignation from her voice. She cleaned off and stashed the scalpel back in her many-pocketed skirts.
“Yeah, but she seemed so scared. She was just—”
“Characters aren’t human, Brev. You always should remember that as a librarian. They’ll convince themselves they’re people, but if you allow them to convince you, then…” Claire trailed off, dismissing the rest of that thought with a twitch of her shoulders. “Shelve her and make a note to check her status next inventory. What kept you so long, anyway?”
“Oh!” Brevity fluttered a hand, and Claire was struck by the eerie similarities between her assistant and the book they’d just put to rest. Brevity was shorter than the character had been, and her riot of cornflower blue skin and bright eyes was vibrant with life—not scared, not pleading—but her gaze kept drifting back to the dull leather cover in her hands. “There’s a messenger for you.”
Brevity shrugged. “From the big guy. I tried to get more, but he’s wound pretty tight. Swore he can’t leave until he talks to you.”
“How… unorthodox.” Claire turned down the row of towering shelves. “Let’s see what His Crankiness wants.”
When they emerged from the depths of the Unwritten Wing’s stacks, Claire found the demon sweating holes into her rug. It was a particularly fine rug, peacock blue and intricately dreamed by an artist of the Ottoman Empire. Dreamed but never made, which made it all the more irreplaceable.
The scent of rotten eggs curdled the Library’s pleasant smell of sleeping books and tea, scalding her nose. A bead of sweat fell from the nervous demon’s cuff and hit the carpet with a hiss. Claire closed her eyes for a count of five. She cleared her throat. “Can I help you?”
The demon jumped and twisted around. He was scrawny, all bones and amber skin in a cheap, oversized suit. He appeared human, or at least human adjacent, as most demons did, save for the pinpricks of ears that poked up through an oil slick of springy black curls. He bit his lip, managing to look skeletal and innocent at the same time, and he held a thin purple folder in front of him like a shield. “Ms. Claire, of the… Is this the Library?”
“That generally is where librarians are found.” Claire sat down at her desk. She eyed the repair work she’d started, while Brevity returned to sorting books on a cart. “You’re in the Unwritten Wing. You may read, or you may leave.”
“Oh, I’m not here to—” The demon twitched. Claire tracked his movements out of the corner of her eye, giving the text in front of her only cursory attention. The books stacked on the corner of the desk gave a lazy growl, and the demon sidestepped quickly away. His nervous gaze landed on her hands. “Is… is that blood?”
Claire glanced down at the hand that had held the scalpel. She wiped her fingers on her skirts and returned to her work. “Ink.”
The book open on the desk was one of the young ones, one that still had a chance of being written by its author someday. Brevity had misfiled it with a particularly crotchety series of old unwritten novels. Whaling stories, if Claire remembered right. The impressionable young book now had all sorts of rubbish jumbled in its still-sprouting narrative. Five-paragraph descriptions of food, meditations on masculinity and the sea, complete nonsense for an unwritten tale about teenage witches in love. If its author began to write while it was in this state, she would never attempt another book. It was Claire’s job to keep the books ready for their authors in the best possible state. Tidy. Stories were never tidy, but it was important to keep up appearances.
When she didn’t look up again, the demon coughed and shook loose another bead of sweat. It hit the rug with a dull hiss.
Claire winced. She pressed her scalpel flat against the book. “You’re damaging my rug.”
The demon looked down at his feet. He stepped off awkwardly, found himself on an even more complex rug, and shuffled again.
He’d be at that all day, and Claire would be at repairs all night. She reluctantly turned from the book she was working on, pressing one elbow on it to keep it from creeping off. A slow, deep frown pulled on her face as she gave him a better once-over.
Young, Claire assessed—the young seemed determined to plague her today. A junior demon, though young demons didn’t venture to the Library often. Most of Hell’s residents got reading privileges only after decades of clawing for power. He fidgeted under her scrutiny and combed through his wiry, ragged hair. It made her want to find him a brush. Suspicion tinged with familiarity tugged at her. No demon felt quite right, but there was something exceptionally off about hellspawn with anxiety. Claire raised a brow at Brevity, but her assistant just shrugged.
“You’re… unexpected. I understand you were sent by His Grinchiness?”
He licked his lips. “Yes, but… you can’t… you can’t call him that. His Highness, I mean. There’s a message. I got the brief here.” The demon held it out, eager to be rid of it. Claire didn’t move, so he added, “It says a book is missing. I’m supposed to tell you… it’s… ah, one of yours.”
Claire stilled. “In what way?”
“Because it’s unwritten? Early twenty-first-century unauthor, still living.”
Ah. The tension crept off Claire’s shoulders. “Stolen or lost?”
The demon pawed through the folder before withdrawing a small stack of printouts. “They suspect runaway? No recent checkouts or invocation alarms… whatever that means.”
She grunted. “It means my day is shot. A runaway.”
A bewildered look spread across the demon’s face. “Is that… ?”
Claire waved a vague hand. “It means an unwritten book woke up, manifested as a character, and somehow slipped the Library’s wards. A neat trick that I will be keen to interrogate out of it later. It is likely headed to Earth. There’s nothing stronger than an unwritten book’s fascination with its author. But a book that finds its author often comes back damaged, and the authors come out… worse.”
“I’ll pack the scalpels,” Brevity said, and received a dark look. Claire rubbed her temple, a fruitless gesture to forestall the coming headache, then shot out her hand.
“Just give the report here.” She released her hold on the open book, and it happily snapped shut, barely missing her fingertips.
The demon deposited the paperwork in her palm and quickly hopped out of reach. The books stacked on her desk complained with growls that ruffled their pages.
“The author’s alive? Where?” Brevity asked.
He shrugged. “A place called Seattle.”
Claire groaned as she squinted at the paperwork. “It’s always the Americans.”
Names were a necessary nicety even Claire had to tolerate. The demon introduced himself with a very clumsy bow; this small bit of etiquette helped him to relax and stop sweating acid everywhere. Claire frowned at his name. “Leto. Like the Greek myth?”
The skinny demon ducked his head. “Like from the sci-fi novel.”
“So, you’re a demon of… ?”
“They sent a demon of entropy to a library wing full of irreplaceable artifacts?” Claire stared at Leto and then shook her head, muttering, “I will kill him. Positively kill him.”
Leto twitched. “If you don’t mind my asking… how, ah, how can you talk about His Highness like that?”
“Simple,” Claire said. “The Library exists in Hell; it doesn’t serve it. He’s not my Highness.”
Leto paled, and she dismissed it with a wave. “It’s a long story. Don’t worry yourself. I still follow orders. This is Brevity, muse and my assistant in the Unwritten Wing.”
“Former muse. I flunked out.” Brevity made a face and offered her hand.
If Leto was a scarecrow teenager in appearance, Brevity was of the sprite variety. Her hair was spiky and short and a dainty shade of sea glass. Beneath the cuffs of a multicolored jumper, propane blue tattoos flowed over paler cornflower skin in a shifting series of script that almost appeared readable, at least until one tried to focus on it.
“Nice to meet you, ma’am.” Leto shook her hand shyly, taking care to keep his fingers back from the ripple of tattoo.
“Hey! A demon with manners. I like this one,” Brevity said.
“Many demons are perfectly polite to me,” Claire pointed out.
“No, many demons are intimidated by the Library, boss. There’s a difference,” Brevity said as Claire pulled out a drawer in search of tools.
The mundane tools of a librarian’s trade included notebooks and writing implements, and the less usual: inks that glimmered, stamps that bit, wriggling wax, and twine. All of it went into the bag, which Claire slung across her chest. Pen and paper went into the hidden pockets of her muddled, many-tiered skirts. She’d been buried in some frippery that was dour even for her time, all buttons and layers. She’d chopped the skirt at the knee long ago for easy movement, but Claire lived by the firm moral philosophy that one could never have too many pockets, too many books, or too much tea.
It wasn’t as if she had proper hours to maintain. Claire squinted at a squat copper sundial, fueled by a steady if entirely unnatural light all its own, and scribbled a new line in the Library’s logbook. It was thick and ancient, crusted with age and the oils of a hundred librarian fingerprints. It also never ran out of paper. Claire flipped from her personal notes to the “Library Status” log and ended an entry with a flourish, and the lights in the hall began to flutter.
The Library is now closed. All materials must be returned to the shelves. A disembodied voice, clipped and dull, echoed through the hall. Claire tapped her foot as the voice continued. The Library is now closed. Patrons are reminded that any curses, charms, or dreams left behind are considered forfeit to the stacks. The Library is now closed.
There were not many patrons lounging around the reading area, but the few imps that were reading reluctantly put down their books, and began to make their way to the exit, much to Leto’s slack-jawed amazement. Creatures of Hell, on general principle, took to following orders as well as one might expect. Which is to say, not at all and with liberal interpretation. Most of the Library’s regulars were powerless imps and bored foot soldiers, but one beefy incubus with horns, clad in little more than chitin and scar tissue, handed his book directly to Claire with a grunt.
Claire clucked her tongue. “No sulking. You know we don’t do lending. It’ll be here for you tomorrow, Furcas. Go on now.”
Leto managed to close his mouth before his sputter could ruin another rug. “That— Was that…”
“Intimidated. Told you,” Brevity said.
Once the remaining patrons disappeared out the great doors, Claire closed the log and swept toward the far wall. Leto clung to her heels, and Claire bit back a smile. The Library was fickle, eerie terrain, especially to demons.
From the main desk, the cavernous space ran back into shadows in all directions, and every available surface was layered with wood or parchment of varying ages. Rows of shelves filled with books ran high over their heads, and larger tomes crouched at the end of each row in quivering packs. Plush rugs of riotous color muffled the floor. Every visible wall space carried an oil canvas, with images in various states of completion. They governed themselves with their own regular rotation and changes. More paintings hung on a monstrous series of pivoting racks at the far back, draped in shadow like a leafy thicket.
Claire’s target was the far wall, a large section of buttery, pale yellow drawers. Endless rows of drawers that hadn’t been there a moment ago. The Library functioned on requirement, shifting and flowing to the needs of the books and librarians. Leto eyed it with anxiety, but Claire shoved the folder back into his hands. She began to scale a ladder clipped to a rail. “Author name and story title?”
“Ah…” Leto opened the file. “Author, McGowan. Amber Guinevere McGowan.”
Her foot stabbed out at the wood wall, and the ladder coasted a few feet down the row of drawers. “McGowan. Right. God, middle name Guinevere? What were her parents thinking? No wonder she never became a writer.” Claire yanked a drawer open. “Title?”
“Uh, the missing title just says ‘Nightfall.’” Leto looked up as Claire let out a snort. “Something wrong?”
“I think every writer, written or unwritten, has some glorified adventure titled ‘Nightfall’ stuck in their head. Half the residents here were a ‘Nightfall’ at one point. Even unwritten stories eventually migrate to something more original.” Claire danced her fingers over the drawer before snapping up a card. She slid the drawer closed and descended.
Her sneaker-clad feet hit the ground, and Claire headed for the exit. “Calling card says it’s definitely still in Seattle. Brev, you up for a field trip?”
Brevity’s gold eyes grew to saucers, and she stumbled forward in a little dance. Her voice wasn’t quite a squeal but flirted with the idea. “You mean upstairs?” she said breathily. “Always and forever, boss.”
Excerpted from The Library of the Unwritten, copyright © 2019 by A.J. Hackwith.